Julian Assange, hero and villain
Why Americans read whatever they like into the Wikileaks founder
To revisit the career of Julian Assange, who was arrested early Thursday after being kicked out of his hole at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where the founder of WikiLeaks had been hiding for nearly seven years, is to open a time capsule. Here before us is the whole vanished atmosphere of Bush-era liberalism, of “No Blood For Oil,” mindless talk about citizens' arrests, and a lot of guff about international law. This ethos, which persisted into the early years of Barack Obama's presidency even as the new commander-in-chief escalated the never-ending conflict in Afghanistan, droned villages in Pakistan at will, fought a new disastrous war in Libya, and failed to close Guantanamo, might otherwise have vanished forever.
To argue that Assange, even when the things that WikiLeaks drew attention to were otherwise worthy of public attention, was a force for justice or peace is ludicrous. He was and remains an utterly lawless actor, a delusional, childish narcissist whose policy of absolute disclosure would, if taken to its logical conclusion, undermine and eventually destroy the security of every nation. His now-discredited wisdom belongs to the naïve early era of the internet, the too-long period when we blithely assumed that Google was a neat free service for looking up baseball stats rather than an insidious monopoly.
Too many Democrats pretended otherwise before 2016. Far too many right-wingers changed their minds after WikiLeaks posted internal emails from Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign that showed, among other things, clear evidence that her team had colluded with the Democratic National Committee against poor Bernie Sanders. This came as a surprise to no one, but it proved incredibly embarrassing for her. It also served as the occasion for a joke that many excitable liberals still claim as evidence of the conspiracy theory about collusion between his own campaign and the Russian government.
Assange's biggest fan is the most powerful man in the world. Will this make any difference when it comes to the question of extraditing him and prosecuting him for his crimes? Somehow I doubt it. While Trump does seem to have a kind of primitive, transactional understanding of loyalty, it's one based upon formal agreements — e.g., social conservatives vote for me and I'll look after your priorities and pick (at least some) justices you'll like — rather than unasked favors. On the question of Assange, I expect Trump to turn a dime, as he has with so many other would-be friends and allies in the past.
To fail to arrange for Assange's extradition and prosecute him to the full extent of the law would be the gift of a lifetime to all the Russia enthusiasts, whose numbers have scarcely diminished since the completion of the special counsel investigation. The only question is whether Assange and his people would respond in kind by leaking unflattering material about Trump and his people — evidence of communication between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks staff, evidence of another hitherto unknown extramarital affair, blurry video of an orange man micturating on what may or may not be a Russian female between the ages of 17 and 77.
In which case, we can expect to see both sides revert once more to their circa 2010 defaults. Once more Assange would be the bugbear of the national security right and a liberal icon. It's almost as if his own utter lawlessness were a mirror of the nihilism at the heart of the modern Western democratic imagination, a danger far greater than any given leak.
His roundabout way of drawing our attention to this reality is perhaps his sole achievement.