Anyone who knows me knows that I am usually very quick with a strong opinion, but I am very conflicted in my thoughts on the whole Julian Assange story. One part of me loves the anarchic spirit of his leaking all kinds of government secrets, laying them out for all the world to see. And yet another part of me sees him as a brilliant hacker showing off for the world and thumbing his nose at the powerful elite. Those two views are not totally incompatible though. My unease, however, comes with the concept that laying bare all the backroom lies and game playing is somehow necessary for us as a people, and that all forms of secrecy are created equally bad. Is knowing what diplomats say and think of one another something that everyone needs to know, if it hurts the diplomatic process? Is hacking into secret material to expose some morally reprehensible action justifiable at the end of the day?
In an interview with El Pais Assange humbly noted that, “… I believe geopolitics will be separated into pre and post cablegate phases.” Though not a journalist in the classic mode, he has received awards from some very reputable journalistic organizations including the 2009 Media award from Amnesty International, which is intended to “recognize excellence in human rights journalism” and he has been recognized as a journalist by the Centre for Investigative Journalism. The US State Department, however, declared that Assange is not a journalist, and also stated that the US State Department does not regard WikiLeaks as a legitimate media organization. Alex Massie wrote an article in The Spectator called Yes, Julian Assange is a journalist, but acknowledged that “newsman” might be a better description.
Assange himself points out he has been publishing factual material since age 25, and that it is not necessary to debate whether or not he is a journalist. He has stated that his role is “primarily that of a publisher and editor-in-chief who organizes and directs other journalists”. That is indeed a more apt description, or maybe Info Aggregator, or perhaps Secrets Clearinghouse Manager. But then journalism and what a journalist is has really changed in this computer age. Many people get most of their information from the internet, without filter or with their own particularly chosen filter and the writer/journalist is becoming less prominent in the process. Raw information without context passes for journalism. But even with Wikileaks, there is a choice at some point by someone (Assange?) to leak particular information. By his own admission, they have millions of documents. So there is indeed a subjectivity or agenda about what is being fed to the public. Why do we need to know that Qadaffi travels with his hooker nurse? If this tidbit had not been on the “to-leak” list, what might have been in its place?
To some he is Robin Hood; to others the AntiChrist. A quick look at the blogs turns up conspiracy theorists on both sides. He is either a plant from the hard left or he will be killed any day now by the CIA. And those who love and hate him are sometimes surprising. Michael Reagan is hoping they hang him, but Ron Paul is defending him: “In a society where truth becomes treason, then we’re in big trouble. And now, people who are revealing the truth are getting into trouble for it.” The people who were aghast at the outing of Valerie Plame are calling for his canonization, and those on the right are shocked and horrified. He’s been on the run in hiding. But he has kept popping up in interviews around the world. Now he has been jailed in England and will almost certainly be extradited to Sweden on some sort of sex crime charge. People are lined up on the guilty/not guilty sides that fit with their assessments of his goodness to the world. And meanwhile, his hacker acolytes are wreaking havoc in the cyberworld.
I always want to know what motivates people like Assange to do big things like this. And a quick read of his childhood story points to this theatrical life on the run being familiar.
Assange was born in Townsville, Queensland, and spent much of his youth living on Magnetic Island (love that name!) Assange’s parents ran a touring theatre company. In 1979, his mother, Christine, remarried …The couple had a son, but broke up in 1982 and engaged in a custody struggle for Assange’s half-brother. His mother then took both children into hiding for the next five years. Assange moved several dozen times during his childhood, attending many schools, sometimes being home schooled, and later attending several universities at various times in Australia.
The word of the moment is transparency. The thought is that the more transparent things are, the better. Our politicians on both sides of the aisle talk about it, but rarely really embrace the concept. They trot it out when they want to tarnish the other side. “What we need is transparency.” But would things really work out perfectly if we were in on all of what was going on in government? Could they actually function if that happened? If we knew how they wheeled and dealt with one another to get to the final bill, would it matter, if we liked the final bill? It is a big puzzle, and for me the final decision of whether Wikileaks and Assange as the face of it are good or bad in total is still up in the air. Openness is definitely great, but does airing every secret and every diplomatic email make us better if we still only see the bits and pieces that make up the story we want to believe? I’m afraid that the more you leak, the tighter the secrets are held.
Does Assange come from a place of philanthropy or of egotism or a combination of both? Could it be he really believes that in the absence of secrecy, the world and the evil governments (and corporations that run them) would be forced to act in the best interest of the people? Okay, I’m warming to it. (And I’m really hoping that the next leaks are about the intersection of corporations and world governments.)
Assange explains his motivations here in his pretty low-key TED interview:
Interestingly, in the middle of more conspiracy theories than any other person alive, Assange has a rational take:
When asked about whether he believes in conspiracy theories, Assange said, “I believe in facts about conspiracies. Any time people with power plan in secret, they are conducting a conspiracy. So there are conspiracies everywhere. There are also crazed conspiracy theories. It’s important not to confuse these two. Generally, when there’s enough facts about a conspiracy we simply call this news.”