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Christina Patterson

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Julian Assange: When "Exposing Bastards" Turns Into a Cult

Posted: 10/28/11 03:30 PM ET

Now," says the figure bathed in golden light, "we face our greatest challenge. Join us," he says, "in our struggle." Above him is a canopy of autumn leaves, and a big sky, dotted with clouds, like the clouds in a Dutch painting. You almost expect a heavenly choir, or at least some stirring music. But there isn't a choir. Just a bloke in a brown sweater staring straight to a camera and telling us that "WikiLeaks needs you."

WikiLeaks needs you, or me, or whoever was filming Julian Assange, for its appeal on its Website, because it, like its founder, is in big financial trouble. There are Assange's legal costs, of course, which are ticking away like a taxi meter, but there's also the collective actions of Mastercard, Visa, PayPal and the Bank of America, which stopped processing donations to the site after the publication of the U.S. embassy diplomatic cables at the end of last year. The result, apparently, is a 95 percent drop in income, and possible bankruptcy.

You can sort of see why Bank of America, which Assange said in December would be WikiLeaks' next target -- with the release of documents that would produce a scandal as big as Enron -- might not want to fund an organization which wanted to bring about its downfall, and why some other financial institutions might feel the same way. What's harder to see is why a man whose Website exists to "expose bastards" should be surprised when some of the people he thinks are bastards actually behave like bastards. And particularly since the "bastards" seem to include anyone with any authority, or power.

Julian Assange seems, according to his autobiography, an unauthorized version of which was published last month after he fell out with his publishers -- as well as his lawyers, a number of his media partners and about a dozen of his colleagues -- to have divided the world into bastards and non-bastards from an early age. He grew up, as the son of hippies who met on a march, with protest in his blood. His first word, he says, in a tale that reminds you of Jesus and the money-changers, was "Why?" After his father left, his mother had a lover who'd been in a cult, a man whose "obsessional nature derived from his egocentricity and his dark sense of control." When the relationship broke up, he wouldn't leave them alone. Assange, and his mother and half-brother, spent the rest of his childhood as "fugitives." They lived, he says, with "a degree of hysteria," and in constant fear.

It's a shame that Freud wasn't around at the birth of Christianity, or Islam, to show us how key events in their founders' childhood shaped their thinking, and their religious texts. But Freud was around, or at least his theories were around, when a baby "with the look of an Eskimo" was born in a hospital in Queensland in 1971, and spent his first months in a "freedom-haunted" and "beautiful Eden" that really was called Magnetic Island.

We don't need Freud to point out the paranoia that kicked in from an early age, or the sense that the world was a dark and dangerous place, or the distrust of any kind of "control." Assange himself suggests that "perhaps I was just bred to hate the system." The "system" at that stage was the school that wanted the infant Assange to tie his shoelaces, but it later seems to have been pretty much everyone in the world except his mum, and his mates. Mates who, he says, "were anarchists... by temperament" and who started off on their hacking adventures by "having fun" and ended up "wanting to change the world."

WikiLeaks did change the world, and not too many teenage rebels wanting to "get the bastards" can say they've done that. It has made sure that no organization on the face of the planet, including the government of the most powerful country in the world, can be confident that information it wants to be secret will stay secret. That will make some people doing bad things very uneasy. It will also make some people doing good things in difficult circumstances uneasy, and might even make the good things more difficult to bring about.

But WikiLeaks doesn't care about people doing good things in difficult circumstances, unless the good thing is speaking what it would like to call truth to what it would like to call power. "If material is suppressed, we must see it as a blockage," says Assange, "and alleviate the problem. That way, we get to justice."

For Julian Assange, and his disciples, and the people who bid at auction to touch the hem of his garment, or at least "the sealed prison coffee" he "smuggled out of HMS Wandsworth," or objects he has touched "while under house arrest" (which does rather give the impression that he's being held for threatening a dictatorship, and not for what the Swedish government calls rape and he calls not returning a couple of phone calls), the world is a giant toilet. He, and his fellow plumbers-for-truth, must unblock it. "Information," he says, "wants us free." "Disclosure," he says, "is not merely an action; it is a way of life."

When he says things like this, he sounds the way fundamentalists, and particularly fundamentalists who have started a cult, always sound. He sounds, in fact, like an angry child.

Does "information" want us "free"? We don't know. We can't ask it. But one thing I'm pretty sure the world doesn't want, or need, is any more unscrupulous, uncompromising, and psychotically self-justifying fanatics.

 

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