The Shield of Higher Cause

The Shield of Higher Cause

By M.J. Akbar | 23 October, 2011
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks at a protest outside St Paul’s Cathedral in central London last week. REUTERS

When Julian Assange, father of WikiLeaks, makes a viral enemy of a potential friend, he always does so in the name of a Higher Cause. Such mavericks are necessary in an age where information has become a frontline weapon.

You can always win power on a battlefield, as warriors have done ever since their sycophants began to record their preferred anecdotes and call it history. But to sustain power is a far more complex art. Stalin, as Assange notes, would have loved the internet, which can be the perfect storehouse for a despot's archives. You have to preserve information in order to manipulate it through distortion or secrecy. The largest library in the old Soviet Union belonged to the KGB.

Democracy is the conflict between the child and an emperor. Emperors cannot survive once their nudity has been revealed. Happy endings are rare in dictatorships. The child is sent to the torture chamber, where intelligence officials extract his teeth and electrocute his testicles in order to establish that Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi were not only wearing clothes but had a proper uniform decorated with flashy medals. The Arab child who challenged this fiction paid a terrible price. It was only inevitable that when the Arab spring and the autumn revolution rose, generations of anger would demand blood on the streets in Libya.

Julian Assange has become his own Higher Cause. He is no longer the child who exposed a superpower and went home. He wants to live the rest of his life on a pedestal.

Assange's adversaries have sought the shield of a Higher Cause — defence of a state in wartime — themselves. The point of this confrontation is moral without prejudice to the personal morality of the activists. Governments revel in revealing what helps their image. They hide, mostly, only what hurts. We do not have to admire Assange in order to admire what he did.

Time for a mild confession. I have not read the smartly titled Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography published against Assange's will by Canongate. I have only read the reviews. But if reviews are like the tasting menu offered by grand chefs, then the flavour is sufficient to indicate that this is enough. I don't want the full meal. Publicity and adulation have bloated Assange. He has become his own Higher Cause. He is no longer the child who exposed a superpower and went home. He wants to live the rest of his life on a pedestal.

This book project began as collaboration between him and the publisher in December last year, confirmed by a fat fee. In June Assange walked out of the deal after the first draft was written based on interviews he had given. All autobiography, claimed Assange in justification, is prostitution.

This is the sort of pompous aphorism which has been polished for glitter before an image-enhancing mirror. Add up the four words and they are an advertisement for nothing. All fiction is gang rape. All analysis is masturbation. All history is sodomy. You could go on with this kind of rubbish to the eternal delight of publicists seeking their 15 seconds of fame. Assange can no longer see the difference between an autobiography and PR press releases.

Dropcap OnHis defenders will doubtless argue that you need an unstable sense of self if you have the courage to challenge the Pentagon. Assange is a famous hero, but I wonder if he is more heroic than the American soldier, Bradley Manning, who actually stole the documents and passed them on to Assange, and now sits in an anonymous cell rather than on the cover of magazines.

There is a poignant moment in this book. In 1996 Assange was tried in Australia for hacking into Nortel, the Canadian telecom system. When he rose to stand in the witness box he saw the face of a colleague who had turned state evidence against him. "It was the look," Assange says, "that I would come to know: the look of betrayal, organised on the face to look like a high-minded interest in the truth."

I wonder whether the American soldier jailed for life would recognise the same look if he were to see Assange's face right now.

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