Assange Stencil, Liepzig
Why has Julian Assange captivated the world? Why is there such an emotional charge centered around him? Both U. S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Vice President Joseph Biden have equated his leaking of secret information with terrorist activity. Mainstream journalistic circles have passively looked on rather than leaping to his defense as they have in the past with other exposés threatened by governmental legal reactions (Adler, 2011).
Julian Assange is a case study of the trickster archetype playing out in an individual. To explore this topic, I have used excerpts from interviews, online newspaper and magazine reporting, Assange’s personal blog and statements, and portions from two of the books written about him by others, Daniel-Domscheit-Berg’s (2011) book Inside WikiLeaks and David Leigh and Luke Harding’s book (2011), WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy.
Questioning the Source
There are some potential issues of bias with some of the source material in that, as Julian Assange said himself in an interview with Chris Anderson, he is “a very combative person” (Assange, 2010). As a result, he has had very charged interpersonal relationships. Assange’s colleague at WikiLeaks, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, resigned fall of 2010 to open another information leaking website. Although his book brings a different perspective upon the inside functioning of WikiLeaks and Assange’s personal mode of operating, he had a significant personal conflict with Assange to the degree that Domscheit-Berg (2011) quotes Assange threatening him with physical harm. This conflict ultimately led to Domscheit-Berg leaving WikiLeaks. Because of the limited number of people involved in the inner workings of WikiLeaks, Domscheit-Berg’s insider knowledge is important in spite of the potential bias that he holds. For instance, he exposes some of the fictions that Assange enacted in the functioning of WikiLeaks, such as the inflated numbers Assange used in speaking to the size of WikiLeaks staff, and he describes Assange posing as different members of the WikiLeaks team during correspondences. Jay Lim, a legal expert for WikiLeaks, for example, was in actuality Julian Assange (Domscheit-Berg, 2011).
Niko Whitmire, MA is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at The Wright Institute in Berkeley, CA. His current interests lie in the intersections of neuropsychology, psychoanalysis and culture, and his present research centers upon examining the symptom presentation of Stendhal’s Syndrome using a neuropsychological lens. He graduated with a BA in Psychology from UCLA, and then went on to get an MFA in Writing and Poetics from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, CO. He also received an MA in Depth Psychology from Sonoma State University in 2011.
Assange’s relationship with both The New York Times and The Guardian (who employs the reporters David Leigh and Luke Harding) fractured and was unilaterally terminated by Assange. The New York Times relationship ended after they refused to link to the WikiLeaks website where Assange had unredacted material that The New York Times felt might be a danger to some of the individuals discussed in the Afghan material. Assange also felt that their piece on Bradley Manning, the individual that the United States military has charged with leaking classified documents, minimized his heroic nature (Gaviria & Smith, 2011). And finally, Assange felt insulted by a New York Times piece written by John F. Burns. The paper nonetheless received the cables due to a leak within WikiLeaks (Leigh & Harding, 2011). The Guardian’s relations with Assange became damaged after he bypassed their previous agreement and released information to BBC’s Channel 4 (Leigh & Harding, 2011). Along with those issues, Assange has been quoted as describing mainstream journalism as “a craven sucking up to official sources to imbue the eventual story with some kind of official basis” (Khatchadourian, 2010, para. 97). It is not too surprising, therefore, that many members of the established journalist community have reacted negatively to Assange. Furthermore, many journalists have expressed discomfort regarding Assange’s overt agenda against governments and other institutions (Adler, 2011). All of these concerns should be held in mind when receiving information from these sources as they may have had a biasing influence in their reporting.
Assange has created his own personal mythology which both underscores the difficulty of the case study but at the same time reinforces the identification with the trickster. Assange plays both deceiver and inventor of his own record, and his taking of the hacker pseudonym, Mendax, or splendidly deceiving, from Horace’s Odes (Khatchadourian, 2010; Manne, 2011; Obrist, 2011), indicates an awareness of this attitude. The Greek god Hermes does much the same when he performs the first sacrifice and adds his name to the list of the established pantheon (Kerenyi, 1976). Assange (Dreyfus & Assange, 1997) quotes Oscar Wilde in the researcher’s introduction to Underground, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth” (p. 9). Assange chooses his own masks and in the same way creates his own truth, a truth that is consistent with his heroic activist ideal.
