Saturday, October 20, 2012

‘Julian Assange – The Unauthorised Autobiography’

It seems to be my night for outlandish peripatetics. 

Julian Assange's surprisingly undemanding ‘unauthorised autobiography’ (a more than usually awkward oxymoron, but a wholly appropriate one nonetheless) was published after he had disrupted his relationship with Canongate with the words ‘All memoir is prostitution’ and then couldn’t repay his advance – so, holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy as he is, his version of the story of his life is out there, whether he likes or not.

A childhood spent on the move around Australia, peregrinations apparently motivated at first by some need of his mother’s for unconventionality then later by her need to escape from a boyfriend attached to a cult, seems to have been one of memorable purposelessness. His surname came from his, presumably adoptive, stepfather, who left the family when he was nine. It came as some surprise to learn that Assange is a very experienced, and therefore also presumably very skilled, beekeeper, having taken up the hobby in childhood and pursued it into his twenties. While remaining dependent upon their keeper, bees construct a whole society inside a wooden box, one that can be moved quite easily from place to place provided you know how to do it. The bees don’t mind whether they’re in Melbourne or on Magnetic Island. All that matters to them is that they are inside their box being bees, and that the beekeeper is keeping an eye on them. It is easy to imagine how a beekeeper could quite easily fall into the trap of looking at the creatures in their charge, that whole society doing its thing in its box yet depending upon them for its survival, and beginning to imagine themself as some kind of benign divinity.

His career as a hacker took off in his teens. When describing computing, Assange is fond of analogies involving pipes. The facetious thought that sprang to mind is that if the Watergate burglars were known as ‘The Plumbers’, perhaps he should be known as ‘The Pipefitter’. It is surprising to see just how conventional Assange’s thinking about that period in his life was, from, say, 1986 until 1991, when he encountered a guy at Nortel who was cleverer than he was and he ended up being busted. The plaintive request not to contact the Australian Federal Police sits very uneasily beside the soaring joy at finding himself inside some organisation’s systems and comparing it to being inside the Sistine Chapel. An intellectual constant that runs throughout this book is that the only concept of official privacy that Assange seems willing to adhere to might best be described as whatever Julian Assange considers it to be; if the doors of perception are not opened to him, he will kick his way through the firewalls. Law seems to be good if it enables you to do something in San Francisco (Knight to King 4) the consequence of which is that you can shelter under the ACLU's umbrella when the writs start flying (Bishop to Queen 3 - Checkmate!), to my mind a rather manipulative approach to the conduct of litigation of a type that Assange might be the first to criticise, were he ever to be on its receiving end; law seems to be bad when it wants you to stand trial.

What I certainly took to be the sociopathic impenitence of his attitude to his arrest in 1991 notwithstanding – the night the police came for him, he had forgotten to put his disks back in their usual hiding place in the beehive, an oversight I think Assange regrets, if only because that meant that he was the only person who got stung that night – what is remarkable about his observations on his hacking career is how closely they began to resemble the nostalgic ramblings of a saloon bar bore for the good old days that never were. At times he’s almost like one of ‘Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen. We’re all spoiled these days, you see, when we can buy PCs with programs already on them, and we don’t have to do the hard work of programming them ourselves. If he did ever turn up in a sketch with John Cleese and Michael Palin, one aspect of their Yorkshiremen shtick that Assange might relate to very easily is the incomprehensible nature of their sleeping habits. On page 68, Assange writes that,

“Virtual reality – which used to be a mainstay of science fiction and is now a mainstay of life – was born for many of us in those highways we walked solo at night”.

This sentence, as psychiatrically loaded as any I’ve come across in a book in some time, full as it is of funambulistic resonances, leads one to think that isolation is Assange’s preferred way of living – perhaps one reason why just about every significant relationship he has had with another person seems to have either ruptured, been disrupted by Assange or otherwise broken down. After the book was completed in draft form, he disrupted his relationship with those who had stood bail for him, potentially leaving them out of pocket. History suggests that it may only a matter of time before he disrupts his relationship with the Ecuadorean authorities, and then he may have nowhere else to go.

What is remarkable about that ongoing episode is that someone who has started their book with a description of unwanted imprisonment should then have entered a period of voluntary imprisonment, which for all practical purposes is what the Ecuadorean escapade is. Having experienced the rough edges of both the Australian and British criminal justice systems, his reticence at the prospect of becoming involved with the Swedish, never mind the American, is perfectly understandable. After all, American law is there for him to manipulate, not for him to be manipulated by. Yet it should never be forgotten that all of this has happened as a result of actions he undertook voluntarily. Nobody forced him to start Wikileaks. Nobody forced him to publish classified material. Nobody forced him to adopt his outlandishly peripatetic lifestyle. He did it all by himself on account of views on the freedom of information which he holds very fiercely and to which he clings very tenaciously. There was no actual sacrifice involved in the constant moving. That was how he grew up, and he deemed that kind of lifestyle to be essential to what he was trying to achieve. There seems to have been no loss, no suffering attached to it. Other than his relationship with his natural father, Assange certainly never hints at any regret at the loss of a disrupted relationship, so one assumes there isn’t any. 

There are the usual repudiations of religion, although these must be read along with the language he uses to describe Bill Keller of the 'New York Times', a figure whom Assange seems to regard as Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate and the Sanhedrin all rolled into one. The language that Assange uses to describe what he perceives to have been his mistreatment at the hands of the 'New York Times' suggests very much that he regards it as having been some kind of secular Passion, and must be read to be believed; if I quoted him, you might think I was making it up. However, that is not the most surprising thing that I took away from the book. 

What really surprised me is that for all its faults as literature, and whatever it might say about its author, there can be no doubt that Julian Assange is a relatively significant figure in recent history. Although he might not have the last word concerning the freedom of information, including the freedom to share information, it can't be doubted that the materials he has put into the public domain have caused a very great deal of debate, and the asking of many searching questions. I had the book on loan from the library, having picked it straight from the shelf. I had it out for nearly the whole term of the loan, and within that time was able to renew the loan without any request for it having been made. 

That the memoirs of such a currently prominent figure, authorised or otherwise, should appear to have generated such disinterest so soon after their publication perhaps says more about us than it does about him; and leads me to think that there might be merit in his cause after all, if it would help force the public to engage with what's going on around them even a little more closely. 



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