Editor-in-chief of the whistleblowing site Wikileaks, recipient of the Amnesty International Media Award (New Media), the 2008 Economist Index on Censorship Award, and founder of the child civil rights group Pickup. As of this writing (2010) in hot water over the leak of 91,000 pages of documents concerning the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, other scoops include the film "Collateral Murder", the Guantánamo Bay Operations Manual and a large number of documents relating to Scientology.

While many hackish folks try to cultivate adventurous hobbies, adventure seems to seek Assange out. Born sometime near 1971, in Townsville, Queensland, he spent his early years on a farm on Magnetic Island, in the Coral Sea, riding his horse, exploring caves, and generally living what he terms "a Tom Sawyer existence", homeschooled and tutored by professors from the local university. Although his name is Chinese, an Anglicization of Ah Sang, he is of Scots and Irish extraction: the name derives from where he was born.

When he was eight years old, his mother remarried, and gave him a brother, but his new father turned out to be not only abusive, but a member of a bizarre cult. Fearing for the safety of her children, at eleven Julian and his mother went into hiding, ultimately moving thirty-seven times. One of these addresses was over an electronics store where Julian hung out, learning BASIC on the eight-bit machines for sale.

Computing was a solace to him: austerely removed from his personal chaos, yet counter-cultural enough to appeal to his fierce drive for personal freedom. From making simple programs on a Commodore 64, he soon progressed to cracking favorite video games. With a modem, he took the name 'Mendax', and started the hacker gang Internationial Subversives.

At sixteen, he moved out of his mothers, to join a squatter's union, and in this community, he fell in love. He married in 1989 and soon fathered a son. In 1991, he hacked into Nortel, and fell afoul of an investigation called Project Weather. For awhile, he kept his disks hidden in a beehive he maintained, and in October, he was arrested, his wife fleeing with the infant. His criminal trial resulted, at long last, in the payment of a small fine, but custody of his child had been awarded to the boy's mother, who had taken up with a dangerous character. He and his mother were convinced that Health and Community Services had made a mistake, and worked towards an investigation of their practises. In 1999, a custody agreement was made, but by then, stress had caused his hair to become prematurely grey, and soon it was entirely white.

Assange was, as the New Yorker put it, burned out. He motorcycled across Vietnam. He worked as a security consultant, developed some advanced cryptography and studied physics at the University of Melbourne. During his trial and custody battle, he'd experienced thrills and despair far beyond anything he'd ever known-- there seemed to be nothing left in the world that would hold his attention, a state detailed in his blog, in the web.archive as "IQ.org". In 2006, he wrote an essay, "Conspiracy as Governance", which analyzes authoritarian governments as a series of connected graphs, and later that year, he developed the technology which powers the Wikileaks of today.

It's become a cliche in the press to describe him as gaunt and "spectral", the product of too much time spent out of the Sun, with the demeanor of a Bond villain. In truth, he's less insectoid than his near-twin Anderson Cooper, and more of an Australian farm boy (which he is): more physically robust, his face bears scars from stinging insects (souvenirs of a time spent hiking and living on the land in Dadenong Ranges National Park), and his teeth have a look that's never known bleaching or advanced orthodontia. Still, he's well mannered in interviews, with a deep, gentle voice of implacable calm, punctuated by rare, quiet smiles. In person, he's charming and lively: women love to take care of him, and at least a few of both sexes find him hella sexy.

Whither Assange? Few people have embodied the straight-on activist as well as he has since the 1980's. With his monastic ways and total dedication to his cause of free internet journalism, he may well turn out to be another Ralph Nader (who may be a perennial indie Presidential candidate and respected political gadfly, but never has become mainstream enough to be host of, say "Nader's Consumerwatch" or run for Congress).

Still, time, especially in the British sphere of influence, has a gentling effect: it's hard to recall that Queen Victoria was once thought of as an unpopular monarch. It is even been said that if Oscar Wilde had lived to be ninety, he would have been eulogized as a genial old soul, a much-sought-after commencement speaker and op-ed writer, with the Queensbury affair a mere speed bump. We may, some years hence, tune into 'cybercorrespondant Julian Assange' on CNN, an honored eminence grise and role model for troubled youth.

