Julian Assange & the Face of Placelessness

by Katherine Dalton on December 20, 2010 · 18 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power

JPGWiki

Louisville, Ky. As the editors at Time pondered who would be given the honor of Man of the Year, perhaps the Swedish sexual assault complaint against Julian Assange tipped the scales in favor of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.  But there is one title Mr. Assange has earned this year without fear of any competition.  Hands down he wins the contest for the Man Without A Place.

He is Australian, of course, as his mother is.  But it is part of his past, his myth-in-the-making, and–till his recent appearance in British court–his occupational necessity that he does not live anywhere.  As a child he moved dozens and dozens of times, and lived in hiding from a stepfather for five years.  As an adult the arc of his travels has only widened, and though he remains an Australian citizen, earlier this fall he sought legal residency in Sweden (rejected, though now Sweden wants him on different terms).  In early November Mr. Assange told a European television station he was hoping for political asylum in Switzerland, though his British lawyer now denies any plans to do so.  In late November Ecuador’s deputy foreign minister offered to welcome him there, an offer quickly rescinded by President Rafael Correa.  As for his home country, in Australia Attorney General Robert McClelland briefly considered cancelling Mr. Assange’s passport, before deciding he would be easier to track with it.

In British court for a hearing on the Swedish extradition request, Mr. Assange was asked for his permanent address.  He gave a post office box.  That reply is both typical of a man who believes rules should never apply to him, and likely true; he has had (as far as we know) no regular residence for a good while now.  He even travels mysteriously.  We may have to wait for his biography to discover how he got into Britain this fall; the lawyer representing Sweden in court noted that the U.K. has no record of Mr. Assange’s entry.

Mr. Assange worked on the Apache helicopter video (which showed the killing by American soldiers of several people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists) in Iceland, holed up in a house under the pretext of observing the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull.  He has worked similiarly in other countries, and he told the New Yorker that he once spent two months in a room in Paris without once leaving it.  His colleagues simply fed him where he sat.  Admire him or despise him, Mr. Assange has reached a point in which his purpose has made him watched enough and paranoid enough and driven enough that any particular place on this Earth is only a place to hide and work, not a place to live.

But if he is uprooted he is not unplugged, and it seems he has spent enough of his life tied to a computer to be hobbled without it.  In jail in Britain he asked to be given one to use in part because he has trouble writing by hand.  As a poster boy for the technological paraplegic, he could hardly be bettered.

Perhaps, for Mr. Assange, the victims of injustice had faces once.  But listening to what he says today it appears that his love of justice is far larger than the love of any individual country or person.  It is an abstraction, and justice in the abstract is an inhuman thing.  It is the letter without the Word.  And I say that because whatever you think about the ideal of transparency in government, or the morality of leaking classified documents, the volume of what WikiLeaks is releasing to the world has made carefulness impossible.  That means at some point it will be the people of WikiLeaks who create a victim.

Mr. Assange realizes this, as the New Yorker profile makes clear.  When reporter Raffi Khatchadourian asked Mr. Assange about the morality of releasing the Social Security numbers of certain individual soliders, enabling them to be identified, Mr. Assange replied “that some leaks risked harming innocent people–’collateral damage, if you will’–but that he could not weigh the importance of every detail in every document.”  From a man who titled his edited version of the Apache video “Collateral Murder,” that is quite a thing to say.

This is an ugly business, and there is plenty of ugliness on all sides.  Those American commentators who are calling to have Mr. Assange neutralized, garrotted or otherwise assassinated are hurting their country fully as much as Mr. Assange’s revelations are.  But Mr. Assange reminds me a bit of John Brown, who a hundred and fifty years after his death also remains a hero to many.  Brown, too, had a cause that was much larger than any individual.  And so it was inevitable, perhaps, that the first victim of the raid on Harper’s Ferry was a free black man.  His name was Hayward Shepherd, but we don’t remember that today.  We just call him Collateral Damage.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Crwiley62 December 20, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Intriguing — is Assange simply the logical outcome of modernity? I must work to stay committed to my place. I hear the call to flight constantly because it is a real option for me. I’m sitting here in Connecticut on a cold gray morning and I know there are a dozen other places I’d rather be — and could be. In ways I envy those without the choices I have — in other ways I don’t for obvious reasons.

avatar Samuel December 20, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Bravo, Katherine! I didn’t imagine such a thoughtful commentary on this mis-construed controversy was possible.

avatar Gene Callahan December 20, 2010 at 1:13 pm

“the volume of what WikiLeaks is releasing to the world has made carefulness impossible.”

