Why isn’t Julian Assange a better person?

For those of us who remain committed, on an ideological if not a practical level, to the notion that the truth can never be immoral, Julian Assange is an increasingly troubling person. When Assange first released his cache of US diplomatic cables to various news outlets, Combat! blog took the position that Wikileaks is awesome. It got us into a lot of spirited discussions—viz. “Is That Journalism?” at Flippers and the extremely treacherous “Is That Rape?” at Mom’s kitchen table—that emphasized the enormous gap between theoretical and actual applications of the Truth. The Truth exists as a sort of disembodied ideal in our heads, but it goes out into the world in the company of people and events. As this excellent narrative of the people and events surrounding the Wikileaks disclosures suggests,* the Truth is frustratingly inseparable from the person telling it. The more we learn about Julian Assange’s truth-telling, the more his project seems to be about the telling rather than the truth. That’s a shame, since it seems to be what the powers that Assange set out to embarrass wanted in the first place.

The Assange depicted in the Vanity Fair article is really good at gathering information but frustratingly disinterested in managing it. To paraphrase Nathan Arizona, that’s sort of his whole damn raison d’etre, but to see that raison in operation is to understand its many, many flaws. The story of his partnership with The Guardian and other news outlets is the story of a man continually renegotiating his agreements. At least at the beginning, the through-line seems to be Assange’s desire to ensure that his information reaches the largest number of people possible. Then it becomes that Wikileaks should reach as many et cetera, and finally it settles on the importance of Assange’s own role as a man who could set the United States government “back on its heels.”

Along the way, we learn a lot of troubling things. For example, The Guardian repeatedly delayed its release of the Afghan and Iraq War Logs while it waited for Assange to redact the names of civilian collaborators whose lives might be endangered by their release. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised to learn that those names haven’t been made public, but only because WikiLeaks hasn’t self-published most of the material it gave to various news outlets. The reason seems to have more to do with disorganization and what looks disturbingly like laziness than with scruples. The Guardian didn’t names names because it didn’t want to put lives in danger. WikiLeaks hasn’t named names because to do so carefully would have been a lot of work.

Here we come to the frustrating problem with defending WikiLeaks. By chance or by design, the organization has become so inseparable from its captain that to do so requires defending Julian Assange, and Assange’s actions seem to coincide with goodness without being strictly motivated by it. This theory is bolstered by the reports of several disgruntled WikiLeaks staffers, one of whom quotes Assange as dismissing the moral complications of their project by saying, “I’m busy; there are two wars I have to end.”

On one hand, I would really like for those wars to end. On the other hand, the guy who is very publicly trying to end them keeps doing so in a fashion that encourages us to talk about him more than the wars. Perhaps it’s the media that is shifting the discussion in that direction. If it is, though, they are almost certainly being abetted by Assange himself. He is either deliberately or accidentally self-aggrandizing, but in any case, the objective “WikiLeaks and Julian Assange end Afghan and Iraq wars” threatens to supplant “Afghan and Iraq wars end.”

I really want WikiLeaks to be a force of awesome goodness. The terms of debate have been fixed in a position where that entails my wanting Julian Assange to be an awesomely good person, too. It would appear that he is instead a regular person, who is having a regular reaction to getting so famous that various national governments put him in jail. One can hardly fault him for that, but it’s unfortunate that WikiLeaks’ being an extraordinary organization now turns on Assange’s being an extraordinary person. No person could live up to the standards we set for the Truth. But maybe if Assange had handled things a little differently, it wouldn’t have to be a person doing the living up.

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