Or perhaps he might overturn the whole journalistic landscape.

Stay tuned...

Julian Assange and Rape-Rape

This may be a rather controversial post, so I will have an extremely short temper with anyone who does not actually read what it says on the page. In that spirit, this comes with three disclaimers:

Disclaimer 1: I think Wikileaks' actions are excellent and necessary. The Iraq and Afghanistan war logs show that we cannot trust governments to do what is right in the absence of transparency. They will abuse our trust to cover up killing journalists, spying on the UN, and letting outlawed munitions into the country. I look forward to further leaks, especially to the ones promised early next year featuring the deeds of a major US bank. And they make me hopeful that individuals can in fact challenge those who consider themselves beyond human accountability.

Disclaimer 2: Julian Assange does not equal Wikileaks. One can fall while the other survives. If Assange were to blink out of existence tomorrow morning, the leaks would continue. If he were assassinated, as some US politicians who should really know better have suggested, the leaks would happen a lot faster, courtesy of the infamous insurance file. And if it turns out that Assange is actually a horrible person, this does not invalidate what Wikileaks has done. They are not the same.

Disclaimer 3: Assange has just been arrested in the UK to be extradited to Sweden on charges of rape. (Having walked into a police station of his own accord with the intent to fight the extradition to Sweden, mind). He says that the allegations are false and orchestrated by the US. The two women who have accused him say otherwise. Swedish prosecutors are acting in a strange manner by refusing to actually communicate with him.

It's possible that Assange is right, and that the charges are bogus and a result of US pressure on Sweden. But it's also possible that Assange is in fact guilty of rape. I don't want that to be the case, but we can't just dismiss that possibility because we don't like it.

Now, assuming the charges are genuine:

What exactly is he accused of? Most news sources just recount the unhelpful official arrest warrant. But according to Feministe, his actual deed is this: "in one case, condom use was negotiated for and Assange agreed to wear a condom but didn't, and the woman didn't realize it until after they had sex; in the second case, it sounds like the condom broke and the woman told Assange to stop, which he did not".

At this point, I'm going to make a cruel comparison using a made-up summary:

"Well-travelled man, his work beloved by many, is accused of rape. Supporters rush to side, saying 'it was not really rape, those who say otherwise have ulterior motives'."

When Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland last year, his supporters rushed to his side, voicing their anger that such a great man would be so unfairly hounded. When challenged, they would tend to downplay Polanski's crime. Whoopi Goldberg infamously explained on TV that Polanski's sexual assault of a thirteen year old was not "rape-rape": not actual, proper rape.

Many people now say that what Assange is accused of is not rape but simply a bit of naughtiness, not a very nice thing to do, but not enough to warrant arrest. Sometimes this is because the crucial fact that he did not stop when told to is omitted by many reports, but others simply don't see what he did as rape. "Rape", to many people, is half-human monsters lurking near bus stops waiting to assault total strangers, not a "disagreement in the bedroom".

But if we actually want to clearly define rape, we end up with something like "sexual intercourse without consent". Polanski is definitely guilty of this. So is Assange, according to the women he slept with in Sweden. It makes me wince to see people who were baying for Polanski's blood now refuse to entertain the idea that Assange may be guilty of rape.

As a Swiss, it also makes me extremely angry to see a Swiss bank close Assange's account on a technicality, given that the Swiss government, having nabbed Polanski, ended up releasing him again, on a technicality. It seems such technicalities always crop up whenever there is sufficient political pressure.

But here's the thing: It is possible for Julian Assange to be both a crusader for openness and a rapist. After all, Polanski is both an accomplished director and a rapist.

Famous people are never entirely good or entirely evil. All human beings have flaws and contradictions. Assange can be a maven on political freedoms and a dunce on sexual ones. He can have a sophisticated moral compass in politics and still think "I don't like wearing condoms, and I'm not going to be told otherwise".

This does not excuse his actions. We can't simply offset a person's good deeds against their bad ones and judge them on the result. It may be that the right thing to happen is for Assange to go to prison for rape and for Wikileaks to continue leaking state secrets. After all, they are not the same thing.

We must evaluate Wikileaks' actions on their own merits and not confuse them with those of its figurehead.

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