WikiLeaks has only released about 1/2 of 1% of the documents it has — the same as the newspapers. The notion they are “indiscriminately” dumping documents is a lie.

avatar Russell Arben Fox December 20, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Brilliant essay, Katherine–one of your very best ever. You final lines (“Mr. Assange reminds me a bit of John Brown, who a hundred and fifty years after his death also remains a hero to many. Brown, too, had a cause that was much larger than any individual. And so it was inevitable, perhaps, that the first victim of the raid on Harper’s Ferry was a free black man. His name was Hayward Shepherd, but we don’t remember that today. We just call him Collateral Damage.”) bring–or at least brought to me, anyway–an astonishing clarity to the whole sorry, passionate mess. On the one hand, crude state-defenders, apologists for violence striking violent poses themselves, who at least have the virtue of defending a place. On the other hand, unthinking celebrants of chaos and confusion, who admittedly, and rightly, find in the wake of Wikileaks revelations a blow in favor of the individual person and their ability to govern themselves. In between is the sad fact: a man, and a scandal, made possible by cosmopolitan rootlessness, nothing more and nothing less. Bravo and bravo!

avatar Artie December 20, 2010 at 2:45 pm

I’m a little surprised that someone like Assange with his Wikileaks hasn’t shown up sooner. It was inevitable. After 9-11, we had the neocon spooks in the Bush administration putting together The Office of Information Awareness, an outfit charged with achieving Total Information Awareness – the ability to tap into the electronic communications of anyone, anywhere, anytime and store all the data. After the outpouring of moral outrage, the OIA was officially disbanded and defunded, but it is pretty clear that the US intelligence community continues these same kinds of activities under different names and auspices.

Wikileaks is the inevitable outcome of global, digital media and nationalist hubris , the “oh, yeah?” response to TIA. One aspect that’s missing in the ongoing Wikileaks analysis is the probability that the State Department not only knew full well that these documents were going to be “leaked,” but that the documents were planted there to be found and leaked, and the whole sordid affair is just an excuse to ramp up the global electronic spy operation even further.

avatar Peter Haworth December 20, 2010 at 6:41 pm

With respect to your concern about Assange’s wild-eyed ideological motivations, your criticism is quite appropriate. Nevertheless, Assange’s function in checking the growing, centralizing power of the nation-state still seems valuable. I am not condoning his recklessness toward innocents who are damaged by his information, but I am admiring a his pluck for taking on powers that tempt most to cowardice.

I also have another concern about your piece. Although “place” is extremely important and a value worth advocating (as I do), is it not conceivable that one’s place also can become uninhabitable in our day of centralizing power and advanced “policing” technology? One facet of the historical Anglo-American tradition is the principle that sometimes encroachments upon valuable human liberty merit invoking the ultimate check on governmental authority: exodus, a.k.a. “voting with one’s feet.” Although I don’t advocate the “citizen of the world” approach of Assange or Thomas Paine, I do see value in determining a limit on political centralization and “advanced” policing by identifying the point at which one’s home becomes uninhabitable due to the encroachments of government, which as Madison noted in Federalist 48 can be an “impetuous vortex.”

avatar Samuel December 20, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Mr. Hayworth,
You raise some good points here, but I wonder whether they take into account the probable fact that the character of Assange’s expositions will do nothing to hamper or hinder America’s militaristic ambitions? If anything, it seems the whole ordeal will simply provide the State Department with yet further reason to expand global information control. In regards to the latter, the previous poster makes the good point that there is significant reason to believe the U.S. anticipated this event just as it anticipated something like 9/11 would happen, justifying an intensification of direct intervention in the Middle East. This isn’t to mention the simple fact that much of what has been released will serve to further entrench existing enmities without drawing the conflict any nearer to its end.

avatar Samuel December 20, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Mr. Hayworth,
You raise some good points here, but I wonder whether they take into account the probable fact that the character of Assange’s expositions will do nothing to hamper or hinder America’s militaristic ambitions? If anything, it seems the whole ordeal will simply provide the State Department with yet further reason to expand global information control. In regards to the latter, the previous poster makes the good point that there is significant reason to believe the U.S. anticipated this event just as it anticipated something like 9/11 would happen, justifying an intensification of direct intervention in the Middle East. This isn’t to mention the simple fact that much of what has been released will serve to further entrench existing enmities without drawing the conflict any nearer to its end.

