In the original incarnation of this blog, there was a post about Julian Assange. I didn’t delete it because of what happened later on, but it was deleted nonetheless when I decided to get rid of everything and start afresh. I can’t remember why I did that, exactly. I think I was looking for a new direction in my writing. Or maybe I wanted to cut ties with parts of the past. In any case, I remember blogging about him and, like many progressive people at that time, I was very much on his side.
I still have the original Word document of that post in an ancient file on my laptop, and I just looked it out. It makes for awkward reading, which was pretty much what my memory had told me it would be.
I’m glad I’m not famous because it’s the sort of thing that really comes back to haunt you. We’re not allowed to have mistakes in our past anymore. Almost anything from our digital lives could be dredged by hack journalists for salacious gossip in an attempt to discredit us among the increasingly vicious “progressive” media: “Oh, he made a joke five years ago that sounds bad now that we’ve completely changed our morality? Well, we’d better throw him under the bus to make ourselves look righteous.”
Fuck that. I can’t stand that attitude. It makes me think of China’s Cultural Revolution. A few days ago, Barack Obama called it the left’s “circular firing squad,” and he was spot on.
But that’s not what I’m talking about today. Not really.
I’m talking about Julian Assange, a man who was a hero to many of us just a few years ago, and who now makes us squirm. I certainly feel a tinge of embarrassment to look back. But I’m not ashamed, exactly. In fact, to go back a few paragraphs, I said that I found my original writing on the topic, and I’m going to share the very worst lines:
What the organization [WikiLeaks] does is invaluable. It is a true wonder of this era and gives me hope for the future of journalism, the internet and mankind.
Oh, that’s uncomfortable reading. (And not just for the lack of Oxford comma.) It’s a prime example of something that did not age well.
But that’s what life is. We say things, we change our minds for some reason, and we say something else. It’s the ones who don’t admit what they said in the first place that you can’t trust.
I did indeed look at Assange and WikiLeaks as heroic for what they did, and looking back, I can see why. In my original blog post, I called them out for being careless in certain regards, but ultimately I applauded them for bringing transparency and shining a light on the evils of the US government. The US was a tyrant, stomping around the world cloaked in secrecy, hiding evil deeds… Along came Assange and WikiLeaks and suddenly everyone knew, and it wasn’t all conspiracy theories but real hard facts. Like him or not, he helped hold people to account, and probably made it a little harder to get away with war crimes.
I still feel that way, but like most people I’ve come to watch Assange’s hysterics and the organisation’s decline. They have veered towards a darker path, it seems. For many, they are at least partly responsible for the election of Donald Trump and the cancer he has brought upon the United States. Assange’s rage at Hillary Clinton caused him to participate in the skewing of the American political dialogue, pushing opinion in the direction of a man who is easily the worst president in American history. What he did – something that affects the whole world to a great extent – was utterly unforgivable.
I suppose you could argue that he just did what he was always doing – bringing transparency and taking down powerful people. You might say that of course someone on the left of the political spectrum would be angry… that I’m just pissed now that he helped the right wing. However, I think that it changed fundamentally while Assange was trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy, becoming increasingly unstable and bitter. I think that his interference in the election was a matter of spite, whereas his original actions were about transforming the world for the better.
It was uncomfortable for me – and, I presume, for countless others – watching Assange being hauled from the place he’d hidden for so long. I remember him taking refuge in the embassy, and thinking, “Thank god there’s at least one country willing to stand up and do the right thing.” It seemed the whole world was against him and he deserved protection.
Although I now view the man as a twat, and resent his organisation’s role in one of the saddest events in recent years, I hope that he isn’t extradited to the US, and that he doesn’t receive punishment for the WikiLeaks hack. Ultimately, what happened back then was something that needed to happen. As for helping elect Trump, there were a million and one factors at play. No one should be punished for that. We just need to learn from it, and ensure it never happens again.
Democracy has been weaponised. Russia and China and other non-democratic players, whose governments don’t even pretend to value free speech, have figured out how to undermine the things that used to make us – the western world – strong. Organisations like WikiLeaks and people like Assange were, I thought, necessary for an open society. Maybe they still are, but we have seen how they can switch sides and become selective in how they choose to use the information they uncover. Their methods have been subverted, and they have caused chaos, tearing our societies apart.
It’s hard to see any positives coming from this. Not many will sympathise with Assange now, and there are plenty who will castigate him for a wide array of perceived offences. He has helped usher in a dark era in global politics, but perhaps it says more about us than him that that was allowed to happen. I guess he will go off to prison for the rest of his life – a fate probably no worse than spending it in an embassy – and we will all just forget about him. But I can’t help but feel we are living in a world partly of his creation, and one that was very much unforeseen.