Many reporters fall into Assange’s trap of personal truth without a researched Assange biography to fall back upon. Robert Manne (2011) writes, “Journalists as senior as David Leigh of the Guardian or John F. Burns of the New York Times in general accept on trust many of Assange’s stories about himself. They do not understand that their subject is a fabulist” (para. 4). Assange’s autobiography remains unpublished as of this writing, but as Domscheit-Berg (2011) states, any biography written by Assange should be treated with some skepticism because “Julian…had a very free and easy relationship with the truth” (p. 65). He reports that Assange had told him “at least three different versions of his past and the origins of his surname” (p. 72). Assange had also told Domscheit-Berg that his hair had became white when he was 14 after he had created a reactor in his basement and reversed the poles (Domscheit-Berg, 2011). In the TED talk interview with Chris Anderson, Assange was asked about being a hacker when he was younger. Assange reframed the statement to be that he was a journalist-activist who was prosecuted for writing a magazine (Assange, 2010) which is inconsistent with reporting by others that he was arrested for hacking (Manne, 2011; Khatchadourian, 2010; Leigh & Harding, 2011). Hacking has been equated with people stealing from grandmothers, he said, and that isn’t the story that he wants to be part of anymore (Assange, 2010).
Archetype has been defined as instinctual unconscious images or networks of images that influence the conscious mind through symbolic material (Neumann, 1963). This symbolic material can be illustrated by the image of the tip of an iceberg rising above the water. Most of the iceberg is submerged and inaccessible to the viewer. Similarly, much of the archetype is inaccessible to consciousness although it still exists and moves underneath the surface of the conscious mind. The symbolic materials experienced in our consciousness are the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves, or that our friends and families speak of in reference to us. The characterizations of personality, vocation, hobby and relationship all draw from the pool of archetype as do the characters in our entertainment. The image one sees when one thinks of a bully, a scholar, a banker, an athlete, or philanderer are all derivations of archetypal referents.
Nose art on FB-111
The roots of stereotype come from archetypal images as well. We use stereotype to organize our perceptions when we lack concrete information or direct experience. Assange’s trickster mask allows the archetype to carry our personal reactions to the man that we don’t see. We place our experiences with the trickster archetype upon Julian Assange’s character and motivations, often idealizing or demonizing as the case may be. When we experience someone who triggers the image of the archetype within us, we respond to our own internal connections to that symbolic material that has accrued during our individual life experience. Someone who is very mothering for example can trigger very different responses in individuals based upon their own experience with both the personal and archetypal mother image.
As for the trickster in particular, it is often described as amoral and often impulsive, on the hunt for the fulfillment of its desires. They cross boundaries and challenge stereotypes (Hyde, 1998; Radin, 1956). Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote can be seen as two sides of the trickster, the blindly hungry bumbling hunter and the cunning prey who switches the trap onto the predator. The trickster is the laughing fool and the inept villain, but ultimately it is what moves culture when it finds itself stuck. It crosses borders, violates strictures, and suffers punishments. The trickster is amoral, self-centered, greedy, and lustful (Hyde; Radin). Its agendas don’t usually mesh with tradition or with those who consider themselves to be the guardians or custodians of it.
The author Lewis Hyde speaks of the trickster archetype in this way:
We constantly distinguish—right from wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead—and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction. Trickster is the creative idiot, therefore, the wise fool, the gray-haired baby, the cross dresser, the speaker of sacred profanities. Where someone’s sense of honorable behavior has left him unable to act, trickster will appear to suggest an amoral action something right/wrong that will get life going again. Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.” (p. 7)
The trickster is the clown and thief, seducer and fool, liar and prophet. It creates chaos and the opportunity for change. It opens up the space that allows something new to come into being. The tricksters is a particular archetype that often comes about when the world or society is stuck in a particular way of being and doesn’t see or wish to see other possibilities. It can be viewed as the inadvertent revolutionary or creative hero in spite of itselves (Carroll, 1984). Its uncontrolled desires often put it into situations where it acts out with destructive consequences toward itself and those around it, but often with unintended positive impacts by bringing new creativity to humanity and culture.
However, this unrestrained desire is also the source of the trickster’s transformative abilities, and so it becomes the source of its gift to humanity as well as its burden upon the culture and itself. The Trickster Cycle of the Winnebago (Radin, 1956) has an episode where the trickster sees some women bathing, so he (in this tale, the trickster is defined as male) sends his penis under the water to catch the chieftain’s daughter and have intercourse with her. She is caught by him. It is only when the wise woman sticks an awl in his penis several times that he lets her go. It is this same penis that gets chewed up by a chipmunk when the trickster tries to send it into the rodent’s den to punish him. Trickster picks up the pieces, after flattening the chipmunk, and plants them in the world to create useful vegetables that the people need: potatoes, turnips, the lily of the lake, among others. The trickster’s inability to put off his desires provides the secondary benefit to society as a whole, and often to the detriment of the trickster himself in the course of these events. His unrestrained desire is what pushes him to cross the borders, to break through the antiquated boundaries which are impeding the growth of society.
