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What is Julian Assange?

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What is Julian Assange?

  • WikiLeaks' Julian Assange (on screen) and Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (right), June 2010.
    jdlasica/FlickrWikiLeaks' Julian Assange (on screen) and Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg (right), June 2010.

What is Julian Assange?

We know who he is - he's the guy who posted thousands of confidential U.S. diplomatic cables on the Internet.

But what does that make him?

He's not a journalist.

Journalists do not dump thousands of unedited documents onto a website, with little or no comment, and call it a day. That's not journalism. 

Plenty of other stuff that passes as journalism today is not journalism either, but that's not our concern at the moment. Julian Assange is not a journalist.

He's not a traitor.

Assange is a citizen of Australia, so he cannot "betray" the United States, any more than Sen. Mitch McConnell could betray Russia. So Assange is not a traitor.

He may be an enemy of the United States, but he's not a terrorist or a spy.

Spies do not ferret out secret information and reveal it to all the world. They ferret out secret information and reveal it to their government, or to their spymasters. 

Assange didn't do that. He stuck his shovel into the ground, turned up a fistful of worms and maggots, and showed them to the world. That may be a dangerous thing to do; it may be irresponsible; it may be reprehensible; it probably is all of that - but it's not espionage.

Congressman Peter King, Republican of New York, who will become chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee in January, wants Assange prosecuted under the Espionage Act, and he wants Assange's organization, Wikileaks, declared a terrorist organization. And Senator Joe Lieberman, a nominal independent who represents the district of Joe Lieberman, wants The New York Times prosecuted as well.

That's bullshit, of course. I use "bullshit" in its precise, philosophical sense, as explicated by Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt, in his bestselling book, "On Bullshit." A bullshitter is not exactly a liar. A bullshitter doesn't care whether his statement is true or not. He just throws it out there. It's just bullshit.

Peter King and Joe Lieberman, like so many Republicans, get excited by the words "terrorism" and "homeland security." Whether it's a sexual excitement I couldn't tell you, though I suspect it is. But their charges are bullshit.

Assange's actions were directed at the U.S. government, which is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assange's actions were not violent, though they might provoke violence. But terrorism is violence perpetrated upon innocent civilians. Violence directed at a country at war, and at its army, is not terrorism. It's just fighting back.

Assange's first document dump did endanger innocent civilians - the Afghan and Iraqi informants named in the documents who helped the United States. That was a stupid and dangerous thing for Assange to do. He appears to have done it because he doesn't know much about journalism. 

To Assange's credit, he tried not to repeat the mistake in his second, most recent, document dump. He says he even asked the Pentagon to help him edit the documents, though the Pentagon, quite reasonably, refused. So Assange learns from his mistakes. Would that the U.S. government learned from its mistakes as well as Assange does.

So if Assange is not a journalist, or a traitor, or a spy, or a terrorist, what is he?

He surrendered to arrest in London on Tuesday, on an international warrant from Sweden, which wants to question him about the manner in which he had sex with two women in that country. According to The New York Times, the women said they willingly had sex with Assange, but the sex became nonconsensual when he stopped using a condom.

That's certainly rude, to say the least, and worse than rude. Yet I wonder if any nation in the world has ever agreed to arrest and imprison and try to extradite a person for such a thing, or if Interpol has ever issued an international arrest warrant for it. I have no idea how to research that question, but off the top of my head, I'd give a million to one odds against it. So even if the two women's allegations are true, I don't believe Assange is a sex criminal, as we generally think of such things.

What is Julian Assange?

I think he's a performance artist.

He's an artist in the same way Henry Ford was. Someone - I believe it was Marcel Duchamp - said Henry Ford was the greatest artist of the 20th century, because he changed the way the world looked more than anyone else had.

Assange has done that through his document dumps. Whatever Assange is, look at what he's done to the world. He knocked governments around the world for a loop and we are all watching as they reassemble themselves. It's performance art, and the whole world is involved.

The best comment on this whole fascinating fiasco was made by Italian novelist Umberto Eco. He said this week that the U.S. government, which spies upon everyone, including its own citizens, is so upset because Assange demonstrated that people can spy back.

More by Robert Kahn

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