Julian Assange: A Study in Irony

I see Julian Assange is back in the news.  This guy’s like last week’s pastrami: he just keeps hanging around.  In case you don’t remember, Assange is that smarmy guy who was behind all the Wikileaks stuff that was heavy headlines a couple of years ago.  As the read-all-about-it Robin Hood of the chattering class, Assange gained a certain notoriety for opening other people’s mail and then bragging about it.  At the time, there was a lot of high-minded talk about an “honesty is the best policy” crusade, but these days there aren’t that many people who still believe Assange’s motivations were purely altruistic.   Besides, for all the hoopla, Wikileaks was (and still is) mainly just a nuisance.  So far, no person or institution has collapsed (or even gone into a decline) as the result of a Wikileaks revelation.  In fact, the only tangible result (that I know of) is some serious chuckles over diplomatic drinks at a few embassy garden parties.

Essentially, Julian Assange is the international equivalent of that kid from high school who was always a jerk.  The one who’d come up behind you and knock your books out of your hand or waited until you weren’t looking and tripped you on the stairs.  He never did anything you could prove or anything even all that serious.  He was just utterly annoying.  Unfortunately, the only way to deal with those kind of kids is beat the crap outta them — otherwise they’ll never leave you alone.  This was true in Miss Mackenzie’s grade nine class, and it’s doubly true now in the wider world.  (As we all know, grade nine and 21st century diplomatic relations are not for the faint of heart.)

Anyway, towards that end, because just being a pain in the ass is not a criminal offence, the powers that be got together and figured out a way to put Mr. Assange on ice for a while.  He’s facing criminal charges of the rape-without-pillage variety in Sweden.  I’m not completely convinced that everything is kosher in Stockholm, but you can make up your own mind.  Either way, the British government wants to extradite Assange back to the land of Ikea to face a little Norse justice.  Assange doesn’t want to go because he thinks the Americans are waiting for him at Arlanda airport — with a one-way ticket to Attica.  I wonder where he got that idea?

But here’s where the opera goes comic.  Having exhausted every legal means in Britain to avoid extradition, Julian turned for salvation to that bastion of liberty and human rights: Ecuador.  I’m not making this up.  A couple of months ago, Julian made a dash for the Ecuadorean embassy and claimed political asylum.  What’s even funnier – now they’ve granted it to him!  Suddenly, Britain is in a standoff with a South American country (and it isn’t Argentina.)  The grey suits in Whitehall are heading for the gin even as we speak.  Obviously, they can’t just let Assange go — especially not to a place like Ecuador — but aside from revoking Ecuador’s diplomatic status and storming the building, there’s not much they can do about it.

Meanwhile, Ecuador, for its part, is tweaking the lion’s tail — with some pretty good results.  They’ve dusted off the tried and true “you’re not the boss of me, you neo-colonial bastards” rhetoric and are wailing away as if they were Hugo Chavez’s little brothers.  According to one member of the National Assembly, Rosana Alvarado, “This is a decision of a sovereign government, which doesn’t have to ask for British permission to act.”  Another member, Paco Velasco, stuck a little closer to the traditional script with, “I hope the Ecuadorean people will remain united and reject any form of colonialism.”  Is somebody having an election soon?  It’s always a good idea to have a clear colonial enemy when the folks back home are going to the polls.  Surprise, surprise!  President Rafael Correa’s job’s on the line next February.  What a coincidence!  Just as an aside: this neo-colonial crap is really getting old.  After all, Ecuador has been an independent nation since 1822 — that’s 45 years longer than Canada and nearly a century longer than Australia.  (Just sayin’.)  However, standing up to both Britain and the United States about human rights is going to look really good on the election posters — even if it is only over a little poo disturber like Assange.

So to recap: Julian Assange is asking Ecuador to protect his human rights.  This is a country that’s had more than a few problems with military coups, juntas and presidential musical chairs (not to mention a number of governments who suspended the constitution just because they didn’t like it.)  And who is he asking for protection from?  Great Britain, Sweden and (probably, eventually) the United States, three of the most stable democracies in human history.  Am I the only one ODing on irony here?

