Andrew O’Hagan’s demolition job on WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, can be found in the London Review of Books (March 6, 2014). O’Hagan’s 27,000-word piece seems more like a non-fiction novella than a garden-variety magazine article. At this very moment it is probably the hottest piece of writing in the Western world. O’Hagan, hired by a publishing company to ghost Assange’s “autobiography”, came to know his subject during 2011. His conclusion? “I’ve never been with anybody who made me feel so like an adult. And I say that as the father of a ten-year-old.”
Assange, according to O’Hagan’s account, has spent much of his life playing the role of “the impish one, the eccentric one, the boy with a bag full of Einstein who liked climbing trees”. But age and celebrity have made the boy-man routine wearisome: “…I found his egotism at the dinner table to be a form of madness more striking than anything he said.” O’Hagan allows himself to be momentarily charmed by the Aussie Boy Wonder at the start of their first meeting, but then it’s all downhill. O’Hagan is present at Ellingham Hall the day Assange attempts to flog off American national security contraband to the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Al Jazeera media network at $1.3 million a pop, and yet nobody is going to accuse our Julian of developing expensive or fancy bourgeois manners: “He eats like a pig. He marches through doors and leaves women in his wake. He talks over everybody.”
Writing in The Guardian, Colin Robinson has blasted O’Hagan’s depiction of Assange as “a Walter Mitty-like fantasist whose absorption with grand and unrealisable schemes prevents him from ever achieving anything practical.” Robinson, co-publisher of Assange’s book Cyberpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet (2012), does not accuse O’Hagan’s LRB piece of being a “part of an organised dirty tricks campaign” but then claims “it ends up serving much the same purpose”. Guy Rundle, writing in Crikey!, takes a similar line. Julian Assange’s undertaking is to save ordinary citizens from the monstrous machinations of the “secret state” by attacking “corruption from its dead centre”. He seeks to do nothing less than address the “the cancer of modern power”. A man with such a grand mission, or so the apologist argument goes, should not be held to account for his personal foibles. It is mostly beside the point whether Assange happens to be lascivious, sexist, untruthful, thin-skinned, grubby, paranoid, exploitative, narcissistic, conspiratorial and secretive in his private life. In any case, WikiLeaks – as Rundle reminds us – always has always insists that “personal privacy should be respected while public institutions should be transparent.”
O’Hagan’s might counter that Assange’s personal shortcomings represent something more than celebrity bashing because Assange, a key personality in a vanguard of information-privileged experts, is something more than a standard show biz celebrity. The general public has a right to know that the “impulse to free speech” of Julian Assange “is only permissible if it adheres to his message”. O’Hagan contends that Assange’s deeply flawed character cannot be detached from his role as the dominant force driving the WikiLeaks organisation. The September 2011 release of 250,000 unredacted US diplomatic cables (supplied by Bradley Manning) had less to do with WikiLeaks’ uncompromising indifference to the fate of American informers than Assange’s love of “the noise, glamour, the history, the spectacle, but not the fine print.” This explains why “even today, three years later, the cables have never had the dedicated attention they deserve.” Nobody at WikiLeaks ever performed a proper editing job because the cables were “left languishing” once they had made “a splash” and brought WikiLeaks some fresh media attention. The boy-man with the rock star sensibilities was soon searching out “the next splash”.
Robinson and Rundle, however, hit the mark with their claim that O’Hagan’s character-based scrutiny fails to convey the political, social and philosophical significance of Julian Assange. We can assume that O’Hagan had a positive attitude to WikiLeaks or he would not have signed up – or been chosen by the publisher Canongate – to write Assange’s “autobiography” in the first place. Comments such as “I’ve never been with a person who had such a good cause and such a poor ear” would seem to confirm that O’Hagan is basically on side with the WikiLeaks’ project. The problem, in the opinion of O’Hagan, is not so much Assange’s stated goal but an immaturity impinging upon the realisation of that goal:
“He doesn’t understand other people in the slightest and it would be hard to think of a leader who so reliably got everyone wrong, mistaking people’s motivations, their needs, their values, their gifts, their loyalty, and thereby destroys their usefulness to him.”
Thus, O’Hagan refers to far-Left characters such as Tariq Ali as forces for good – fellows Assange should pay more attention to because of their experience and wisdom. O’Hagan is by trade a novelist, and character might be central in fiction, but when he blithely endorses Tariq Ali for his organisational talents I am not sure if it is the author of the article rather than subject of it who possesses “a poor ear”.
Here we arrive at the nub of the problem, which is – as so often is the case – political. Robinson and Rundle are right about O’Hagan’s article but for all the wrong reasons. Who can deny – progressive or conservative alike – that powerful institutions throughout the world, both private and state, have too much access to the private details of ordinary citizens because of the ubiquity of the Internet in modern-day life? The traditional sovereignty of the individual in democratic societies (let alone Russia, China, Iran and so on) has been increasingly compromised by a dramatic imbalance between the technological sophistication of the powers-that-be and the lack of resources or even basic naivety on the part of everyday users of the Internet, smart phones and the like. WikiLeaks, along with many other organisations and individuals, has rightly called our attention to a trend that, unless challenged and reversed, will see citizens experiencing a new form of un-democratic disempowerment. Newly minted forms of cryptography, inexpensive and available to all, are one potential safeguard against encroaching surveillance by Big Brother.
The problem, again, is political. In theory, Assange’s three-part manifesto – freedom of communication, freedom of movement and freedom of economic interaction – should resonate on both sides of politics. The Left, for instance, can relish the opportunity to talk truth to power, while libertarian-conservatives ought to welcome any chance to protect the individual rights (and privacy) of freedom-loving citizens. This has not been the case and the fault mostly rests with Assange’s old-fashioned brand of leftist politics. The litmus test, of course, is Edward Snowden. Colin Robinson writes glowingly of Assange’s alleged role in the “smuggling of Edward Snowden to safety”. Note how Colin Robinson says “to safety” rather than “to Vladimir Putin’s FSB-ruled Russia.” Andrew O’Hagan, the tragedian ever alert to his subject’s character flaws, writes of Assange’s “irritable admiration” for Snowden. Julian Assange’s “anxiety about non-influence” left him envying Snowden’s newfound celebrity. Envious of Edward Snowden? The West’s greatest “dissident” since Kim Philby defected to Moscow in 1963? As per Noam Chomsky, Julian Assange talks the anarcho-libertarian talk and yet adheres to the standard, one-size-fits-all anti-American Leftism.
There is something Assange can do to become a responsible adult and it does not necessitate him eating his food with a knife and fork. On your own volition, Julian, face the sex charges brought against you in Sweden. There are secret policemen in Stockholm but they are very different from the ones in Moscow. This trip, then, would not only be a physical journey but also a cognitive one that will cure you of your leftist-induced anti-American paranoia. If this, in fact, turns out to be the case, proceed to use your undoubted genius to maintain – in an ideologically free manner – the interests of the little people.
Daryl McCann has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.