avatar Lincoln Hunter December 20, 2010 at 9:59 pm

What arrows remain in the quiver of the world’s saintly to disparage the character, personality and life of Julian Assange?
His pallor, his hair, his visage, and now his placelessness.
Well, that fares better for him than the calls for execution, or assassination, or life in prison. It is certainly better than to call him a terrorist, to label Wikileaks a terrorist organization, or that he should be charged with espionage or treason. This opens him up to rendition, enhanced interrogation and a long vacation at Club Gitmo.
But the most annoying part of this critique by Ms Dalton is the ‘quote’ cited in the second sentence of the next to last paragraph.
Here is what Mr. Khatchadourian wrote in the New Yorker: “Assange does not recognize the limits that traditional publishers do. Recently, he posted military documents that included the Social Security numbers of soldiers, and in the Bunker I asked him if Wikileaks’ mission would have been compromised if he had redacted these small bits. He said that some leaks risked harming innocent people – “collateral damage, if you will” but that he could not weigh the importance of every detail in every document. Perhaps the Social Security numbers would one day be important to researchers investigation wrongdoing, he said; by releasing the information he would allow judgment to occur in the open.
Notice, please that Assange did “say”. Khatchadourian tells us he said it and only quotes Assange as saying ‘collateral damage, if you will’.
Why not quote the entire sentence containing that phrase? Because this is a hatchet job.
Ms Dalton goes even deeper with the knife when she attributes Khatchadourian’s statement to Assange.
You may succeed in killing the messenger with this kind of reporting. The Christian version of the fatwa?

avatar Anonymous December 22, 2010 at 11:35 am

If we look to the news to find the 2010 “Man Without A Place,” wouldn’t it be fair to look to the news to find some who represents people who do have a place? Right now, it seems to me that the person demonstrating the strongest allegience to place and culture is probably… Haley Barbour. Love for place? For tradition? For local culture? Sticking your neck out to defend these things? Barbour has them in spades. See link below.

Some of the John Brown analogies will work, too, with a little tweaking. Some other edits:

“But if Barbour is rooted he is not plugged, and it seems he has spent enough of his life tied to local myths and legends to be hobbled without them. On the campaign trail during an interview, he failed to use Google to do rudimentary research about an exerable local organization before praising it. As a poster boy for the place-based paraplegic, he could hardly be bettered.”

And:

“Perhaps, for Mr. Barbour, the victims of injustice had faces once. But listening to what he says today it appears that his love of place is far larger than the love of any individual country or person.”

I don’t think this is fair to people who prefer a sense of place. But it’s no less fair than blaming Assange’s shortcomings on his placelessness. For those unfamiliar with Barbours recent comments about his local roots:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/12/barbour-mistakes-black-for-white/68328/

Talk about loyalty!

avatar D. W. Sabin December 22, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Extreme Secrecy and Spying begets its reaction and one wonders if the runt remains of the Fourth Estate were fulfilling it’s responsibilities, its part in the checks and balances, if we would see such a reaction come to fruition. It is entirely unsurprising that a large portion of the Fourth Estate has joined the chorus of condemnation of their “usurper” .

Typically, your essay raises important questions, the types of questions which accompany the relativistic ethics of an increasingly totalitarian age. I am reminded of Kissinger’s quote to the effect that the United States of America does not have friends, it only has interests.

avatar Seamus December 22, 2010 at 7:25 pm

To paraphrase Evelyn Waugh in Scoop, “Up to a point, Ms Dalton.” And that point would be where American solipsism ends and the rest of the world begins. At present US military spending is roughly half of what the rest of the world combined spends and it occupies “place” in roughly 700 worldwide installations. One wonders whether this might not represent some manifestation of a latent “cosmopolitan rootlessness” in the Yankee spirit. Regardless, one might regard as inevitable that some number of those affected by this American Sprawl would want to know just what the heck is going on between their corrupt officials and ours; in other words, just how much of their sovereignty is American cash buying. Assange is the man of the moment filling a need, but if it were not him, eventually it would have been somebody else. And finally, isn’t it really a bit much, almost hysterical, to infer a comparison between the careless release of social security numbers and the death of a free black man; I mean, considering that among Wikileaks revelations are such scandals as atrocious fire control practices by American helicopter gunners, buying off Yemeni strongmen so that we can drone Yemeni villages, confabing with Saudi royalty about doing their dirty business in Iran, etc. One wonders what the collateral outcome of those conspiracies might be.

avatar Samuel December 23, 2010 at 1:03 am

Seamus,
Everything you say is absolutely true. However, one thing to note here — and as of now I hold no firm footing on either side of the issue, though had you asked me a year ago I would have suggested differently — is that questions of moral equivocance are not substantial in a case like this. It doesn’t matter how unequivocal the comparisons are. On one end is an ethic of acceptable collateral, or an ends which justify, to a point, the means. On the other is an ethic upon which the ends never justify the means. Ms. Dalton, if I understand correctly, is suggesting that the ratiocination for America’s militaristic policy is not wrong simply on the matter of degree, but fundamentally. If Assange’s rationale shares to any degree the same ethic, it is equally wrong.

