Where Julian Assange's righteous mission went wrong

by The Listener / 26 July, 2018
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange prepares to speak from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy. Photo/Getty Images

Julian Assange prepares to speak from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy. Photo/Getty Images

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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange may soon be leaving the Ecuadorian embassy, but he remains a useful case study in the fallen revolutionary.

Julian Assange is about to face the music, with negotiations by Ecuador under way to end the asylum he was given in its British embassy. To invoke the Life of Brian, Assange turned out not to be the messiah, but a disconcertingly mixed bag.

Like all false prophets, he was not entirely fake. He began with a righteous mission of using the internet to spread information powerful people wished to keep secret but that citizens had the right to know. Like so many messianic leaders, he soon adopted God-like airs and ruthless practices. Those who worked with him consistently report that he alone dictated what information was released, indifferent to the fact that innocent people could suffer if names were not redacted.

Here his claim to be a warrior for democracy foundered. He was an autocrat who burnt through many collaborators, earning further disapproval for the six years spent sheltering, courtesy of Ecuador, from rape and sexual assault allegations made in Sweden in 2010. Both cases were eventually dropped, though only because of the statute of limitations and prosecutors’ inability to get Assange to front up for their investigation. He menacingly tweeted he’d neither “forgive nor forget”. Whatever his future, the one-time hero of the liberal left will never regain his throne in this #MeToo era.

Suspicions remain that WikiLeaks facilitated the dissemination of Hillary Clinton’s Russian-hacked emails during the 2016 US presidential campaign. Rather than expressing concern that Assange’s creation may have been a vehicle for gross interference in a democratic election, his lawyers argue this issue further victimises him and entitles him to political asylum. Assange will always deserve credit for discomforting the unreasonably secretive, and popularising the role of the whistle-blower and the imperative of strong legal protection for those with the courage to call out the malfeasance of those with power.

But his influence and preoccupations have been overtaken by events. The new internet frontier is how to protect people from those who – like WikiLeaks, at times – misuse the internet. Assange-style hacking can just as easily injure people as liberate them, as a result of stalking, identity theft, technological espionage and even activation of terror attacks.

Assange remains a useful case study: the revolutionary game changer who promises much to the disempowered but succumbs to dictatorial urges and grandiose self-delusion.

US President Donald Trump also typifies the tin idol. His rhetoric re-energised America’s downtrodden low-income workers and economic refugees from failed industries, though whether his policies will benefit those people is doubted by many orthodox economists. Yet Trump is all about doubting the orthodoxy, framing his leadership as the people overriding the oppression of elites. Alas, Trump consigns evidence, facts and the truth to the despised and untrustworthy “elite” camp. That his near-weekly mendacities and fatuities are still reflexively and avidly believed by his supporters suggests he’s a highly successful cult leader rather than a statesman.

Serious character flaws like misogyny and self-entitlement will always tell most on the false messiah. Look no further than Trump’s “pussy-grabbing” boasts and patronising of female (but not male) world leaders and Assange’s insistence that he is the victim rather than perpetrator.

Another with flaws sadly on show is entrepreneur Elon Musk, whose failing seems to be thin-skinned viciousness. Like many highly successful iconoclasts, he excites tall-poppy reflexes. But few would have wanted him to fail until he turned ugly at the rejection of his offer of a submarine – which was unsuitable for the job – to rescue the cave-trapped Thai schoolboys. When a British rescuer suggested Musk hadn’t done his homework, the piqued billionaire, without a skerrick of evidence, called him a “pedo”.

Still facing extradition to answer US criminal copyright charges, pending further appeal, is the lavish-living internet mogul Kim Dotcom, who vaingloriously attempted to defeat our Government in 2014. That he funded his short-lived Internet Party with proceeds from what may amount to mass-theft of other people’s intellectual property still galls many New Zealanders as a blatant abuse of our electoral system.

Then there’s philanthropist/economist Gareth Morgan, another shunned political messiah, who complains New Zealand voters don’t care about evidence-based policy. Morgan even suggested they’re too thick to agree with him.

Hopefully what we are instead is usefully suspicious of overly self-aggrandising leaders, specially those who can’t tolerate dissent, however much they might have to offer.

This editorial was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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