Is there a bigger hypocrite on earth than Julian Paul Assange?
That is far from the greatest or most socially significant question raised by the WikiLeaks revelations that have been breaking over all of us with increasing regularity and force. But as the Australian cyber-avenger wields his new and singularly idiosyncratic power to upend anyone with the slightest bit of the old, institutional kind of power, it is a question that begs to be asked.
In his own mind, I wonder, how does he justify a policy of denying any modicum of privacy to his targets while demanding total secrecy for himself? Assange has ransacked the personal lives of his subjects, to the point of hacking into some private email accounts and publishing some social security numbers, according to a fascinating New Yorker profile published in June. Yet he reserves the right to conceal his own sources, methods and policies, as well as the identities of his associates, funders, and relatives.
In interviews, he demonstrates creepily little regard for the safety of the soldiers and dissidents his organization unilaterally exposes, but goes to paranoid lengths to conceal his own whereabouts. If Julian Assange decided to take aim at Julian Assange, and he somehow uncovered the travel details of a fugitive currently wanted for purposes of a Swedish sex-crimes investigation (which does, I admit, seem oddly timed and executed), he would not hesitate to put that information at the disposal of the entire world, including Interpol. Presumably, though, he is praying right now that no one does that to him. Assange just told Time magazine — via Skype, of course, from God knows where that Hillary Clinton should quit as Secretary of State on the grounds that she supposedly instructed U.S. diplomats to spy on their foreign counterparts. Yet, Assange has apparently dedicated his life to trumpeting the results of people spying on their colleagues in legitimately sensitive endeavors; most of whom have done absolutely nothing wrong and thus are not whistleblower-worthy.
Then again, from what little Assange has deigned to say on such matters, he seems to believe that all such people HAVE done something wrong, simply by becoming a part of the hulking behemoth that is the American power apparatus; and that where such a behemoth is concerned, there are no legitimately sensitive endeavors. "Nuclear, schmuclear," he seems to imply; "if only everyone could know everything about every secret meeting held from Peshawar to Pyongyang, these problems that these evil capitalist imperialist lackeys insist upon portraying as complicated and dangerous would disappear in a magic bolt of general enlightenment."
Assange is, of course, entitled to that world view, but those of us who enjoy nothing more than a nice long swim in the waters of accidental official candor should not kid ourselves about our antihero. No matter what he claims, Assange is not about exposing the abuse of power. He is about thwarting the exercise of power. For him, it seems, there is no distinction between the two. Otherwise, come on: How does it constitute an abuse of power for a diplomat to communicate that some Arab states are actually in sync with Israel in sounding the alarm about Iran? How does a U.S. ambassador to Kyrygystan calling Britain's Prince Andrew "rude" count as anything other than a personal observation?
Maybe it's hard to make such distinctions on no sleep and an empty stomach. In the press, Assange comes across as an insatiable information monastic who eschews food, rest, and regular contact with friends. This is too bad. Perhaps if he had a big sandwich, a long nap, and some lasting human relationships, he could develop the perspective to make his work the force for global good that it could well be, if only it had some values to balance against that of full disclosure.
No question, WikiLeaks has come up with a raft of worthy material. (In fact, toward the end of The New Yorker piece, when Assange voiced his frustration that a huge leak documenting the scandalous procurement practices of the U.S. military had failed to catch fire in the media, I thought "hmmm, I must look into that.") But it's a shame that someone who has the enterprise to uncover such important information and the guts to expose it so utterly lacks the impulse to do so in a way that separates the wheat from the chaff; crime from misdemeanor; ordinary trash from radioactive waste. Even more of a shame is the fact that Assange struts and frets on such a simplistically set stage. He throws one giant blanket of justification over his actions, which he cites as being made on behalf of ordinary people against the powers that be.
Clearly, in many contexts, this configuration applies. But is Assange really unaware of the possibility that, for instance, ordinary people in one country may hold violently different views from those in another country? Or that the majority view can itself be evil? Or that sometimes, those in power can even be morally ahead of those who are not? Turn back the clock. What if, before he publicly embraced the abolition of slavery, Abraham Lincoln had held a meeting with his advisors in which he solicited ideas for how to go about doing this without forfeiting the support of people who could not yet imagine emancipation? Would Assange have had no qualm about dumping that into the public domain?
The whole thing is such a Catch-22. Certainly the State Department material seems to be divided into two basic categories: stuff that doesn't matter, in which case there's no real harm or good in publishing it; and stuff that does matter, in which case there could well be as much harm as good in publishing it. I don't care that some American official characterized French President Nicolas Sarkozy as an emperor with no clothes. I do care that China may be trying to pry itself a little bit loose from its alliance with North Korea, and I don't like public revelations that may make it a quarter-inch more difficult for China to do so.
Then again, I am one of those vision-void drones who has a family and a landline and a general sense that the current world order — genuinely disturbing though some of its features undeniably are — is not about dissolve in the pure white light of Internet exposure.
But I'm getting way ahead of myself, when all I really want to do right now is get back to my original little question: Hey, Julian, wherever you are: why should every controversial operation on earth be subjected to the most searing scrutiny imaginable — except yours?
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why all drugs should be legal. (Yes, even heroin.)
- Comic-Con 2014: Everything we learned about Avengers 2, Batman v. Superman, and more
- 7 ideas from ancient thinkers that will improve your modern life
- The big, gaping hole in the liberal policy arsenal
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- Blame Obama and U.S. evangelicals for the persecution of Iraqi Christians
- How to trim $500 from your monthly spending
- Face it, ladies: We can't all be beautiful
- Are there too many good shows on television?
- Don't hate the 'poor door'
Subscribe to the Week