x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

An agent of contagion

As the substance of the sexual charges against Julian Assange emerged this week, the task of defending WikiLeaks became increasingly unpalatable.

As the substance of the sexual charges against Julian Assange emerged this week, the task of defending WikiLeaks became increasingly unpalatable. One woman with whom Assange stayed during a visit to Sweden in August said he tried to coerce her into unprotected sex. When he finally agreed to use a condom, she implied, he tampered with it so that it split. Another woman said that, during the same trip, he had unprotected sex with her while she was sleeping. Earlier they had had sex using a condom, though this was "unwillingly" on Assange's part, she said.

This is grim stuff, damaging precisely because it is appallingly seedy rather than thoroughly villainous. A direct accusation of rape would cast Assange as a monster, outsized and unbelievable. It might be dismissed as part of a smear campaign. The WikiLeaks founder, having bloodied the nose of US intelligence with the release of thousands of secret diplomatic cables, is certainly due one of those.

The allegations as they stand are harder to wave away. They paint Assange at an all-too-human scale, far from the charismatic extremes of monstrosity. They just make him seem very unpleasant. Indeed, if they turn out to be fictions, they will fall squarely in the tradition of realism, always the species of literary art most concerned with the believability of everyday squalor.

Yet they also have an odd metaphorical resonance. We see Assange tearing furtively at protective barriers, abusing his hosts to do vile things as they sleep, threatening them with contagion. Coincidentally or not, the allegations contain powerful symbols for WikiLeaks' modus operandi. They won't just stick to Assange. They'll colour his entire philosophy. They are, to be blunt, suspiciously perfect.

Let's set aside the question of Assange's innocence or guilt. So many interested parties have a hand in the flow of information that we should also probably regard any official verdict with skepticism. The best we can hope for is that honest defenders and honest critics of WikiLeaks will agree to leave the character of its founder out of their deliberations. It has become acliché to call him "the most interesting man in the world", but the most interesting thing about him is his ideas. We can look at these apart from the compromised man.

In a series of essays written in 2006,Assange offers a diagnosis of a certain kind of political system, and a treatment for the disease."Where details are known as to the inner workings of authoritarian regimes," he writes, "we see conspiratorial interactions among the political elite not merely for preferment or favour within the regime but as the primary planning methodology behind maintaining or strengthening authoritarian power."

On this analysis, states rely on conspiracy to conceal their crimes and then confine their decision-making to trusted conspirators. Think back over the past decade of American foreign policy and deny that this is a possibility worth considering.

Assange's proposed remedy is to choke off communications between conspirators. A regular complaint about the leaked diplomatic cables is that they didn't reveal much that we couldn't have guessed. This misses the point: Assange is trying to shut down the very channels by which secrets are transmitted. It doesn't matter to him what the secrets are. "When we look at an authoritarian conspiracy as a whole," he writes, "we see a system of interacting organs, a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls, stupe¿ed." Assange might rather like theidea of WikiLeaks as an agent of infection.

Still, there's a great deal about this plan that is debatable, on both moral and pragmatic grounds. So let's debate it. There are, after all, people out there who are already trying to put it into effect, and their wisdom or lack of it has nothing to to with Julian Assange's sexual conduct. If he happens to be the victim of a state conspiracy himself, that's beside the point, too. The point is, hisidea has entered our system. Is it a sickness or a cure?