What does it mean to say that Julian Assange is not a very admirable person? Is it true? In fact, the statement is fundamentally ambiguous because it depends on whether we are considering Assange the public figure, or Assange the private individual. Deservedly, Assange has won many plaudits for his courageous exposure of the dirty, unscrupulous dealings of western states and their allies. Wikileaks has done much to expose the rottenness and brutality of US imperialism since it began leaking files on the subject in the spring of 2010. The leaked files, including 250,000 diplomatic cables, present a picture that is at odds with the benign, humanitarian image the US likes to portray of its “interventions” in the Middle East and elsewhere. Wikileaks revealed the existence of 15,000 unreported civilian deaths in Iraq, the torture and abuse of prisoners in detainment facilities and a nexus of corruption, manipulation and systematic violence linking the US to its puppet regimes.
But when it comes to interpersonal – rather than international – relations, Assange is less than heroic. A steady stream of defectors, disabused of their admiration for the Australian hacker, have fled from the Assange camp with a basket of his dirty laundry to air in the pages of prestigious broadsheets and tell-all memoirs. Bill Keller, the former editor of The New York Times with whom Assange had worked with in publishing many of the Wikileaks documents, described Assange as “arrogant, thin-skinned, conspiratorial and oddly credulous.” Daniel Domscheit-Berg, a former collaborator accused Assange of being indifferent to truth, ruthlessly exercising absolute control over his collaborators, incapable of seeing criticism as anything other than betrayal, and childishly selfish in his dealings with supposed comrades. On one visit Switzerland to install a computer server, Domscheit-Berg spent his remaining money on supplies of Ovaltine to take home with him. For the rest of tour he “couldn’t wait to get back home and make myself a huge cup of cocoa.” But when they returned, he discovered that the Ovaltine was all gone. “Julian had at some point torn open the packages and poured the contents straight into his mouth.” The list of those who have fallen out with Assange is lengthy and continues to grow: Alan Rusbridger, Vaughan Smith, Jemima Khan, activists in Iceland and Australia, and many WikiLeaks collaborators who refused to yield to his authority.
The latest turncloak is Andrew O’Hagan, a Scottish novelist, essayist and Fellow of the Royal Society. In a monster twenty-five thousand word article for The London Review of Books, O’Hagan sketched a revealing account of Assange, gleaned from and intensive half-year of intimate contact. Though O’Hagan is ultimately sympathetic, the portrait that emerges in the article is not a flattering one. O’Hagan’s piece revealed that there is a hierarchy of unpleasantness in Assange that ranges from the trivial to the morally repulsive.
Assange reportedly has an imperious disregard for common niceties: “Julian had a way of making himself, in his own eyes, impervious to the small matters that might detain others. If you told him to do the dishes he would say he was trying to free economic slaves in China and had no time to wash up.” He is incredibly narcissistic – he describes Nick Davies, the Guardian reporter, and Brigitta Jónsdóttier, the Icelandic politician, as being “in love with me”, and reports that the local ladies were pleased by his presence in the pub – while also being deeply insecure and jealous – he exploded at his girlfriend, Sarah Harrison, for hugging another Wikileaks member, yet openly admires 14-year old girls in front of her and, she claims, “openly chats girls up and has his hand on their arse.” His hubris is immense and indomitable; his “favourite activity was following what people – especially his ‘enemies’ – were saying about him on the internet”, and when his girlfriend secured £20,000 for an interview with some executives, he demanded more: “‘Well,’ Julian said, ‘if Tony Blair – a war criminal – can get £120,000, I should get at least £1 more than him.’” And like many egotistical and self-important people, Assange is also massively paranoid – he gets Harrison to check the bushes for assassins and assumes that taxi drivers are clandestinely tailing him.
