I greatly enjoyed Andrew O’Hagan’s account of his time with Julian Assange

Writing in the London Review of Books, O’Hagan tells the story of being brought in to ghostwrite the autobiography of Julian Assange only to have Assange waylay the book at every turn. It is a frustrating portrait of a man whose work hinted at a revolution in open information only to turn out to be a closed and manipulative person himself. These flaws, we would be willing to accept and forgive, if only Assange were self-aware.

The first draft of the book was eventually released by the publishers as Julian Assange – The Unauthorised Autobiography. O’Hagan’s piece for the LRB is conversational and gripping. He does what Assange is unwilling to do: open up and tell the actual story. There are penetrating turns of phrase about Assange’s character that cut to the heart of the issue. Like this sentence:

But he manages people so poorly, and is such a slave to what he’s not good at, that he forgets he might be making bombs set to explode in his own face.

“Such a slave to what he’s not good at” just kills me. It’s such a cutting description of many “leaders” I’ve observed. And through O’Hagan’s description, Assange resembles quite a few of those “geniuses” who run roughshod over civilized people who want to do good work.

Even if you were the most radical dude on campus, there was always some tight hippie ready to tell you you were bourgeois for liking, say, Earl Grey tea or for reading Anthony Powell. In that same vein, Julian scorns all attempts at social graces. He eats like a pig. He marches through doors and leaves women in his wake. He talks over everybody. And all his life he has depended on being the impish one, the eccentric one, the boy with a bag full of Einstein who liked climbing trees. But, as a forty-year-old, that’s less charming, and I found his egotism at the dinner table to be a form of madness more striking than anything he said.

I’d read Heather Brooke’s Assange Agonistes a couple of years ago and found it similarly compelling in its portrayal of a deeply flawed character leading a revolution for openness. Likewise, I was moved nearly to tears watching We Steal Secrets in a theater because at its heart, it is a film about broken characters doing incredibly brave and stupid things. In it, you can see Assange go from homeless radical — uncomfortable and unprepared for the spotlight — to egotistical rock star. Who wouldn’t succumb to that attention and pressure? Especially an introverted hacker. More heartbreaking, in the film, Assange is only one of the troubled characters in the story.

I also just finished reading Andy Greenberg’s This Machine Kills Secrets which gives an amazing history of hackers, cypherpunks, and leaking as well as gives a personality to many of the screen names in the movement. Greenberg paints portraits similar to Brooke’s and O’Hagan’s of imperfect men and women struggling against powerful and dispassionate bureaucracies.

This is what I take away from all of these accounts: that we are all flawed individuals doesn’t make what we say less true or meaningful. The benefit governments and organizations have in this struggle is that they’ve already dehumanized and subjugated the cogs in their machines. They are either just or unjust but not as complicated as individual human beings.

That is, of course, what makes us powerful as individuals. We can be self-aware. We can learn. Institutions can’t. And that’s why we should open them up as much as possible. So we can learn what is going on and dismantle the flawed systems.

We cannot apply compassion to institutions but we can to these individuals. Not everything they do or say will be heroic or even decent. But we can evaluate their work without judging their characters.