Monday, 20 August 2012

Julian Assange: tragic hero for our times

By tradition a tragic hero is a man (less frequently a woman) with the qualities for greatness, brought low by some flaw in his personality: Macbeth undone by overweening ambition, Othello loving not wisely but too well.

Julian Assange has to his name an accomplishment at least as notable as the victories won by those two heroes: through Wikileaks he has revealed abuses of power to a world that only guessed at them and was shocked by their extent.

Julian Assange addressing the world from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London
and getting a breath of (relatively) fresh air
Today he is up against difficulties that have led to his painting himself as a victim of persecution, a champion of free speech facing martyrdom for his beliefs. Prometheus taking on the gods, Mandela unbowed before the State. And when Assange appealed to word opinion yesterday, he even spoke out as a family man, a father denied the company of his children.

Yes, it’s an attractive self-image. 

And yet, and yet. The immediate cause of his difficulties is somehow not quite that noble. The flaw in his character isn’t quite the grand failing of a Cassius plotting against Caesar or a Lear giving away wealth and power out of love. No, it’s a failing much more appropriate to our time. The fatal flaw not of a Hamlet but of a Bill Clinton, another man who might also have been great without it.

He couldn’t keep his trousers zipped.

Which, come to think of it, rather relativises that stuff about the poor persecuted family man.

The irony of it all is that without being a legal expert, without even having seen the full evidence, but just based on the pretty extensive rehearsing of it in the media, and on my knowledge of how difficult a rape charge can be to prove, I’d have thought he had every chance of getting the accusations against him dismissed. Both those women in Sweden at some stage consented, so the issue is merely whether they were later forced to go beyond what they had consented to. And that’s their word against his.

With a good lawyer, he could surely beat that rap, couldn’t he?

I’ve been pointed to an article by Naomi Wolf that makes some pretty powerful points undermining the case against Assange. What it doesn’t do is challenge the standing of the Swedish judicial system. Now, I’m sure there are terrible miscarriages of justice in Sweden, just as there are everywhere, but given the choice, I’d be more inclined to take my chance on the Swedish system than on the British.

I’ve read some material about the Swedish attitude towards extradition to non-EU countries. It seems to me that the US would have some difficulty getting Assange extradited. More trouble, at any rate, than they would face in Britain. After all, the Brits constantly ship people off to the States for trial, even for crimes not committed in the US. It’s as though Uncle Sam has only to name someone over here for him to be sent over there.

Seems odd that Assange is so reluctant to try his luck in Sweden.

Unless, of course he has knowledge about his case which he hasn’t yet shared with us. Something that tells him that he shouldn’t be too confident about winning in Stockholm. If that’s so, it would be lovely to find out. Perhaps some internet site with a mission to disclose confidential information might tell us some day.

In the meantime, we have a curious spectacle. A man who wants to be seen as a whistleblower of historic stature is perhaps not being altogether candid about his own quandary. A man who is doing so much to protect his freedom is forced to live in a single room in a building he can’t leave. A man whose path to the reputation he covets is blocked by his apparent inability to master his appetites.

Yep. That seems to fit the bill. All the qualities that would make a tragic hero for our times.

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