Whether one agrees with this or not, the point here is simply that Assange has no firm grasp of the meaning of justice. His campaign is reactionary but not ameliorative to the fundamental problem. He is not making blows merely at America’s military campaigns, for which I would be totally supportive. His strikes are too broad, and fail to target precisely the root of the issue. In so doing, there is the danger that innocent lives will continue to pay the ransom for those whose targets are too broad and too ill-defined.

avatar Samuel December 23, 2010 at 1:03 am

Seamus,
Everything you say is absolutely true. However, one thing to note here — and as of now I hold no firm footing on either side of the issue, though had you asked me a year ago I would have suggested differently — is that questions of moral equivocance are not substantial in a case like this. It doesn’t matter how unequivocal the comparisons are. On one end is an ethic of acceptable collateral, or an ends which justify, to a point, the means. On the other is an ethic upon which the ends never justify the means. Ms. Dalton, if I understand correctly, is suggesting that the ratiocination for America’s militaristic policy is not wrong simply on the matter of degree, but fundamentally. If Assange’s rationale shares to any degree the same ethic, it is equally wrong.

Whether one agrees with this or not, the point here is simply that Assange has no firm grasp of the meaning of justice. His campaign is reactionary but not ameliorative to the fundamental problem. He is not making blows merely at America’s military campaigns, for which I would be totally supportive. His strikes are too broad, and fail to target precisely the root of the issue. In so doing, there is the danger that innocent lives will continue to pay the ransom for those whose targets are too broad and too ill-defined.

avatar Samuel December 23, 2010 at 1:03 am

Seamus,
Everything you say is absolutely true. However, one thing to note here — and as of now I hold no firm footing on either side of the issue, though had you asked me a year ago I would have suggested differently — is that questions of moral equivocance are not substantial in a case like this. It doesn’t matter how unequivocal the comparisons are. On one end is an ethic of acceptable collateral, or an ends which justify, to a point, the means. On the other is an ethic upon which the ends never justify the means. Ms. Dalton, if I understand correctly, is suggesting that the ratiocination for America’s militaristic policy is not wrong simply on the matter of degree, but fundamentally. If Assange’s rationale shares to any degree the same ethic, it is equally wrong.

Whether one agrees with this or not, the point here is simply that Assange has no firm grasp of the meaning of justice. His campaign is reactionary but not ameliorative to the fundamental problem. He is not making blows merely at America’s military campaigns, for which I would be totally supportive. His strikes are too broad, and fail to target precisely the root of the issue. In so doing, there is the danger that innocent lives will continue to pay the ransom for those whose targets are too broad and too ill-defined.

avatar Artie December 23, 2010 at 11:15 am

In so doing, there is the danger that innocent lives will continue to pay the ransom for those whose targets are too broad and too ill-defined.”

Danger, no. Existential certainty, yes.

avatar Calhoun December 23, 2010 at 10:28 pm

Ms. Dalton’s essay is all well and good, if you ignore the facts. Here’s an editorial from Julian Assange explaining his actions.

http://www.ndtv.com/article/wikileaks%20revelations/editorial-written-by-julian-assange-in-i-the-australian-i-71185

“I grew up in a Queensland country town where people spoke their minds bluntly. They distrusted big government as something that could be corrupted if not watched carefully.”

“People have said I am anti-war: for the record, I am not. Sometimes nations need to go to war, and there are just wars. But there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about those wars, then asking these same citizens to put their lives and their taxes on the line for those lies. If a war is justified, then tell the truth and the people will decide whether to support it.”

“US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates admitted in a letter to the US congress that no sensitive intelligence sources or methods had been compromised by the Afghan war logs disclosure. The Pentagon stated there was no evidence the WikiLeaks reports had led to anyone being harmed in Afghanistan. NATO in Kabul told CNN it couldn’t find a single person who needed protecting. The Australian Department of Defence said the same. No Australian troops or sources have been hurt by anything we have published.”

Only 950 of 250,000 documents have been published. Those documents that were published were cross-checked for appropriateness with five major editorial boards. Assange offered the U.S. Embassy to check the documents for “inappropriate disclosure.” They declined.

Someone who mistrusts big government corruption and secrecy because of values learned from his hometown who, far from dumping all documents he has, makes sure to screen them so as not to harm soldiers or put people in harm’s way, who recognizes the necessity of war but not of wars conducted under false premises doesn’t sound like a tech-loving nihilist. Sounds more like a Porcher to me.

avatar Gene Mayes January 11, 2011 at 1:50 am

One’s government is not one’s country. I should think a Front Porcher would recognize that.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: