Sunday, December 12

wikileaks and the cult of personality

I thought I was done. I thought that I said everything I wanted to say about this subject on Tuesday, but I guess not. Maybe today I can finish exorcising it.

I gave a whole paragraph on Tuesday to the concept of the cult of personality dynamic that is interfering so effectively with the larger, international political story. It wasn’t enough. I was influenced by my wish that, in spite of the side shows, the only thing we’d should stay focused on was the leaks. Not so much the content, but the overarching theme extant within them. The big picture.

So I said what I wanted to, for the most part, about that big picture story, the one that includes revelations regarding our leaders in public office and the undue obligation they seem to feel to preserving their own power and serving corporate interests. But I mentioned the cult of personality concept and, when the dust settled, I felt there was more to say about that. More to say about the concept of cult of personality, and more to say about how it specifically affects this story, with all of its high ideals and low behavior, not to mention the possibility of rape and coercion.

It’s hard to do that, stay focused on the big picture, especially when there's just so much information to process. There’s some major information overload happening on this topic, and so many story threads that it’s difficult at best to keep anything straight.

I’ve tried very hard, with lesser and greater degrees of success at times, to keep Julian Assange separate from the Afghan/Iraq/Cable leaks because I don’t think I believe in heroes. Just in general, there aren’t many individual people that can both be truly marvelous and aspire to the kind of notoriety that Assange aspires to. So I’m distrustful as a default position.

I was still disappointed when the allegations against Assange were made public this summer. There’s always a hope that somebody will live up to their own hype, right? It was clear fairly early though that Assange was just a human. Divisions within Wikileaks, narcissistic statements to the press, and then the accusations and the ongoing investigation; Assange was definitely just human, and maybe worse. If you haven’t heard what the allegations specifically are, this is from The Swedish Wire:

“The court heard Assange is accused of using his body weight to hold her down in a sexual manner. The second charge alleged Assange "sexually molested" Miss A by having sex with her without a condom when it was her "express wish" one should be used. The third charge claimed Assange "deliberately molested" Miss A on August 18 "in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity". The fourth charge accused Assange of having sex with a second woman, Miss W, on August 17 without a condom while she was asleep at her Stockholm home.”

To be clear, in spite of the arrest warrant and Assange’s remand in the UK pending extradition hearings, these are still technically allegations only. No charges have been laid and Assange is wanted back in Sweden for questioning as part of the investigation. But they are really serious allegations.

As I mentioned on Tuesday, Assange and his lawyers suggest that the allegations are part of a smear campaign, and Assange has unequivocally denied any wrongdoing. And the specifics regarding how the investigation was started, then some charges dropped, the reinstated, and leaked to the press… it’s all very convoluted. And that’s only half of the story.

On the other side of the allegations are two women who brought the issue to the police. There are a endless theories drifting around the web regarding the reasons they spoke to the police. But they’re all theories, and theories and speculation in a rape case are just the wrong way to go.

It was not so long ago that not making criminals of victims, especially in a sexual abuse case, was held up as a pretty high ideal. Outside of this case, it still is (I hope). But inside it, suddenly it’s become okay to vilify the women who made the accusations and assume that they were either part of a giant intergovernmental conspiracy, or that their motives were purely personal and vengeful. Assuming that these women did anything but go to the police to express the perception that they were wronged and seek assistance in that regard is as unfair to them as it is to assume Assange’s guilt.

Let me say that again: Assuming nefarious intent on the part of the accusers is as wrong as assuming that the accused is guilty.

Some of my online friends have been very right in pointing out that fact, and also that we’ve been working really hard and for a long time as a society to change the mentality that victimizes victims twice. The vilification of Assange's accusers is a step backwards. My friends also rightly point out that progressive journalists and writers have been too quick to vilify the accusers in this case in the rush to defend Assange. I think that, to some degree, I'm guilty of that too and I have to own that.

That doesn’t mean that there are still lots of questions that deserve to be answered. The first one, though, needs to be whether or not there’s enough evidence for charges to be laid. If there is there will be the question, to be decided in a court of law, regarding guilt or innocence. If there isn't there may be other questions regarding motives, but it’s way too early for that. And either way, I think that there are questions to be asked regarding the actions and decisions regarding how the case has been handled by Swedish prosecutors. 

