Julian Assange has sometimes seemed to be running out of allies, with the most recent reputation battering coming in a lecture and epic essay by his former ghostwriter, Andrew O’Hagan, in the London Review of Books.
A rebuttal of sorts comes from the Australian’s, Colin Robinson, who published Assange’s book Cypherpunks. Robinson writes in the Guardian of having become “wearily accustomed to … the vituperation heaped on my author, the scorn directed at me for giving him a platform.”
The stock response when he tells people he is publishing his work: “I mean, he’s a weirdo isn’t he? That massive ego. And the sex offences in Sweden.”
It’s almost impossible to counter this kind of attitude, with its shallow presumptions about the character of someone never met and the guilt of someone never tried. I’m aware of what feeds it: there’s plenty in the Annals of Assange about fallings-out with past collaborators – enough to suggest a “burn that bridge when we get to it” approach to life. And the accusations of the women in Sweden (which I believe, if charges are formalised, should be heard in front of a judge) do remain unanswered, in court at least.
But I also know that it is especially dangerous to pass casual judgment on the character of people who confront the powerful, because our perceptions of them are open to manipulation by those to whom they present a threat.
As to the O’Hagan piece itself, Robinson bemoans an emphasis on “character defects”, which plays into the hands of those who would wish to see Assange’s reputation damaged. “Meanwhile, his achievements in uncovering the misdemeanors of the secret state are almost entirely passed over.”
O’Hagan portrays Assange as a Walter Mitty-like fantasist whose absorption with grand and unrealisable schemes prevents him from ever achieving anything practical. Yet this is someone who can number among his achievements the founding of WikiLeaks, the publication of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and the smuggling of Edward Snowden to safety. During the time that O’Hagan writes about, Assange was managing the ongoing Cablegate releases, preparing for his own extradition hearings and a US grand jury investigation, and assembling the Guantanamo documents from Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning that would appear in April 2011.
In O’Hagan’s account, collaborators such as journalists and the head of Assange’s erstwhile publisher Canongate come in for much fiercer criticism from Assange than more powerful and malevolent opponents in corporations and government. But if this charge of narcissism of small differences has any purchase when directed at Assange, it can be levelled too against O’Hagan, who largely ignores the bigger issues about which Assange and WikiLeaks have consistently sounded alarm.