Sunday, December 26, 2010

Babylonian of the Year: Julian Assange

By now, most people are aware of "whistleblower" Julian Assange and Wikileaks; he was even the runner-up to be Time magazine's Person of the Year (losing out to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg). Assange may not have met Time's criteria, he certainly meets ours; no one else this year so clearly illustrates the division in the cultural landscape of values that makes one a hero and a villain at the same time. Free speech advocate or terrorist? Capitalist or socialist? Libertarian or anarchist? Assange's actions have divided everyone, and has earned him entry into the company of such "criminal" outlaw-heroes like Robin Hood or the heroine of The Legend of Billy Jean ("Fair is Fair!"). It's not simply a question of whether he's seen as a hero or villain, either; many people who disapprove of Assange the man approve of the idea of Wikileaks and the act of "leaking" itself as heroic...

Headlines such as Democracy Now's "Is Assange a Hero?" prove the Babylonian theme for us; depending on where one's values are usually answers the question. But in this case...with so many different factions over the matter...Going strictly by etymology, a hero is a "protector" or "defender." But to know what he is claiming to "protect" or "defend," we'd have to know more about the man and his values and beliefs. That, however, has been the sticky wicket; for someone who fights for transparency, not a lot is know about that aspect of him. His political views seem, to me, an eclectic hodgepodge and his words about freedom and ethics seem to be "floating abstractions":
... I have mixed attitudes towards capitalism, but I love markets. Having lived and worked in many countries, I can see the tremendous vibrancy in, say, the Malaysian telecom sector compared to U.S. sector. In the U.S. everything is vertically integrated and sewn up, so you don’t have a free market. In Malaysia, you have a broad spectrum of players, and you can see the benefits for all as a result.
He also is considered an anarchist, a crypto-anarchist, and who knows what other labels...
It's not correct to put me in any one philosophical or economic camp, because I've learned from many. But one is American libertarianism, market libertarianism. So as far as markets are concerned I'm a libertarian, but I have enough expertise in politics and history to understand that a free market ends up as monopoly unless you force them to be free....WikiLeaks is designed to make capitalism more free and ethical.

He may not be openly communist, but based on the above, he's no "radical for capitalism", either...

So, with that kind of contradictory philosophical base, it came to me as no surprise when, upon being granted release on bail, Assange had requested that his address be kept "private." This one act alone put his status as hero into question; for his defenders, it is a practical, tactical maneuver, while for his detractors, for an advocate of transparency to make this request could only be seen as hypocrisy. (For the record: while I don't approve of the emphasis on "self-sacrifice" usually associated with heroism, in this case, I do question this supposed hero's integrity,given the particular cause...)

Whatever his true character, he has certainly divided not just a nation, but the world, demonstrating that the language of heroism has many tongues. And that makes Assange the "Babylonian" of the Year.