Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Assange guilty of anything and everything

Interviewed recently on ABC radio, computer scientist and author Jaron Lanier pithily observed:

In the United States the reporting about the expulsion of Mubarak in Egypt has been entirely dominated by Google and Facebook, and to a lesser degree Wikileaks, and everyone talks about it as the Facebook revolution, and every headline is about the Facebook revolution in Egypt.

And the problem with that is that I think there’s sort of this orgy of narcissism involved where we’re seeing our own American tech companies as being at the centre of the universe. And I’m concerned that what it really does is it makes us find yet another way not to actually listen to what somebody in Egypt might really be saying. For all our talk about all this openness and connection, I think we’re just using it as a way to look at ourselves, instead of them.

There’s very likely some truth in Lanier’s off-the-cuff remarks. In an interview last August for The Observer, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange related...

. . . the story of the Kenyan 2007 elections when a WikiLeak document “swung the election”.

The leak exposed massive corruption by Daniel Arap Moi, and the Kenyan people sat up and took notice. In the ensuing elections, in which corruption became a major issue, violence swept the country. “1,300 people were eventually killed, and 350,000 were displaced. That was a result of our leak,” says Assange. It’s a chilling statistic, but then he states: “On the other hand, the Kenyan people had a right to that information and 40,000 children a year die of malaria in Kenya. And many more die of money being pulled out of Kenya, and as a result of the Kenyan shilling being debased.”

Assange here quite arguably has overstated WikiLeaks’ contribution to that “chilling statistic”. It’s clearly absurd to suppose that the people of Kenya had no idea, before the WikiLeaks material was published, about the tribal and clan-based corruption that has blighted the country. But apart from all that, much of the 2007 violence was in reaction to disputed election results.

It might more accurately have been said that the WikiLeaks material probably helped, to some significant degree, in bringing the problem of corruption in Kenya more sharply into focus. The extent to which WikiLeaks ‘contributed’ to the 1,300 killed, however, is at best a matter of loose conjecture. To claim otherwise is perhaps a symptom of the narcissism Lanier described above.

When in December Assange burst into the headlines with the Swedish ‘sex charges’, his self-aggrandising claims regarding Kenya allowed motoring writer and blogger Tim Blair to declaim wildly about Assange’s culpability in...

tipping an already-volatile African nation into further mayhem.

Assange’s apparent non sequitir about 40,000 children dying of malaria was readily lampooned by Blair with the throwaway line: “So another 1300 corpses won’t matter much.”

Following Blair’s post, Andrew Bolt posted on his blog this brief item:

Tim Blair says WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is claiming credit ... for inspiring the murder of 1700 Kenyans.

(Yep, Bolt inflated the 1,300 figure by about 30 per cent, but perhaps in his paranoid make-believe world, another 400 fictitious corpses don’t matter much.)

While Bolt seems to have taken (Blair’s claims about) Assange’s claims at face value, obviously because it suited his ideological position against Assange, Blair in the above instance seemed to view it all with some scepticism, presumably because he wanted to portray Assange as unreliable and given to exaggerated claims such as “attempting to take credit for the Climategate scandal.”

Blair is probably quite correct to be sceptical about WikiLeaks purported role in the Kenya violence, but when it suits him he’s quite comfortable about exploiting the factoid of Assange’s culpability for those 1,300 deaths, such as in a later post in which he juxtaposed Assange’s Kenya claim with the following more recent statement:

WikiLeaks has a four-year publishing history. During that time we have changed whole governments, but not a single person, as far as anyone is aware, has been harmed.

Neither Blair nor Bolt had anything to say, of course, on the crucial point of whether people in Kenya “had a right” to the leaked information. As far as they’re concerned, it’s all about Assange — and, of course, themselves.

If the people of “already-volatile” Kenya are permitted in the picture at all, it’s as hapless victims of Assange’s wicked meddling and volatility-tipping. And the brave resistance by many Kenyans during the 2007 crisis is reduced to being merely an outbreak of “further mayhem” whose only meaning is resolved as an indictment of Assange.

Assange will by now be well acquainted with the perils of being a ‘mover-and-shaker’. It may even occur to him what an easier gig it would be to just shout from the sidelines.

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