Everyone knows the basics: a week ago, an amorphous and mysterious organization called Wikileaks kicked off what it promises will be a months-long release of some 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables between the State Department and U.S. Embassies in 274 countries around the world. The leak, which Wikileaks has christened CableGate, is Wikileaks’ fourth major project in 2010, and has raised a host of standard questions: What will the content of the leaks do to American and global diplomatic relations? What legal recourse, if any, does the U.S. government have against Wikileaks and against Julian Assange, its mastermind-cum-public face? What other information does Assange have access to, and what is he planning to do with it? Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.
Well. For all I care, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul can sit around debating the relative claims of informational freedom and national security until the cows come home. As far as I’m concerned, the most interesting question emerging from this fiasco is: Who is Julian Assange, and why has no one ever taught him the principle of non-contradiction?
In search of answers, I started with Raffi Khatchadourian’s fascinating profile on Assange in the June 2010 New Yorker, which everyone interested in this issue ought to read. The piece is too long to summarize adequately in a paragraph, but here are the elements that matter to us: first, Assange is smart. Brilliant, even. No surprise, since you don’t see many dummies making this kind of global impact, but hold that thought. Second: his mother’s rebellious spirit and their fractured family life made stability a complete unknown in Assange’s formative years; as Khatchadourian notes, by the time Assange was fourteen, he had moved thirty-seven times. Hold that thought. Third: as a consequence of their nomadic lifestyle and his mother’s suspicion of formalized schooling, Assange cobbled together an ad hoc education through correspondence courses and extensive independent reading. Hold that thought. Fourth: Assange’s own personal life is a wreck, and the fallout from his early marriage, divorce, and extended custody battles has been disastrous; as his mother told Khatchadourian, “I am sure that Jules has some P.T.S.D. that is untreated.”
Now put it all together: you’ve got an emotionally and psychologically unstable genius whose entire upbringing conduced to an anti-establishment mindset. From that vantage point, it’s easy to understand how Assange could see the deconstruction (and perhaps the actual destruction) of international superpowers as a purpose worthy of his life’s work and his incredible brainpower. (To be perfectly clear: even if that is not Assange’s conscious purpose—even if his goal is straight up-and-down “freedom of information”—he clearly accepts the potential corresponding political consequences, up to and including a complete meltdown, as acceptable collateral damage.)
The thing that’s less immediately obvious is the effect those same factors must have had on the way that Assange’s mind comprehends reality. Because only a very highly intelligent, self-taught person with an utter lack of rootedness and a complete contempt for authority could construct such a high-minded rhetoric and devote his life to an enterprise that blatantly flouts the most basic principle of logic.
See, it works like this: Julian Assange has no respect for the laws of independent, sovereign nations—even democratic ones, like the United States, where the citizens are responsible for the way their governments behave. He believes, probably with a great deal of fervour, that to release confidential government information to the general public is always better than to keep it secret, and he has made it his life’s work to freely collaborate with lawbreakers in order to effect that release. But—and this is a big but—he quite clearly expects that those nations whose secrets he so freely shares should continue to abide by their own laws and conventions with respect to the treatment of people (like himself) who actively seek the breakdown of those very structures. In a recent Q&A session through the website of The Guardian, someone inquired what Assange thought about the expression of a former Canadian official that he “wouldn’t be unhappy” if Assange “disappeared,” and the Wikileaks mastermind replied: “It is correct that Mr. Flanagan and the others seriously making these statements should be charged with incitement to commit murder.”
In Of Paradise and Power, Robert Kagan talks about how western Europe’s enchantment with multilateralism and disarmament and talking it out is an illusion that can only be maintained to the extent that and as long as the United States continues to provide the bulk of European security. The French can lay down their guns because—and only because—the Americans still know how to fire ours. And the same principle is at work here. Julian Assange believes that murderers should be punished and free speech rights should be protected; he is clearly a vocal advocate of the rule of law. But he expects those rules to continue to function even as he actively works with those who break them and with utter disregard for (or delight at) the disintegration of the systems within which the rules are upheld.
We know Assange has read Kafka and Solzhenitsyn, but perhaps in his self-guided tour of the world of ideas he has yet to encounter any Aristotle. Let’s start with the Metaphysics:
“It is impossible that the same thing belong and not belong to the same thing at the same time and in the same respect.” (1005b19-20)
Ed. note: To pre-empt tangential conversations questioning the validity of my claims or inferences about Assange’s belief system, let me quote two brief paragraphs from Khatchadourian’s article containing some of Assange’s own words:
He had come to understand the defining human struggle not as left versus right, or faith versus reason, but as individual versus institution. As a student of Kafka, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn, he believed that truth, creativity, love, and compassion are corrupted by institutional hierarchies, and by “patronage networks”—one of his favorite expressions—that contort the human spirit. He sketched out a manifesto of sorts, titled “Conspiracy as Governance,” which sought to apply graph theory to politics. Assange wrote that illegitimate governance was by definition conspiratorial—the product of functionaries in “collaborative secrecy, working to the detriment of a population.” He argued that, when a regime’s lines of internal communication are disrupted, the information flow among conspirators must dwindle, and that, as the flow approaches zero, the conspiracy dissolves. Leaks were an instrument of information warfare…
Assange, despite his claims to scientific journalism, emphasized to me that his mission is to expose injustice, not to provide an even-handed record of events. In an invitation to potential collaborators in 2006, he wrote, “Our primary targets are those highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and Central Eurasia, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal illegal or immoral behavior in their own governments and corporations.” He has argued that a “social movement” to expose secrets could “bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality—including the US administration.”
Miriel Thomas Reneau is a member of the Humane Pursuits editorial board. She has served as an ISI Honors Fellow, a John Jay Fellow, and an American Enterprise Institute policy analyst in constitutional studies. She endures many a sleepless night, though reports differ on whether this is due to her concern over federal courts’ equity jurisdiction or her addiction to caramel lattes. In her daytime hours, she can be found defending St. Augustine against Calvinist co-optation and T. S. Eliot against everyone.