The rise and fall of Julian Assange
The ‘unauthorised autobiography’ of the Wikileaks founder reveals little that we didn’t already know: he’s an apolitical computer nerd with a conspiracy theorist’s view of the world.
The folks at publishing house Canongate must have thought they’d hit the jackpot when they secured the rights to the memoirs of the person whom the Guardian had compared to Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. The so-called ‘spectral’ Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, apparently living the life of Jason Bourne, was to give an unprecedented glimpse into his formative years as a freedom fighter and the events that led him to found Wikileaks, the whistleblowers’ website. Hollywood wanted in, as did dozens of leading publishers around the world. Even better, Assange’s book was to be ‘part memoir, part manifesto’ – something like A Long Walk to Freedom and the Communist Manifesto rolled into one. What could go wrong?
Pretty much everything, that’s what. In a matter of months, the liberal commentariat fell out of love with the silver-haired whistleblower extraordinaire. The oft-dubbed Silver Fox had proved to be a skunk and the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel, which had all secured deals to publish Wikileaks material, couldn’t distance themselves fast enough from him. Fevered speculation about who would play Assange in an upcoming movie – Neil Patrick Harris? Paul Bettany? Bill Hader? Tilda Swinton? – abruptly stopped. Not only that, but Assange, who seemed to have only reluctantly agreed to pen the book in order to cover legal fees, bolted midway through the project, declaring ‘All memoir is prostitution’.
However, Assange no longer had his advance, so he couldn’t break the contract and, to recoup costs, Canongate went ahead and published a draft anyway, billing it as an ‘Unauthorised Autobiography’. On publication day last week, Assange revealed that the title itself was a half-truth, announcing that he had not written a word of the book himself. Instead, it had been ghost-written by novelist Andrew O’Hagan, who was reportedly given £100,000 to write up 50 hours of interviews that he’d conducted with Assange. Many biographers spend a lot more time interviewing their subjects.
The story of the autobiography became the focus of almost all the subsequent reviews rather than the story Assange ‘told’ in its pages. There’s a good reason for that: far from being a Jason Bourne-like figure, Assange comes across as an obsessive computer nerd. Instead of being a manifesto for a Glorious Era of Transparency, as readers might have expected, the book makes only fleeting references to politics. Assange spurns ideology and reveals himself to have a confused but simplistic view of the world, which he engages with as if he’s playing an elaborate computer game. Even the facts provided in the autobiography draft have been criticised as being insufficiently checked. And Assange’s observations about life will hardly open people’s eyes to new ways of seeing things: prison guards are like ‘Stalinists’; snow has ‘a way of softening things’ and ‘muffling the sound’; ‘For most people, childhood is a climate’; and so on.
Despite O’Hagan’s best efforts, it is evident that Assange is only really in his element when talking about cracking codes and trying to break down firewalls. He quite openly admits that his most intimate relationships are with his fellow hackers, who have cartoon-like pseudonyms and spend sleepless nights ‘knee-deep’ in NASA’s computer system. While Hollywood managed to get round the tedium of computer programming in The Social Network by focusing on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s relationships, it would’ve been impossible to play the same trick with the loner Assange. He is frank about being a flawed – albeit not uncaring – father, and a ‘chauvinist pig’. He says: ‘Let’s just say I am – all hackers are, and I would argue all men are – a little bit autistic.’ Speak for yourself, Julian.
You can almost picture O’Hagan awkwardly scratching around in his interviews with Assange for the ‘autobiography’, trying to find some aspects of Assange’s childhood in 1970s Australia that could point to his revolutionary future as some kind of keyboard-wielding twenty-first-century Che Guevara. But The Motorcycle Diaries this ain’t. Stories of an innocent youth becoming politicised through seeing great injustices and aiding dying people in leper colonies are notable by their absence.
Why did Assange have to keep moving schools, for example? Was he railing against the system? Well, at one school he apparently came across an ‘obnoxious little girl who wouldn’t share’. His reaction to this injustice? ‘I decided to express myself without hindrance, so I hit the girl over the head with a hammer. This caused a giant fuss, of course, and I had to leave.’ Mother Teresa, eat your heart out.
Other examples of his ‘defiant’ streak in childhood included refusing to have his ‘blond mop’ cut despite peer pressure. And his greatest childhood passion? Engaging in a war against sugar ants. He would summon the ‘power of the sun’ to ‘sizzle’ them with a magnifying glass. He tells us, ‘the war between five-year-old boys and ants is legendary’. Again, speak for yourself, Julian.
Assange talks less about the political beliefs he holds than about having political impulses. He speaks as if he has always had such impulses, rather than having gained them through an actual engagement with the world. His parents were involved in protests in the Seventies and so he reckons that he ‘must have taken it in with my mother’s milk, the idea that non-conformity is the only real passion worth being ruled by. I believe I was conceived in that spirit.’
