Getting inside the head of Julian Assange

My following book review appeared in yesterday’s Sydney Sun Herald:

Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography
Julian Assange (Text, $29.95)

This is unlike any book you’ve ever read. Take one of the most recognisable figures in the world, sit him down for hours of interviews and sign a multimillion-dollar contract to publish an authorised autobiography. Talk about government secrets, challenging American hegemony, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and unlock the motivations behind a truly revolutionary spirit.

The founder of WikiLeaks, Australian Julian Assange, is the subject of this curious release, a book that has been rejected as dishonest and incomplete by the man himself. The original publisher, Canongate, calls it an “unauthorised first draft” while Assange has stated that neither he nor the ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan knew what would appear in the public domain when the title appeared. “Canongate is profiteering from an unfinished and erroneous draft,” Assange wrote.

Despite these hesitations, this book is a fascinating read. Most of the titillating media coverage so far has focused on the alleged sexual assaults by Assange on two Swedish women – he vehemently denies doing anything wrong and says “it has already turned out to be the most expensive phone call I didn’t make” – but the interest actually lies elsewhere. His likely extradition to Sweden is a sideshow.

Assange says his nomadism (“it suits some people’s situations”) was due to his mother’s destructive relationship with The Family cult in Australia and her abusive partner. Computers became a refuge, as he explains poetically: “Computers provided a positive space in a negative field; they showed us we could start again, against ‘selfhood’, against ‘society’, building something less flawed and less corrupt in these fresh pastures of code.”

Assange offers pithy social commentary on Australian society when his hacking began, a strong sense of rejecting the parochialism that this country then offered. “We felt we were the dead centre of the turning world,” he argues, “no less significant than cutting-edge computer guys in Berlin or San Francisco … We felt we could lead the world, which is a nice thing to feel at the bottom of the planet.”

The evolution of WikiLeaks, launched in 2006, was at once radical and simple. Assange believed in remaking the world in a transparent way that was guaranteed to upset the powerful.

“I was, always will be, more concerned with the wars going on around the world than with making things easier for myself.”

Assange has little time for most journalists, who he sees as lazy and unwilling to spend the required time to investigate documents dropped in their lap by WikiLeaks. This attitude undeniably contributed to the breakdown in relationships with The New York Times and The Guardian, two outlets Assange believes treated his integrity and independence with contempt.

In one curious aside, Assange notes, after the WikiLeaks release of documents relating to the American war effort, the material gained a steadily increasing amount of respect: “Some military personnel themselves began visiting our site, to see what kind of replacement parts they might need for their vehicles,” he writes. “Irony of ironies; some NATO military contractor would appear in a chatroom saying can you help me find a wheel for my armoured vehicle.”

Assange is portrayed as a man dedicated to exposing the secrets of lying governments in the service of war. He’s impatient, harsh on his own foibles and doesn’t suffer fools. He dismisses the excessive secrecy and collusion between journalists and officials during the prosecution of battle. “Open government is only worthy of the name when it is a real, lived value, not an empty branding exercise,” he argues.

The grand legacy of WikiLeaks, away from the petty personality politics, is undeniably positive.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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