The trickster often serves as an unconscious creator figure. The trickster’s intended outcome usually strays from the path and provides something new and positive to the world in spite of its selfish intents. It takes on animal roles in many myths and that role reflects the instinctual nature of the trickster operation. Many times the regulation or damage mitigation of the trickster is provided by outside agencies. Or it requires suffering on the part of the trickster, sometimes depicted as a consumption of its desiring organs (Hyde, 1998). As you can see here in this Native American myth, Coyote inadvertently creates the sun, moon and stars after a childish tantrum. Coyote becomes the creator of the cosmos not through any conscious agency but rather through his following of childish whim to ruin the creation of others because of his exclusion.
Coyote and the sky – How the sun, moon, and stars began.
When they reached the other Animal People, Coyote was very angry that he had not been invited to come to the Fourth World. Coyote sulked behind a big rock so that no one could see him. When the Animal People opened the big bundle, they asked Badger to draw pictures of each animal on the yucca mat with the red-hot coals. Badger began to do so with a stick. All this time coyote was getting angrier and angrier. Suddenly he jumped out from his hiding place and grabbed one corner of the mat and flung it into the heavens! The coals became our stars. And if you look closely at the stars today, you can still see the outlines of the Animal People that Badger drew on the yucca mat. These are our constellations. In some places, the stars are in clusters, like in the Milky Way. This is where Coyote messed up Badger’s drawings. Finally, Squirrel ran back to the Third World to tell Leader what Coyote had done. Leader decided to go up to the Fourth World.
When he got to the Animal People, he told Coyote that he had been bad and must leave the Fourth World. (Garcia, 2006)
Coyote unconsciously creates something new. It is one of the singular characteristics of the trickster that whatever the trickster creates couldn’t come about in any other way. Chaos is required to shift the culture or cosmos into creation, and that chaos cannot come about through the conscious intent of any actor—for then it loses its chaotic character. Chaos is unexpected; intent is anticipatory. And so it is through this lens, however opaque, that I interpret the case of Julian Assange and his impact in our world.
What do we know about Julian Assange’s background? In spite of his reticence to talk about his past there does seem to be a good amount of information available. He was born in Townsville in Queensland, Australia, and spent much of his childhood moving from town to town due to his parents’ involvement in the theater (Obrist, 2011). Robert Manne challenges Assange’s repeated assertion that he had attended 37 schools (Assange, 2010; Leigh & Harding, 2011), but even the more modest number of over 12 schools still reflects a transient upbringing. Assange stated that “[m]any of these towns were in rural environments, so I lived like Tom Sawyer—riding horses, exploring caves, fishing, diving, and riding my motorcycle” (Obrist, 2011, p. 2). His biological father, John Shipton, left his mother when he was about one year old, and he didn’t have any connection to him until he was about 25. Julian speaks of his stepfather, Brett Assange, as his father, who only stayed with the family until Julian was about eight or nine. His mother’s subsequent relationship with Keith Hamilton was another reason for Julian’s transient childhood. Hamilton belonged to a cult which purportedly stalked Julian’s mother through the use of government moles (Manne, 2011). Of his relationships with his peers, he wrote in his IQ blog on July 18, 2006 (Assange, 2006c), “we were bright sensitive kids who didn’t fit into the dominant subculture and feircely [sic] castigated those who did as iredeemable [sic] boneheads” (para. 3). Assange identifies himself here as one who doesn’t belong within the established boundaries of clique and culture. He, like the trickster, moves through the bonds of social norms and dwells outside of them.
A truck, driven by artist Clark Stoeckley, parked at the protest event Occupy Wall Street in New York City.
As Assange grew older his explorations moved from caves to the online environments.
I was very curious as a child, always asking why, and always wanting to overcome barriers to knowing, which meant that by the time I was around fifteen I was breaking encryption systems that were used to stop people sharing software, and then, later on, breaking systems that were used to hide information in government computers. (Obrist, 2011, p. 2)
These activities culminated in a raid on his house in 1991 for his hacking activities. He ultimately pled guilty to the charges in 1996 and paid a fine (Leigh & Harding, 2011).
During the time between the raid and his trial, he became connected to the cypherpunk movement which espoused that politics in the age of the internet centers on the question of whether the state or anonymous individuals would triumph in a “battle for the future of humankind” (Manne, 2011). The cypherpunk ideology obviously resonated with Assange’s beliefs to a large extent, although he was less interested in some of the right leaning libertarian attitudes that were held by members of the group. However, this rejection of the right wing ideologies doesn’t mean that he was connected or identified with liberal or leftist constructs either. Manne notes that Assange was very anti-communist in his political ideology and often poked fun at the left. Assange believed that using truth to set people free held more social value that any particular political affiliation. He spoke of Voltaire, Galileo, and Gutenberg as “serial killers of delusion, those brutal, driven and obsessed miners of reality, smashing, smashing, smashing every rotten edifice until all is ruins and the seeds of the new” (Manne, 2011, para. 63). He also created during this time a program called Rubberhose, a cryptography software designed to protect human rights activists. With it he created a lively fictional posting announcement that was described by Robert Manne as revealing a “daring, wildness and a touch of genius” (para. 25).
The attitudes of conflict between state and individual continue in his posts on his IQ.org blog (Assange, 2006a) that lasted from July 2006 until August 2007. He quoted Alexander Solzhenitsyn speaking of his own arrest in the July 17th, 2006 post called Jackboots and spoke of what he referred to as the “mendacity of the state” (Assange, 2006b, para. 2). Assange theorized in this blog about what he called conspiracies that arise in governance. He conceptualized them as conspiratorial webs that become exclusive of the general populace. He believed these webs also develop attitudes that may not be aligned with the excluded majority group that remains outside of the governmental or corporate networks. He viewed these webs as networks working toward the maintenance of themselves above all other goals. The web network uses the component pieces—the individuals involved in the network—to maintain its existence, and expels those pieces that undermine these systems, or who do not act in a way that promotes the needs of their fellow individuals within the network. He saw these networks as undermining an organization’s overt or articulated purposes. Only the releasing of the information hidden by the network will allow the people, both inside and outside of the network, to become free (Assange, 2006e). He saw in the creation of WikiLeaks the possibility of the undermining of state and corporate conspiracies, as he says “this is the good stuff” (Assange, 2006d; Manne, 2011). As Robert Manne (2011) succinctly says, “The revolution he [Assange] speaks of is moral” (para. 58).
And yet, with that releasing of information, Assange moves in areas outside of conventional morality. His moral principles in regard to what he views as conspiracy, and his imperative to have open access to information, trump all other ethical concerns. For example, his cavalier releasing of the names of civilians working with the United States military, and the publishing of military personnel Social Security numbers, showed a callous disregard for the risks that his disclosures can have upon the individuals involved.
The Why of It
WikiLeaks was created in 2006, and its first publication was in December (Domscheit-Berg, 2011; Leigh & Harding, 2011; Manne, 2011). This event followed the midterm elections in the United States where Democrats seized control over both houses of Congress, as they rode a wave of frustration over the continued war in Iraq and over the terrible tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. It was clear that the roots of the Iraq War had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction or links to Al Qaeda, but rather hidden interests that can only be speculated about. CNN reported in January 2005 that nearly 9 billion dollars slated for Iraqi reconstruction went missing, and that part of the problem was the lack of transparency of the Coalition Provisional Authority in disbursing these funds (Cable News Network, 2005). The emergency response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina gave the impression of governmental organizations not only unprepared to help its citizens but also seemingly indifferent to its own incompetence. In October of 2006 the Abramoff scandal broke and revealed the depth and power of backroom influence in the United States legislature. The United States populace’s trust in the Republican government was reeling from the opacity of its operating systems, and they looked toward the other party as an out. The choice of the Democratic Party—although understandable in its context—was perhaps naïve in its belief that significant change would be the result as both parties function within the same parameters of limited transparency.
Although Assange is Australian, the impact of the United States foreign policy was hitting him close to home. His essay Conspiracy as Governance (Assange, 2006e), written in December 2006 near the same time as his creation of WikiLeaks, seems to be a reaction to the Bush presidency. As Assange stated in his invitation to a member of the WikiLeaks board of directors, John Gilmore, WikiLeaks “will provide a catalyst that will bring down government through stealth everywhere, not the least that of the Bushists” (Manne, 2011, para. 77). He stated further that the new organization “has in its sights authoritarian governments, the increasingly authoritarian tendencies seen in the recent trajectory of the western democracies, and the authoritarian nature of contemporary business corporations” (Manne, 2011, para. 78).
WikiLeaks is an anonymous whistle-blower and information leaking venue. Assange has used the global aspect of the internet to evade the legal challenges that organizations (governmental, public and private) use to keep their secrets under wraps (Domscheit-Berg, 2011). Even the notoriously litigious Church of Scientology didn’t use the courts to remove the information that WikiLeaks posted on the web, where previously the courts had helped them keep their skeletons safe and cozy inside the opaque spheres of their inner circles (Domscheit-Berg, 2011). As Raffi Khatchadourian reported in his 2010 New Yorker profile of Assange:
Assange’s response was to publish more of the Scientologists’ internal material, and to announce, “WikiLeaks will not comply with legally abusive requests from Scientology any more than WikiLeaks has complied with similar demands from Swiss banks, Russian offshore stem-cell centers, former African kleptocrats, or the Pentagon.” (para. 5)
WikiLeaks made itself immune to libel, copyright, and other legal recourses through the use of the same techniques that have served multinational corporations—cherry picking the world for the most conducive legal structures for their institution. Assange worked with the Icelandic parliament to create the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative. The IMMI is designed to make Iceland a “free haven for the media” (Domscheit-Berg, 2011, p. 134) by enacting the strongest media protections for investigative journalists. But even before that, they made sure that the main WikiLeaks servers were located in Sweden which has, outside of the newly created IMMI, very extensive free speech legislative safe guards in place.
