Andrew O’Hagan spent much of the first half of 2011 with Julian Assange. He’d been hired by Canongate in the UK and Knopf in the US to ghostwrite a memoir/manifesto they’d bought the rights to for about US$2.5 million in total.
It didn’t work out and the publishers finally put out an unauthorised version of O’Hagan’s draft in September that year.
Now, O’Hagan has finally published his “fly on the wall” account of those months in a long piece in the LRB. For all of his undoubted brilliance and courage, Assange doesn’t emerge well from the encounter. If O’Hagan’s right, he’s slowly unravelling under the pressure of inner demons and the astonishing whirlwind he created through Wikileaks.
It’s a fascinating, troubling, sad tale, both for Assange personally and for what might have been had he possessed greater maturity and wisdom. Thankfully, the revolution he helped set in motion doesn’t rely on him.
Snowden was everywhere in the news the last time I decided to drop in on Julian after I’d been out in his neighbourhood. The embassy was quiet. I brought a couple of bottles of beer up from the street and we sat in the dark room. It was a Friday night and Julian had never seemed more alone. We laughed a lot and then he went very deeply into himself. He drank his beer and then lifted mine and drank that. ‘We’ve got some really historic things going on,’ he said. Then he opened his laptop and the blue screen lit his face and he hardly noticed me leaving.
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Postscript: An almost casual aside well into the piece helps illustrate the bizarro world quality of Assange’s life and his remarkable capabilities:
At the time of the Egyptian uprising, Mubarak tried to close down the country’s mobile phone network, a service that came through Canada. Julian and his gang hacked into Nortel and fought against Mubarak’s official hackers to reverse the process. The revolution continued and Julian was satisfied, sitting back in our remote kitchen eating chocolates.
That is why I didn’t walk out. The story was just too large. What Julian lacked in efficiency or professionalism he made up for in courage. What he lacked in carefulness he made up for in impact.
Colin Robinson, who co-published Cypherpunks, Assange’s most recent book, came to his defence in a recent article in the Guardian.
O’Hagan portrays Assange as a Walter Mitty-like fantasist whose absorption with grand and unrealisable schemes prevents him from ever achieving anything practical. Yet this is someone who can number among his achievements the founding of WikiLeaks, the publication of the Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, and the smuggling of Edward Snowden to safety. During the time that O’Hagan writes about, Assange was managing the ongoing Cablegate releases, preparing for his own extradition hearings and a US grand jury investigation, and assembling the Guantanamo documents from Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning that would appear in April 2011.
I have direct experience of Assange’s ability to get things done. The publication of Cypherpunks at the beginning of 2012 involved an intensive editorial and promotional effort by its author. The book is based on substantially edited transcripts of conversations led by Assange and including fellow internet theorist/activists Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maghun and Jérémie Zimmermann. Melding these various inputs required close attention to detail and diplomatic flexibility. When it came to promotion, media interviews were agreed to with little fuss; a video parody of Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Hitler in Downfall was quickly assembled for use as a book trailer; and an op-ed for the New York Times was delivered to a tight deadline, the editorial process smooth and consensual.