The Man Who Thought He Knew Too Much

In a 1960 essay on his great antagonist Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal wrote: “Ultimately, not Christ, not Marx, not Freud, despite their pretensions, has the final word to say about the fact of being human. And those who take solemnly the words of other men as absolute are, in the deepest sense, maiming their own sensibilities and controverting the evidence of their senses…” The same may be applied to the mullahs of Iran, the Christian fundamentalists of Bush’s cabinet or pretentious militants like Julian Assange. Let’s be clear: Assange is a megalomaniacal ideologue whose unbending world-view is practically dangerous and philosophically flawed.

Secular democracies are jugglers. Pluralism makes them so. They juggle universal rights—things held to be imperishable, inalienable—with individual ones, which is to say that each man is permitted his own window through which to view the world, his own idea of what is sacred and what is profane. This appears to be contradictory, but it’s what makes plural societies so dynamic, and it means the State is called upon to negotiate the tension between security and freedom.

The calculus is easy to comprehend. On one side you have a market place of ideas, freedom of speech, and traditions and laws demanding accountability and transparency in our public and private institutions. On the other you have formally sanctioned confidentiality—for Cabinet, say, or  military operations. Plural societies must simultaneously enforce security and liberty; privacy and accountability. If you are not an ideologue or a fundamentalist, the necessity of compromise is obvious in societies where—to a degree—men are allowed to forge their own paths. Individual liberty must cohere with a safe and effective society.

Julian Assange doesn’t agree. Compromise is for wimps. Or the bourgeoise. His evaluation of the State is simple. Government = conspiracy. It’s not a new idea, but it’s revolutionary. Assange views Government’s power as the sum of its secrets, and so his plan to dissolve the traditional liberal State is through leaking. Once government’s secrets are all out, the conspiracy ceases. His weapon is “truth.” It also happens to be his favourite word.

He is, as has been pointed out by others, a techno-anarchist, and his anarchism is smuggled into his mantra of “truth wants to be let free.” The fact that we have laws, customs and institutions given to more practical versions of these things doesn’t matter to Assange. He doesn’t trust them. To him, there’s no separation of powers–there’s only power. It’s up to whistleblowers to bring down the walls. Never retract, never apologise, just get it done and let them howl.

So why is he wrong? Well, for starters, we need secrets. Let’s take our foreign corp. Diplomats, like cabinet ministers, are entitled to a formal, base anonymity to ensure that they do their job. Cabinet—if used properly—relies upon the secrets act to ensure frank, candid discussions on matters of national importance.

Second, the unrefined philosophy of damaging government for the sake of it—because it fundamentally deserves it—is obnoxious and dangerous. Julian Burnside said last year that the sex crime charges levelled against Assange are political—the result of a conspiracy to punish the Wikileaks’ head for “embarrassing governments.” Perhaps. And, at the risk of sounding asinine, Assange deserves the presumption of innocence. But Burnside goes on to suggest that “embarrassing governments” is a good thing—all of the time. Well, sometimes. But I say that it is not wholly a good, either. In other words, the sake of embarrassing governments for the sake of it—for the sake of an inflexible devotion to this abstraction—is immature and damaging. Grossly ineffectual or corrupt governments should be embarrassed. But governments require a level of stability, centralised power and face to function effectively. Embarrassing governments simply because they’re governments is ridiculous.

Third, Julian Assange has endangered lives. His failure to properly redact names of Afghani sources and collaborators is spectacularly irresponsible and his brazen, bizarre defence of this failure is beyond insufficient. It’s chilling. Read between the lines, and it appears that Assange himself believes in tolerating collateral damage in the name of freedom of information. And there’s the rub—in the pursuit of that abstraction, sensible, practical considerations have been neglected. And lives will be lost. The Taliban now have a death list, compiled as easily as printing off the publicly available names. The Taliban have already stated their intention to hunt these people down and butcher them. Some already have been.

Fourth, Julian Assange is a hypocrite. And, for the record, so am I. We all are. Our views of the world are limited constructions, and we’ll contradict ourselves as a result. But Assange’s hypocrisy is particularly pungent. Assange may be a freedom fighter for information or he can be a saboteur of American foreign policy. But he cannot be both. The first demands neutrality, the second partisanship. They clash. Big time.

Consider: we know who Julian Assange is. Everyone does. He’s become the ubiquitous face of an organisation that to be philosophically pure—to be only about a mediating point for information—shouldn’t have a face at all. Because, he argues, it’s about truth. But because we have come to know about Assange’s anti-American politics, like Heisenberg’s observer, he distorts the likelihood of receiving leaks uncomplimentary to his politics. In other words, the kind of revolutionary transparency Assange is calling for is distorted by his celebrity and by his passions. He’s entitled to his politics but he can’t also say that he’s an advocate for the radical flow of information.

This should make us all nervous because anybody who tells us they have a Grand Vision of the world is deeply suspect. Any vision is subject to the vicissitudes of a world too complex and too unruly for any one man’s ideology. And so it breaks down. Assange’s vision is corrupting and corrupted. To verify the cracks in his vision, note the difference between what Assange thinks the leaks tell us about America, and what others who know a thing or two about war and diplomacy tell us it does.

Unfortunately, American history provides ample precedents of indecency and corruption to feed conspiracy theories. The paranoid criminality of Nixon, say, or the cabal of secret keepers around Dick Cheney. The press has, at times, been a rigorous agent of investigation and truth-telling, but it’s also been rabid and partisan. The point here isn’t to promote American exceptionalism—or to argue against transparency and effective journalism. It’s to point out that the world is neither as good or as bad as our deepest suspicions. The world, if you stand without a God, is often arbitrary and brutal and will not stand still long enough for one to capture it. We must retain our own senses, especially in a democratic state which has been formed to reflect the contingencies of liberty and an unruly world.

The first wrong assumption Assange has is that he can always be right. No man is. The world will quickly upset vainglorious assumptions. It’s why modern democracy was founded on compromise and informed by austere, rather than ultra-prescriptive, constitutions. We’d do well to remember that and to remember—unlike a few zealots across the water—that the best response to Assange must accord to law and reason.

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