Loose Lips Might Sink Ships, 1941-1945.
But even more important than this technique has been the multiplicity of identical webpage sites. They have back up servers located elsewhere, so if one country takes down the website by shutting down the computers physically located within their borders, identical material can be posted from another site located in another country. This redundancy requires companies or governments to hire lawyers in different countries, file suits, and then go through with the legal procedures—only to have to repeat it somewhere else when the material moves to another location. When the Julius Bar Bank won their suit in California to have leaked material removed from the domain that had been originally created in that state, the court initially ruled in their favor and demanded that it be shut down (Domscheit-Berg, 2011). Immediately following the shutdown of the server located in California, myriad other identical pages popped up in its place (Domscheit-Berg, 2011). WikiLeaks has successfully taken advantage of the hydra nature of the internet: no matter how many heads you chop off, more will pop up. The repeated legal challenges only serve to increase the publicity of the leaked material through the news coverage of the suits (Domscheit-Berg, 2011).
WikiLeaks provides a safe place so that others may place their information there anonymously. Then WikiLeaks picks up the information, uses it, and disseminates it as it sees fit. The need for this anonymous-mechanism lies in our intense legal constriction of information. We have two things happening at once: a surge in information through the increased utilization of technology and the internet; and a reactionary attack by copyright concerns, governments, and other institutions to try and restrict that flow of information through the legal systems. WikiLeaks bypasses the legal threats, and allows for the information to get out. Assange has claimed to want “to make the world more civil” (Calabresi, 2010, para. 8) by undermining the secrecy of the state and corporate entities that seek to keep information out of the hands of others. WikiLeaks is designed to create that opportunity by using the internet to allow the information out and by allowing open access.
In addition to the two leaks listed above, WikiLeaks released countless documents through their portal and in conjunction with other media partners. WikiLeaks published a report by the Oscar Legal Aid Foundation which documented political killings perpetrated by the Kenyan police force; this news led to a 10 percentage point electoral shift in the subsequent elections in Kenya. WikiLeaks was subsequently honored with the Amnesty International Media Award.
WikiLeaks also received video footage from an Apache helicopter action. They then edited and released it in April 2010 as a video that they named Collateral Murder—it depicted the assault on a group of men by United States military. The military action resulted in the killing of two Reuters journalists, and the video revealed military personnel firing upon unarmed men trying to evacuate the wounded (Domscheit-Berg, 2011; Leigh & Harding, 2011; Khatchadourian, 2010). Domscheit-Berg reports that, contrary to Assange’s statements, the film did not cost $50,000 to produce and that they had a password to the encrypted video. The video catapulted WikiLeaks even further into the world stage as the controversial footage was played countless times.
WikiLeaks followed the release of the video with the Afghan War Diaries in July of 2010, a release made in conjunction with The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel. It contained confidential reports from United States military personnel in Afghanistan. And in October 2010, they released the Iraq War Logs which, among other things, revealed the hidden numbers of civilian casualties in Iraq. It showed that senior United States officials had lied when they proclaimed that they had no data on these deaths (Leigh & Harding, 2011). The last major leak of 2010 was the release of the United States diplomatic cables which was done in conjunction with two newspapers, El Pais and Le Monde. Some see these cables at the roots of the uprisings of the Muslim Spring, especially in regard to the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt (Walker, 2011)
During these last two releases, Assange’s relationship with both The New York Times and The Guardian became strained. Assange was frustrated with The New York Times’ reporting on him and Bradley Manning, and disputes about who was in on the information release. In addition, Assange came under fire from the United States government for releasing its confidential information. The mainstream journalist community was seemingly reticent to support him even amid talk of his being charged with espionage. Organizations, such as the American Society of Magazine Editors and the National Association of Broadcasters, did not make any statements on the subject of Assange being prosecuted under the Espionage Act (Adler, 2011). This attitude is in contrast to other large governmental leaks, and appears contrary to their traditional stance of defenders of the first amendment. Ben Adler of Newsweek attributes this attitude to a variety of reasons, but principally to the negative reaction that most journalists have toward Assange’s purpose and methods. They dislike his overt mission to disrupt governments—in specific, his agenda in regard to the United States—and his overt advocacy agenda which runs outside of the traditional idea of objective journalism (Adler, 2011). They also find fault in his lack of discretion in dealing with information that may put people at risk of harm, in particular, with his reticence to edit sensitive and potentially life threatening information (Adler, 2011).
However, their dislike of his methods and orientation may have its roots in their own connection to business as usual. Newspapers and broadcast news organizations have had to shift the way that they reach their audiences, but they have done so slowly and only after losing many of their viewers and their corresponding advertising revenue to more informal internet journalistic entities. There have been numerous articles and news pieces about the death of the newspapers and magazines and print media altogether. The growth of the blog and the amateur reporter has threatened the traditional system of reporting, and there have been highly charged negative reactions about the veracity and professionalism of such material and sources. These reactions are juxtaposed next to the growth of the Fox News Network which has deigned to make only the thinnest of accommodations to that journalistic norm of objective reporting.
