September 2010

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Julian Assange and the Irony of Hubris

By Thomas Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's Political Blog "Certain Doubt"

The blogosphere has been lit up recently by accusations of rape/molestation against Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. (A Google search of “Wikileaks Rape” turned up 11 million hits.)

While the initial charges of rape have been withdrawn, slanderous rumors persist. Several writers, including Assange himself, have derided the whole thing as a clumsy “dirty tricks” smear campaign orchestrated by the C.I.A. and the Pentagon.

I disagree… at least about the clumsy part.

If the C.I.A./Pentagon did have anything to do with the accusations leveled against Assange the plot shows a remarkable degree of elegance and subtlety. Either that or they got real lucky.

Consider, for example, the ironies of the situation:

Assange, a secretive man, finds himself embroiled in a tawdry and very public sex scandal that if even partly true completely dismantles his carefully cultivated a image as a man of mystery.

Wikileaks, a crusading whistle blower organization famous for leaking some 95,000 secret and embarrassing documents finds itself embarrassed when its founder finds details of his private sex life “leaked” to the press by an as yet unnamed whistle blower.

Assange, who came to Sweden seeking a safe haven for Wikileaks under their liberal whistle blower protection laws, find himself a victim of those same laws that protect the anonymity of his accusers.

I am in no way supporting or condemning Assange in all of this. I find the question of whether Julian Assange is guilty or innocent of the charges leveled at him largely irrelevant. Nether do I find the narrative that the C.I.A./ Pentagon was involved in a honey trap plot particularly compelling by itself.

What I do find interesting is the hubris of the thing.

I continually find it amazing that people in the news – mostly men it must be noted - persist in looking like deer in the headlights when they find details of their personal lives splashed across the tabloids. Elliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Larry Craig, and yes, even Bill Clinton. What sort of hubris runs through the veins of public officials who think that they alone will be exempt from sex scandals? Assange himself has intimated that he received warnings from Australian security agents that he could find himself the target of some form of dirty tricks smear campaign. And yet apparently he had “consensual” sex with at least one of the women named in the suit. What was he thinking? That he was some kind of super spook, that no aspect of his private life (like any his sexual activity) would ever wind up being made public?

Did he think he was invincible? The lessons of Spitzer, Sanford, Craig, and Clinton seem obvious to me. If you are a public personality, especially one who delights in “crushing bastards,” and you’ve been warned that those same bastards are out to entrap and smear you, don’t act so surprised and “disturbed” when your private sex life winds up on the front page.

For me, the ultimate irony of the Assange imbroglio is that the Wikileaks founder has made headlines by raising institutional information transparency to almost Holy Grail status, while at the same time insisting on maintaining a cult of personal privacy.

I hate to be the one to break it to him but life just doesn’t work that way.

Anyone who generates as much media buzz over their cause as Assange can’t expect to maintain a total “cone of silence” around their personal life. Anyone who acts as a front man for a crusade against government secrecy has to assume that anything he does in private won't remain private for long. Whether he was the victim of dirty tricks or whether he simply got his comeuppance for acting like a dick in bed matters not one whit. By clinging to a fantasy image of an international man of mystery, one who is above the slings and arrows of tabloid journalism, Assange is guilty at the very least of extreme naivité. If he is the victim of a smear campaign, by his own hubris he made it awfully easy for his enemies.

Ultimately, the only thing this story proves is that while he may be a successful blogger and hacker and exposer of secrets, as a super spy, I’m afraid Julian Assange is looking more and more like a total amateur.