Julian Assange’s countercultural mission is having a hard time finding a home in a world without counterculture.
In 1971 Daniel Ellsberg leaked a top-secret internal government document about the Vietnam War known as The Pentagon Papers, which confirmed to the public for the first time what many people had long suspected: the US government had lied. While Lyndon Johnson had told the public he intended to deescalate the war effort, the Pentagon Papers revealed what he was actually doing: massively escalating and authorizing bombing missions into Cambodia and Laos.
Ellsberg risked jail time, assassination, being accused of treason—everything you can imagine, in order to expose the truth to the world. It was the first tangible evidence ever that the government had flat-out lied to the people. At the time it must have been hard to predict what the reaction to this kind of watershed moment would be.
Decades later, we don’t blame Ellsberg for telling the truth, we blame the government for being corrupt. We remember the Gulf Of Tonkin incident as a lie the government told, not as a good plan foiled by a leaky brat. Ellsberg was received as a hero, not a traitor.
But Ellsberg lived in a generation of hippies—a generation that valued integrity and the principle of truth—and Ellsberg’s revelation caught like wildfire.
Forty years later, Julian Assange steps onto the world stage with WikiLeaks as a twenty-first century Ellsberg. He’s nationless, garnering his information from the porous openings in the World Wide Web—an apt commentary on the modern world. And his operation leaks documents on a much larger scale than the 1,000 page Pentagon Papers. His revelations, including new information about the killings and torture in Iraq after Abu Ghraib, including 66,081 Iraqi civilian deaths, may be more shocking than those exposed by the Pentagon Papers. And yet all anyone seems to talk about is what a jerk the guy is.
The news about WikiLeaks is at least as focussed on the sexual assault allegations he faces in Sweden and whether his dominating personality is causing volunteers to defect as it is on the actual information his organization is revealing. Daniel Ellsberg tells the New York Times, “I’ve been waiting 40 years for someone to disclose information on a scale that might really make a difference.” But the world has changed. Whereas in Ellsberg’s time Assange’s revelations would have incited mass protests and indignant calls for accountability, now we find the substance of the leaks unsurprising and instead marvel at Assange himself, telling each other, “This guy is fucked.”
I’m not saying Julian Assange didn’t rape anyone in Sweden—if he did he should be locked up like every other rapist. But I am saying the motive to smear and discredit him is sky-high. Assange has acknowledged these relationships with his “fans” and insisted they were consensual. Given the intense motive to smear him, I think presuming him guilty of rape without some hard evidence to prove it would be foolish.
It seems quite likely that Assange has tangoed with some sexual indiscretions and it seems possible from volunteers’ stories that as a boss Assange is dominating, if not tyrannical. But that’s not the point. People don’t remember Martin Luther King, Jr. as a guy who cheated on his wife. It was a character flaw, sure, but King’s work and message found a home with a generation who were committed to social change.
Assange may be homeless right now, seeking asylum with any country who will have him—he was recently denied citizenship in Sweden, and the New York Times describes him as being literally on the run after a brief stint in Iceland. But Assange’s real alienation comes from his ideological homelessness.
40 years later David Ellsberg describes himself as feeling a “kinship” with Assange, but that kinship is not materializing on a broader scale. Assange’s leaks do not inspire marches on Washington or palpable protests of any kind. President Barack Obama, for all his campaign rhetoric of transparency and integrity, hasn’t praised Assange as a champion of truth, and in fact the Pentagon is hoping to silence him. Even foreign governments whose agendas aren’t complicated by hiding military secrets are hesitant to take him in.
Assange may have been born at the wrong time. It’s as if he’s force-feeding truth to a world that has no stomach for it. An ally of no one, an ideological nomad, it’ll be interesting to see how long Assange’s voice keeps leaking the truth. Historically, leading voices of opposition—from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X to John Lennon—seem to have a way of getting silenced sooner or later.