WikiLeaks represents another threat in the changing world of information dissemination. Julian Assange’s erratic behavior when he tried to collaborate with the mainstream press reinforced their feelings toward the professional standards that they feel support a higher level of quality and integrity (Leigh & Harding, 2011). However, most of the major media outlets have created their own leaking portals similar to the WikiLeaks model in order to access whistleblower information and possibly jump onto the bandwagon that WikiLeaks has initiated.
One hundred dollar banknotes.
Disloyalty, Insubordination and Destabilization
Tricksters are trapped by their own unregulated and unrestrained desire, and Julian Assange has not escaped this difficulty. In August of 2010, an arrest warrant was issued for him in Sweden for sexual crimes perpetrated against two Swedish women. After Assange turned himself in to the authorities in the U. K., Assange’s lawyer responded to the allegations as being a plot to discredit Assange made by “dark forces” (Davies, 2010, para. 4). His statement that “the honeytrap has been sprung” (Davies, 2010, para. 4) referred to the allegations being contrived in order to discredit Assange and the WikiLeaks organization. Assange himself referred to the charges as “dirty tricks” (Davies, 2010, para. 26) in a tweet, and ascribed the allegations as being the product of the United States intelligence services. Statements made by the two women in the allegation were then leaked to the press in December 2010, to the consternation of Assange and his legal team. Some of what was said is that Assange refused to wear a condom and tore the condom intentionally, initiated sex with a sleeping woman, and then when confronted by the women about getting an STD test, he refused (Davies, 2010). Assange, like the trickster, doesn’t consider the needs or desires of others when under the compulsive drive of his own.
Also during the fall of 2010, Daniel Domscheit-Berg and a person only referred to as The Architect left the organization. This exodus effectively halved the permanent staff of WikiLeaks. The Architect was the individual who designed the platform and infrastructure that enabled the leakers to submit their information anonymously. The stated reason for their exodus was that Assange was becoming unstable and tyrannical (Domscheit-Berg, 2011) among other reasons. The Architect reportedly said that he was tired of dealing with amateurs (referring to Assange) (Domscheit-Berg, 2011). Domscheit-Berg was accused by Assange of “Disloyalty, Insubordination and Destabilization in Times of Crisis” (Domscheit-Berg, 2011, p. 200), words derived from the Espionage Act of 1917.
Gimme the Money
On the positive side, WikiLeaks with its increase in notoriety was making economic gains as well. Once it began to go after the US, the money from donations dramatically increased. The WikiLeaks organization paid Julian Assange a salary of $86,000 in 2010, and the Guardian reported that he signed a book deal for about 1.3 million dollars (Lewis, 2010). WikiLeaks also drew in another 1.3 million dollars in donations in 2010, according to the December 24th article in The Wall Street Journal (Crawford & Whalen, 2010). There is another financial account soliciting donations specific to his legal defense as well, but I am not aware that there have been any clear announcements on the size of that fund as yet. Domscheit-Berg believes that there are many unanswered questions as to the financing and disbursement of funds from WikiLeaks supporters and donors.
Assange clearly views himself as a trickster. He has named himself a trickster in print more than once (Assange, 2006d; Manne, 2011), and this is significant in that it reflects the story in which he sees himself. He views himself as the lively trickster breaking through the stultifying mass of antiquated systems and freeing those who are oppressed by them as well. His referring to himself as Tom Sawyer resonates with the trickster; Twain’s novels of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are all about the adventures of two trickster boys. His hacking pseudonym, Mendax, speaks to his trickster identity, and later in 2006, he wrote on his OkCupid website that he was thinking about “Changing the world through passion, inspiration and trickery” (Manne, 2011, para. 72). Also in 2006 he wrote in his blog this statement about what he saw as the power of the trickster:
Additional freedom is granted alone to the trikster [sic], who through adopting the manner and dress of the establishment may fool the agents of the state into deference. (Assange, 2006d, para. 8)
It is significant that at the same time that he created WikiLeaks, he spoke of himself as a trickster and of the power of the trickster as an opposition to the established and constricting systems. Even on a conscious level, Assange believes that the means to attain his social and political goals is through the activation of the trickster.
Wikileaks rally, IV, Sydney, Australia.
The trickster theme of boundary crossing is prevalent throughout Assange’s life. His early interest in hacking is all about crossing the artificial borders and boundaries that have been put up by others. The judge presiding at his trial stated that it appeared that Assange had acted out of “intellectual inquisitiveness” (Leigh & Harding, 2011, p. 44) which echoes Assange’s statement about his childhood and “barriers to knowing” (Obrist, 2011, p. 2). Assange appears to feel compelled to overcome these boundaries, to open the shut doors that he sees in front of himself.
