Why Julian Assange is a crucial historical figure

Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes: Assange’s entire public life has been an experiment on the theme of trust, one devoted to the conviction that the public trust in government has been badly misplaced. But for a time, in 2010, Assange felt a part of something larger—if not affiliated with any institution other than his own, then at least part of a broader political movement against American power. The Fifth Estate, a thoughtful drama out this week with the English actor Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, focuses on the extraordinary eight-month period when WikiLeaks published the military’s war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq, the State Department’s internal cables, and the “Collateral Murder” video—everything that made Assange famous. There was a casual brutality to the way that powerful states and com­panies seemed to behave in these documents: A Shell executive bragged about having packed the Nigerian government with sympathizers, American military officers substantially underreported the numbers of Iraqi civilians their soldiers were killing. In London, Wiki­Leaks became an Establishment liberal cause, and the Australian found himself joined by human-rights crusaders who had been knighted by the queen, journalists and filmmakers, concerned citizens and TED Talk celebrities.

These allegiances were always bound to collapse—Assange is simply too weird, in his person and his politics, to have become part of any mainstream coalition—but they have collapsed so completely that there is little left of Assange’s public image right now beyond the crude cartoon. Vain and self-mythologizing, he has been accused of sexual assault by two of his supporters; a prophet of the mounting powers of the surveillance state, he now reportedly lives in a fifteen-by-thirteen-foot room in London’s Ecuadoran Embassy, sleeping in a women’s bathroom, monitored by intelligence agencies at all times; still trusting of the volunteers around him, he gave one such man access to secret American diplomatic cables about Belarus, only to find that information passed along to the Belarusian dictator. It is as if Assange has been consumed by his own weaknesses and obsessions. Calling around, I’d heard that the last prominent London intellectual who still supported him was the writer Tariq Ali, but when I finally reached him, via Skype, on an island in the Adriatic, it turned out that Ali, too, had grown exasperated with Assange. “He hasn’t formulated his worldview,” Ali said. “Certainly he is hostile to the American empire. But that’s not enough.” Assange has come to be seen, as a journalist at The Guardian put it, as nothing more than “a useful idiot.”

All of this is Assange’s own doing. And yet it is strange how completely these dramas have obscured the power of his insights and how fully we now seem to be living in Julian Assange’s world. His real topic never was war or human rights. It was always surveillance and the way that technology unbalanced the relationship between the individual and the state. Information now moves through electronic circuits, which means it can all be collected, stored, analyzed. The insight that Assange husbanded (and Snowden’s evidence confirmed) is that the sheer seduction of this trove—the possibility of secretly knowing everything about other people—would lead governments and companies to abandon their own laws and ethics. This is the paranoid worldview of a hacker, assembled from a lifetime of chasing information. But Assange proved that it was accurate, and the consequence of his discovery has been a strange political moment, when to see the world through the lens of conspiracies has not only made you paranoid. It’s also made you aware. [Continue reading…]

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