Regardless, I have limited hope that many of them ever will be answered. That seems to be how our world works, and it’s part of why I think what Wikileaks is doing is important.

I need to be really specific on that subject too. I believe that what Wikileaks is doing is important. Not Wikileaks itself. What they’re doing. Wikileaks is an organization that has taken collating, vetting and clearing whistleblowers’ leaks to the next level, but they weren’t the first. They most definitely won’t be the last. But they’ve raised the bar and changed the landscape, I believe, for the better.

I don’t believe this because I think that government should be utterly transparent, that every last bit of state craft should be completed in the public eye, but rather that it should be more transparent than it is. I believe that there is so much secrecy in this War on Terror world that it has become difficult, if not near impossible to trust our governments. Many people, including me, are left with a giant vacuum of trust where our faith should be. We don’t trust that our politicians are making decisions with anything like good intentions in mind.

I think that this kind of peak behind the curtain has a purpose: It can make us aware of the selfish, arrogant hubris with which our leaders conduct their affairs, driving home the point that we have to be far more active in governing our governors. It also reminds those in power that they aren’t immune or inviolate; that they are in power by the grace of our votes and will, and that they govern as extensions of the body politic. They exist to serve us. They need to be humble, and nowadays that means that they often need to be humbled.

And that’s why what Wikileaks is doing is important, or at least part of it.

But Wikileaks itself will become an institution in time. Perhaps, in some ways, it already has. Institutions often come into being because of a valid and righteous need. Somebody, or some group, sees the need and meets it. And then, over time, that organization, that movement, begins to be as interested in growing or preserving its own existence as much as staying true to the values and need that brought about its existence. And then it’s an institution, just as susceptible to corruption and hubris as any other institution.

At that point, the institution becomes as much a part of the problem as it is or was part of any solution.

I worry that this has happened, or did happen, to Julian Assange at some point. I see signs that he began to think he was more important than the idea, or the group effort. I worry that he made an institution of himself. I worry that he felt himself above others and above the rules that others have to abide by. I think that, whether there are charges brought against him or not, whether charges result in a guilty verdict or not, he was too casual and disrespectful in the way he treated those women in the summer. I think he started to believe his own press.

Fame and celebrity is a dangerous thing in this day and age. We’re vain creatures, we humans. I remember reading that the brain waves of our pets change dramatically when we pet them, approaching an alpha state, they are so euphoric at that touch, that attention. Fame can do that to us, I think. It certainly appears that way when I watch the behavior of the famous, purring under the spotlight, oblivious to the consequences of their actions or robbed of all common sense.

Julian Assange strikes me as, potentially, such a person. I worry that he was so caught up in doing something good, for good reasons, and became so obsessive about it that he lost sight of who he was and started to believe the newspapers and the fans more than the mirror he looked at every morning. I worry that he thought he could be careless with the lives around him and that it was okay to do so.

So, to be clear, I’m not a fan of Julian Assange. I think his ego pollutes what he’s trying to do. I think that he let his own desire to be front and center get in the way of something remarkable, and now it’s harder and harder to remove the one story from the other. I think that his apparent rock star belief that he could or should use his celebrity to be player was horribly misguided and kind of pathetic.

I’m not a fan of Wikileaks either, in and of itself, but I appreciate what they are doing. I think it’s important for this time and place. I’m not assuming Assange’s guilt or innocence, but I question whether he, or any one person, should be the ‘face’ of anything as big as Wikileaks. Giant, potentially world-changing ideas deserve better than one, frail human face.

I believe that criminal investigations and charges of rape should be treated seriously, all involved given their due respect until the investigation is completed and, if required, courts can render a verdict. Until that happens, all involved should be given the benefit of the doubt, treated as innocent until proven guilty, including and especially the alleged victims of abuse.

I believe that, if possible, when accusations against a person blur the line between personal behavior and the political actions of a group, when they muddy the water, we should try our hardest to separate the two issues and not conflate one with the other.

And I believe that I really hope that’s all I feel the need to say about this.