A Spectre is haunting our conscience
Unlike typical outlaws, Julian Assange is loved by people of far left to ultra-right. Assange, encompasses all classical emotions in one. He is a perfect cocktail made out of irony, bravery, tragedy, comedy and darkness. I would be surprised if his story doesn’t end up in Hollywood. This could be a great story for Aaron Sorkin's magic pen. This pale, long haired, blue eyed poster boy of modern day freedom has been offering us choices in various shades of gray. The freedom that he offers is unknown and so is he. We are forced to take sides on a multitude of issues from free speech to sexual practices. As of now he is in a legal quagmire, while his supporters and opponents battle it out in cyberspace. England has a history being home to revolutionaries in exile.
The context in which he emerges will be incomplete if we avoid the historical figures he emulates, or rather the icons people perceive in him. “Revolutionaries in exile” who indulge in whistle blowing have its origin in 18th century. Many French “hacks” found refuge in England during 1760s. England became a haven for these people and they leaked juicy stories about French royalty by taking advantage of English freedoms. Except for a few, the rest were there for money and fame. It isn’t just Voltaire who made England their home for such activities, but also included London libelers like Theveneaus de Morande, Marquis de Pelleport. Even though the motives of libelers were questionable,their influence in heralding a social change is relevant. Their pen, though slanderous, unleashed a wave of stories which discredited the French regime. Their radical journalism textured with foul language and personal anecdotes paved way for future generations of revolutionary journalism and muckraking.
'Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.'-
The man who is on a mission to establish the truth of this world remains an elusive figure. All we have is a semi-fictional account of his early life. Many identify him as the famous hacker “Mendax” of the Australian underground. The story of Mendax became popular after the release of Suelette Dreyfus’s Underground, a historical fiction which Assange helped to write. Mendax is a prominent character in Underground. Another prominent character, Parmaster is portrayed as a fugitive on the run, evading the US Secret Service. Assange in his current capacity as a paranoid fugitive is doing a real life emulation of Paramaster. Mendax used to swim in the telnet networks and is known for his adventures with Nortel. Many identify him as the brain behind the worm “WANK”(Worms against Nuclear killers) which attacked NASA’s Galileo program. The worm is named after a “midnight oil” song. It won’t surprise many that Assange’s mother used to be a campaigner against nuclear bombs. The famous hacker manual “Phrack” still has an entry with the handle name “Mendax”, a certain document on IP spoofing. Like the rest of underground heroes, Mendax ended up in jail. This is where the fictional account fades and we see the emergence of real hero. He along with some former colleagues floated Wikileaks. Wikileaks rose to prominence after it revealed corruption in Kenya and played a pivotal role in the national election there. In a time, when people prefer opinion to news and narration to facts, Assange’s deep voice and Wikileaks’s deep database attempted a social engineering. (Mendax also had a deep voice, which he had used in his phreaking phone calls). Wikileaks followed their Kenyan story with a barrage of similar scoops which included hacked emails of Sarah Palin, internal documents of Kaputhing Bank of Iceland, video of Baghdad airstrike which killed 2 Reuters reporters to name some. The second major strike from Wikileaks occurred with the release of Iraq and Afghan war logs. Wikileaks in partnership with liberal newspapers like NY times, London guardian and der Spiegel released tons of documents related to US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On September 28th, Wikileaks struck again with the much awaited cable release. A US soldier named Bradley Manning is accused of leaking these cables and faces upto i 56 years in prison. These cables comprised of a total of 251,287 diplomatic cables that were sent by United States embassies, consulates and outposts around the world to the State Department in Washington. What followed was not just a diplomatic stalemate, but also an endless feed of comedy.
The leaked diplomatic cables offered a great insight into international relationships and the way the world is viewed from America. But the surprise element from it was more than political; it told us about the weird landscape of global politics. These cables described Dagestan weddings, football passions of Burmese dictators, a top dog in Moscow,an Ukrainian nurse in Libya, editorial independence of Al-Jazeera, night parties in Saudi, a mad man from Italy and about a wild cat in Berlin. It confirmed the fears of many that the current British parliament is led by some windbags. It busted the myth of global political Islam by telling us about the warmongering sheiks of Middle East. The implications of these leaked cables are profound, and it will continue to influence future bilateral relationships. The true beneficiaries of these leaks are still unknown, the current Israeli administration looks like a serious contender. What the world will learn from this affair is also important. The obvious mistake would be to attack the mad mullahs in Iran. This will kill the nascent struggle for democracy led by the brave students of Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz and Shiraz. And that would be nothing but a tragedy.
An element of tragedy that lurks in this whole affair is the person himself. Even Assange’s supporters like Birgitta Jónsdóttir are finding it difficult to defend him. Jónsdóttir is an old associate of both Assange and Wikileaks. In the post banking-recession politics of Iceland, she emerged as a campaigner for free speech. She dreamt of making Iceland a haven for free speech. A serious collateral damage of this cable release could be the end of that dream. The phrase “collateral damage” itself has acquired a denkverbot status after the release of what was called Iraq war logs. But the biggest tragedy of this affair could be the unsung probable-hero, Bradley Manning. The chance of he being released from his limbo is almost nil. Like many, I hope that he will be remembered as someone who has brought some change to the way politics is done. And, not as someone who helped us in understanding Dagestan weddings.
Assange and Wikileaks are giving the western liberal democracy, a taste of its much beloved irony. Last October the entire western political sphere joined Norwegian parliament in celebrating freedom by awarding Liu Xiaobo, a famous Chinese dissident, with a Nobel Prize. It took only 2 months for these same governments to reconsider its commitments towards freedom of speech. Now the zeitgeist has swung back to questions like, how much freedom we all need. Or rather, how much truth we all need? The same irony was fractalised to a micro level when Assange debated David Aaronovitch in London. The famous once-a-eurocommunist Aaronovitch was arguing for limits of transparency.In US, the Democrats who flaunted the recommendations of Vinton Cerf for their Net neutrality is calling for greater regulations. But the weirdest gangs to attend this party are the corporate giants like Amazon, PayPal, Swiss bank, Visa and MasterCard. These self appointed moral police on patrol blocked all transactions related to Wikileaks. A former “Wall Street Quant” Emmanuel Derman correctly points out, “Some of these banks have only recently paid large fines for their drug money laundering, have likely taken deposits from dictators all over the world, and now suddenly they are getting on their high horses about Wikileaks before they're proven guilty of anything”.
The reaction to this whole quagmire ranges from interesting to weird. The obvious dicks are the morons from international diplomacy. They promised to go on strike, saying, that they won’t indulge in any objective analysis, for fear of future leaks. This argument is frivolous by definition, why would we need diplomats if they can’t do an objective analysis. Then we have the Luddite journos who fear that US will encrypt future messages in some da Vinci code which would need a Robert Langdon to solve. I think it is our job to enlighten such simpleton journos that Bradley Manning is alleged to have lifted these cables from SIPRNet, a Secret Internet Protocol Router Network. The question is not whether Wikileaks is illegal, but the ways in which Wikileaks can be used to improve transparency. We, people of left, shouldn’t fall for the obvious trap of hero worshipping Assange. But we should commit ourselves to defending Wikileaks and similar endeavors which will help us in political landscaping. The future belongs to leakers. The next wave of investigative journalism will come from techgurus like Assange. We may miss the elegance of George Orwell, but we should find a way to live in a world of Assanges. It was heartening to see the support for Wikileaks from media thinkers who were present at LeWeb’10. Let us join Pierre Chappaz of Wikio in his optimism about future… “Despite all ……. I’m optimistic that the information will survive.”