To leak, or not to leak

I’ve lived long enough to understand that most things in life are black and white.  There is a good; there is an evil.  There is justice; there’s injustice.  There’s pregnant and there’s not.  There’s almost never an “almost” anything.  There are people who do deal in endless shades of grey and so be it.  I find these people are mostly lazy, sometimes stupid and — far too often — both — a deadly combination.  However, every once in a while, a situation will hove up on the horizon that has enough nuances in it to make me stop and consider.  WikiLeaks is that kind of a two-handed problem.  On the one hand, it could be a good thing; on the other, it might prove to be bad.  But, in the end it has to be something because it can’t be both.

The good side of WikiLeaks is pretty obvious.  First of all, it’s nice to have somebody out there watching the workings of government – any government.  We need independent structures and institutions that keep a wary eye on the people who wield enormous power.  When this task falls into the lap of ordinary people, I’m always glad when they step forward, place the whistle to their lips, and blow, long and hard.  Secondly, I’m glad that the Internet is still the big dog on the planet.  Its democracy is going to save us — believe me.  It’s good to see that — despite every attempt to chain it up — the Internet’s numerical superiority seems to be able to carry the day – so far, anyway.  Finally, and way more important than everything else, I’m so relieved to know that the world’s diplomats are not as stupid as they always appear to be.   In one cyber-flash, the folks who are running the world went from bumbling dolts with PhDs in naive to hard-working men and women with a fairly astute grasp of the international situation.  I don’t know about you, but I’m as happy as a puppy with a tail, to find out that the powers that be are as worried about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons as I am.  It’s totally reassuring to me to know that everybody thinks Karzai is a crook.  And as scary as the situation in Iran is, I’m ecstatic that a whole pile of people realize just how godawful scary the situation in Iran is.  It’s great to have a no-holds-barred assessment; a genuine look at the world — unfiltered by Anderson Cooper or anybody else who has better hair than Barbie.  I didn’t know the real story before, but I’m glad I do now.  If nothing else, I sleep better.

 Of course, the first question is do we need to know this stuff?  The answer is no.  In the great scheme of things, regardless of how much superdemocracy we think we need, there is no reason for ordinary people to know any of this.  In a more civilized time, governments carried on their discourse behind closed doors.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Looking over a mechanic’s shoulder while he fixes your car doesn’t do anybody any good.  Besides, one of the major problems of our democracy is that it’s currently getting micromanaged by lobbyists, activists and special interest groups.  The WikiLeaks are just going to add fuel to their power-grabbing fire.

The next question is why publish this stuff in the first place?  Some are favourably comparing WikiLeaks to the Pentagon Papers.   This is apples and oranges with a banana thrown into the mix.  Folks, the world has changed exponentially since the Sacred 60s.  The Pentagon Papers were an attempt to thwart the US government, who were actively lying to the American people.  The WikiLeaks are exposing nothing more than day-to-day exchanges between government employees.  No, I don’t want my government to lie to me, and if they do, I want to know about it, but in actual fact, I don’t care if they lie to folks like Karzai and Ahmadinejad – or Hilary, Bill and Chelsea, either.  Nor do I have a burning need to know about it.  In the real world, international diplomacy is a serious business, and everybody should know the rules.  There are no rules.  Get used to it.

Finally, does publishing this stuff do any good?  No.  In fact, it does a lot of harm.  Suddenly, private assessment and analysis is available to anybody with a mouse and a modem.  Even Hannah Montana knows that there are certain things the whole world doesn’t need to know.  She also understands that being brutally honest — even selectively — can jeopardize your whole way of life.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when you do this on a global scale, you’re just asking for trouble.  I don’t want the people I’ve hired to keep my world running smoothly looking over their shoulders and mincing their words.  My personal thought is that Julian Assange is like that smarmy kid in high school who always acted like a jerk, for no reason, just because he could.

So, on balance, WikiLeaks is not that hard a problem.  On the scale of good and evil or right and wrong, it’s wrong – full stop.  Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m going to quit reading them.