These foibles are minor. But what might give even his most ardent supporters pause for thought is his hypocrisy and his, putting it mildly, unpleasant disposition towards women. Assange likes to position himself as a champion of openness and transparency, indeed he holds these principles in such high regard that he often gives them priority over the endangering the lives of informants, railing against the redaction of their names in published diplomatic cables. But he is shockingly hypocritical when he applies these principles to his own organisation. He secretly records conversations with his friends, and later uses them to prove their “duplicity”. He made WikiLeaks employees sign contracts leaving them liable to £12m lawsuits if they reveal information about the organisation. He makes deals with major international newspapers for exclusive rights to publish the documents. In other words, while he constantly rails against the operational practices and ideologies of powerful states, he himself rigorously imposes such frameworks on his own organisation. As O’Hagan puts it “he can’t understand why any public body should keep a secret but insists that his own organisation enforce its secrecy with lawsuits.” At best, as Slavoj Zizek and Saroj Giri have pointed out, this portrays a naïve understanding of power as something that merely perches at the top of society rather than being distributed throughout it.
Worst of all, perhaps, is his treatment, alleged and otherwise, of women. Assange is currently wanted for questioning by the Swedish Prosecution Authority on charges of the “sexual molestation” of one woman and the rape of another. It is alleged by Swedish authorities that, among other things, Assange held down one woman with his own body weight “in a sexual manner”, having intercourse with a sleeping woman, and trying to rip off a condom during sex. These are very serious allegations, and the fact that Assange has done everything in his power to avoid facing trial in Sweden shows a repugnant disregard for sexual abuse sufferers. One cannot know the truth of the allegations until Assange stands trial, but there is plenty of evidence in O’Hagan’s piece of Assange’s unpleasant attitudes towards both his accusers and women in general as evidenced by his suggestion for an autobiography title: “Ban This Book: From Swedish Whores to Pentagon Bores.”
It is clear that Assange is not an admirable person – though there is no reason to justifiably believe that he is the monster that he is sometimes portrayed as being. How can we reconcile this with his courage in standing up to US imperialism, and the great service he has rendered through his leaks? Many cannot, preferring to trivialise the allegations against him. The left-wing MP George Galloway described Assange’s actions as being merely “bad sexual etiquette”. Naomi Wolff, self-described as a “longtime feminist activist” raged at how “the alleged victims are using feminist-inspired rhetoric and law to assuage what appears to be personal injured feelings.”
Seventy years ago, George Orwell published an essay that tackled just this type of blinkered approach. In the essay, “Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali”, he analysed a split in public opinion over the Spanish surrealist. One camp thought that Dali’s talent excused his immoral behaviour, while the other camp felt that his unpalatable personality rendered any artistic merit void. Orwell felt that neither opinion was correct and determined, in his usual judiciously commonsensical manner, that “one ought to be able to hold in one’s head simultaneously the two facts that Dali is a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being”. Seemingly however, neither Dali’s critics nor his detractors were able to accomplish this mental feat.
We see the same split in public opinion today over Assange. His apologists on the left who would summarily absolve him wish to extend to Assange the “benefit of the clergy”. Here we see how Assange’s egoism is always in danger of irredeemably tarnishing any cause which he is attached to because in his mind he is not only above the cause, he is the Cause. Like a Hegelian superhero, he is the one who sees the necessary historical tasks of each epoch and ruthlessly accomplishes them. In the visiting book at Ellingham hall, where he resided under bail in England, he wrote “today with my friends we tried to bring modern history to the world.” In this sense, he needs to relearn some good old fashioned Communist humility, such as that displayed by the Communist revolutionary Eugen Leviné when sentenced to death for leading a Bavarian insurrection. When the Soviet Republic fell, Leviné was captured and court-martialled. He was told “You are under sentence of death.” Leviné answered “We Communists are always under sentence of death.” Assange should follow this exemplar and be prepared to face the (unlikely) possibility that the Swedish allegations are really just an American ruse and be willing to sacrifice his freedom for the principles upon which he likes to pontificate.
At any rate, Assange’s failings should remind us of a simple truth. Reality is not binary. Assange is not either a heroic whistle-blower or a depraved rapist: he may be both. Only a fair trial can determine the truth. Opponents of US imperialism should not conflate an admiration of Assange’s work with a blanket defence of his actions. Doing so damages the anti-imperialist movement and trivialises the anguish and humiliation of women who daily suffer sexual abuse at the hands of men who are not internationally famous enemies of power.