He sees himself as ‘existing outside of ideology’. He was an anarchist, but ‘by temperament if not by political conviction’. Where he expresses a political goal, he comes across as an even more platitudinous version of deputy prime minister Nick Clegg: he wants to bring about greater ‘balance’ and ‘justice’ in the world. Without elaboration, Assange reveals that he’s actually no believer in democracy. ‘I am not for transparency all round’, he says, ‘or even democracy all round, but I am for justice…’. He’s big on the idea of ‘justice’, though he never outlines what this means. Instead he talks about taking on the ‘shadowy forces’ of the government (yes, he actually uses that term) and other institutions and people he doesn’t like. He claims many hackers have ‘betrayed’ him over the years, but given the lack of a clear, common cause this is understandable and it’s hard to feel sympathy. All they did, it seems, is decide not to do what Assange wanted them to do.
Engaging the public in politics doesn’t figure on Assange’s agenda. He and his crew of ‘cypherpunk’ computer nerds had found a new way to battle the Evil Empire with the ‘science’ of hacking: ‘It began to appear possible that what street riots, opposition groups, human-rights gurus and electoral reform had always struggled to achieve, we could actually begin to bring about by science.’ Apparently, they were fighting on the frontline of an electronic Spanish Civil War at a time when the ignorant public barely knew how to spell ‘email’: ‘Issues of freedom and the fight against oppression were located there, as surely as they once were in the hills of Catalonia, and we wanted to zip up and fight the good fight against police statehood as best we could.’
Because of these hackers apparently, the internet became a space for freedom, rather than used as an authoritarian tool. Exactly how this was achieved isn’t explained. The examples of great achievements that Assange gives are largely limited to being able to switch electricity on and off in Buenos Aires and to give people free mobile phone calls in New York. It all just sounds like they were playing an elaborate computer game, like they were a bunch of computer programmers battling the online guardians of state and company secrets in a game taking place completely apart from the real world.
When the book finally gets to Wikileaks, with drawn-out chapters about how Assange learnt to stimulate press interest and providing details of the stories behind certain leaks, it becomes immediately apparent just how recent Wikileaks is as a phenomenon and how little impact it has actually had. Although the book attempts to do so in an afterword by the publishers, even the egotistical Assange doesn’t go as far as to suggest that Wikileaks caused the ‘Arab spring’.
It becomes apparent how – for all the incessant hype – all Assange really managed to achieve with Wikileaks was to provide a relatively secure inbox for whistleblowers to leak information into anonymously. He then sent out thousands of emails telling people of the service he was providing and waited to see what would happen. The first document that arrived was of niche interest, regarding Somalia’s relationship with China. Assange didn’t know whether it was genuine or not, but he published it anyway: ‘Even if the document was fake, perhaps prepared by Chinese sources, it still raised important questions and showed how the disclosure of secret documents could enhance our understanding of complex political situations.’ How a potentially faked document could do so goes unexplained.
Assange hardly talks about about just how Wikileaks decides what gets published and what doesn’t. He calls himself a ‘journalist’ who is on the side of the ‘truth’, but what gets leaked and what doesn’t seems broadly to be down to his discretion. (For all his talk of a ‘we’, it’s very unclear who this ‘we’ includes, other than a nebulous group of hackers and Wikileaks staff who barely get a mention. Assange makes it clear that Wikileaks is his brainchild and no one else’s.) Not only state secrets get published on Wikileaks, but also things like the mailing list of the far-right British National Party and the address of a private individual involved in running a website that ranks prostitutes.
For all his attacks on mainstream media organisations blocking information, Assange himself acts as the censor-in-chief, going through information and revealing ‘what we judged should never have been made covert’. Indeed, the end of his affair with the Guardian and the New York Times seemed to be – at least according to himself – down to his frustration over the papers being too eager to publish before Assange had sufficiently vetted the material.
The great strength of Assange’s Unauthorised Autobiography is that it reveals for all to see that, far from being a revolutionary saint, Assange is in fact an unremarkable, yet deeply egotistical and apolitical nerd. Not that the public seems to care. Far from becoming a No.1 bestseller, as hoped, the book has sold a mere 650 copies so far and is currently only the seventy-third best-selling biography on Amazon. But then, the whole Wikileaks saga was always more or less a love-in and then falling-out – between an ‘autistic’ Australian and the liberal media.
Indirectly, the book is indeed revealing. It is telling that some of the most powerful liberal newspapers in the world decided not to see Assange for the obsessive no-mark that he is, leaving him to his laptop playing virtual wars against the state in a squat. Instead, they swallowed his delusions of grandeur wholesale, portraying him as a latter-day Jesus battling the shadowy forces of Satan and revealing the Truth in the form of masses of data for journalists to trawl through.
Equally, it shows that Wikileaks only had an impact to the extent that people were prepared to leak files to it. If there wasn’t a prevailing culture of distrust, causing young soldiers like Bradley Manning to feel it was okay to disclose hundreds of thousands of secret state documents, then Wikileaks would never have got off the ground.
Wikileaks may, in the end, prove to be a flash in the pan. Assange is potentially facing extradition to Sweden where he has been accused of sexual assault and could end up in prison. And following Manning’s arrest, Wikileaks’ ability to secure the anonymity of whistleblowers (or data dumpers) has been gravely challenged. However, whatever the future for Wikileaks itself, the culture in which it bloomed – a culture of distrust, disloyalty and obsession with transparency – remains.
Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. He is producing the debate The rise of the clicktivists: will the revolution be digitised? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 30 October.