The unrestrained desiring nature of the trickster and the darker side of the need to overcome boundaries both traps the trickster and subjects those around him to his unrestrained desire. This side could be reflected in the sexual allegations filed by the two women against him. I wonder if he also sees the condom as a boundary that needs bypassing. I suggest that it was the trickster acting in him to resist any semblance of restraint. The boundary crossing of Assange is also manifested when he gender-bends. Assange has been reported to have dressed up in disguise, sometimes as an old woman, which echoes the gender bending theme that Lewis Hyde (1998) refers to in his description of the trickster as a crosser of established norms and stereotypes.
Another principle theme of the trickster is theft and thieving. One of the more captivating trickster figures in the Western European tradition is Hermes, the Greek god of thieves and merchants (Kerenyi, 1976). He guides the newly dead to the underworld, and travelers left him offerings along the roadside at piles of stone called herms in order to insure a safe passage. Other travelers would take these offerings in the spirit of the god of thieves and opportunity. I see WikiLeaks as functioning like a herm in that it allows the anonymous dropping off of information to be picked up and used by the organization. Assange facilitates the theft of information through insuring the anonymity of the leakers. He doesn’t steal the information, but he disseminates it. New York Times writer Christian Caryl (2011) comments:
In practical terms it seems to boil down to a policy of disclosure for disclosure’s sake. This is what the technology allows, and Assange has merely followed its lead. I don’t see coherently articulated morality, or immorality, at work here at all; what I see is an amoral, technocratic void. (para 3)
Caryl additionally notices “the scale is unprecedented. So, too, is the intent – or, more precisely, the lack thereof” (para. 2).
Lewis Hyde (1998) also speaks of the trickster in terms of his hunger and what he calls the “trap of appetite” (p. 17). Assange has not been successful in eluding the trap of appetite that his possession by the trickster has created. He desires more and more, and he traps himself in it. Hyde looks at the Native American Coyote figure as well as the Greek god Hermes in his study of the development of the trickster through his struggle with appetite. With Coyote, the restraining of appetite happens through the consumption of his own desiring organs, his intestines and his penis. He has to eat himself before he may restrain his urges. Hermes, in contrast, restrains his own hunger for meat (Kerenyi, 1976). After stealing Apollo’s cattle, he stifles his personal hunger in order to use two of the cows as a sacrifice to the gods, and with this sacrifice, as I noted earlier, he places his own name among those to be worshipped. He holds back his hunger in order to satisfy an even greater hunger, the hunger for a place among the deities (Hyde, 1998; Kerenyi, 1976). I see Assange holding back his desire when he speaks formally in interviews. He becomes the otherworldly being (Khatchadourian, 2010) who speaks thoughtfully and slowly. With Assange, the unrestraint can be seen through the allegations of his sexual acting out, but also in his impulsive accusations and actions toward those he sees undermining him. His ostracizing of pivotal members of the WikiLeaks staff and his lack of restraint in dealing with media partners is much like Coyote eating up his own intestine or burning his own anus for failing to wake him when animals were stealing his food. This impulsivity contrasts itself with the collected and cool Assange he portrays in most of his interviews.
The trickster is known as the cunning fool. He traps and is trapped, often by his own desires. Assange can be viewed as the trapper in how he leaks information, and how he uses the legal outreaches of the documents’ originators as a means of verification, or in the case of Julius Bar Bank, promotion of the leaked material.
However, he has been leaked from as well, accidentally and intentionally. And here we see him trapped by himself. He once released all of the names of his donors through an email and had it submitted to his site as a leak (Domscheit-Berg, 2011). When he was struggling to keep The New York Times out of the deal he had made with their editors and The Guardian, he was foiled by the leaking of the information by one of his own volunteers who released the material to a freelance journalist (Leigh & Harding, 2011). And finally, the details of the statements against him in the criminal proceedings were leaked out and his lawyers protested this leaking as being a scheme to further discredit Assange before his extradition hearings (Davies, 2010).
The trickster image is seen in Assange’s presentation and deportment as well. The New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt (Keller, 2011) described him as looking “like a bag lady walking in off the street” (para. 8) at one of the meetings at The Guardian offices in London. He also stated that Assange once interrupted a conversation midsentence to skip ahead. He then stopped to continue the conversation as if nothing odd had happened (Keller, 2011). These eccentricities feed into the trickster characterization. In addition to referring to Assange as “having a bit of Peter Pan in him” (para. 13), Bill Keller states:
I came to think of Julian Assange as a character from a Stieg Larsson thriller — a man who could figure either as hero or villain in one of the megaselling Swedish novels that mix hacker counterculture, high-level conspiracy and sex as both recreation and violation. (para. 29)
The story characters used to describe Assange reflect the archetypal nature of how he comes across to others. He is more archetype than individual. He becomes an ambiguous character (both hero and villain) out of a novel or a children’s fantasy book. Ravi Khatchadourian (2010) describes Assange as “a rail-thin being who has rocketed to Earth to deliver humanity some hidden truth” (para. 6). Jack Shafer in his article, The 1,000 Faces of Julian Assange (2011), adds this description to explain how frustrating Assange can be in relation to mainstream journalists:
Assange bedevils the journalists who work with him because he refuses to conform to any of the roles they expect him to play. He acts like a leaking source when it suits him. He masquerades as publisher or newspaper syndicate when that’s advantageous. (para. 3)
It is this shapeshifting nature that comes into play with his paradoxical relationship with the truth as well. On one hand, he promotes a rigid interpretation of what should be released. He has said that the names of civilians who worked with the United States military shouldn’t be redacted because they were collaborators, and that it was important to release the social security numbers of military personnel for historical purposes (Leigh & Harding, 2011). As Robert Manne (2011) noted, Assange plays with the truth when it comes to himself. Domscheit-Berg (2011) stated that when Assange’s autobiography is released it should go into the fiction section.
Assange as the trickster breaks through barriers and crosses borders. He shapeshifts and resists conformity. He traps and is trapped by desire. He is the patron of thieves and whimsical eccentrics. He comes across as amoral, but he also opens the space that allows for something new to come into being.
Assange as trickster has accomplished some incredible things. Robert Manne (2011) states, “There are few original ideas in politics. In the creation of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange was responsible for one” (para. 71). Others have echoed this statement (Osorio, 2011). Esther Dyson (2010) says that WikiLeaks resolves two needs. The first is that it uses the internet’s ability to spread information as a means for establishing “a better balance of power between people and power” (para. 15). And the second is that it provides a new openness that makes those in power behave better and that openness allows us to trust them more. When governments and corporations are forced to consider how things will look if a leak occurs, that also forces them to self-regulate rather than to rely on cover ups or disinformation.
Julian Assange in Berlin.
In the past several years, there has been an explosion of leaking portals similar to WikiLeaks. Most of the major media outlets have created their own, and Domscheit-Berg’s OpenLeaks is just one of the numerous independent organizations that have popped up as well. Assange has provided the individual a counterpoint to the increasing corporate and governmental opacity and consolidation of information and power. The irony is that WikiLeaks has become so large that “some of its secrets are no longer its own to control” (Stelter & Cohen, 2011, para. 1). This phenomenon is just the trickster energy continuing its natural path regardless with which entity it is involved.
Assange and WikiLeaks opened a way, and although that may have not been the original intent of the organization, it has provided benefit through not only its specific leaking system, but also through the opportunity of opening up information to be better accessed by the general public. In addition, benefits have been noted as a result of the specific information that has been provided to the world. Some of the information that has come out through the diplomatic cables added impetus to the protests in Tunisia and Egypt (Walker, 2011), though many will argue about the significance of that information in the context of all of the other factors involved. However, it cannot be denied that information about the abuses of tyrants lends power and drive to the people suffering under that yoke. They see the imbalance in print and discussed by others and that adds a push toward the wish for change. The trickster character in all of this is that the original intent of releasing the information was to engage and undermine the United States government and its foreign policy. It is Assange’s antagonism toward the United States foreign policy that enabled the United States to reap rewards of a previously stagnant reliance on autocratic rulers in the Middle East who have often embarrassed the United States with their autocratic and anti-democratic policies.
I would add to this that WikiLeaks has caused changes in other governmental policy. In an article on the Osama bin Laden raid in The National Journal, Marc Ambinder (2011) writes that “Some senior JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] officers are prepared to deal with a future that includes more openness about their operations” (para. 9). The fear that leaked information will come out seems to have caused the government to take proactive steps toward disclosure that they can have some semblance of control. These steps have involved dialogue with reporters about what is viable to be released, such as the names of participants involved. This new transparency is reflected in the comment by Col. Roland Guidry (retired), one of JSOC’s founding members, “Why did the administration not respond like we were trained to do 30 years ago in early JSOC by uttering two simple words: ‘no comment’” (Ambinder, 2011, para. 17)? This statement is further evidence of the impact of the advent of the leaking website. These impacts are not static, obviously. They should be noted as a reflection of the specific nature of how an archetype can become involved in our social systems through the actions of a single individual.
Archetype affects not only our individual psyches, but they also can impact the culture as a whole through their manifestation in the individual. This aspect of archetypal action contextualizes individual behavior and societal needs. Human motivations are complex systems and often we find ourselves simplifying those systems in order to place the individual in question into a simpler moral container. In examining how the archetype impacts us, we can regain a fresh awareness of the gray areas in human behavior and how it can have unforeseen effects, both positive and negative, upon our cultural and group systems and identities. Furthermore, the expression of the archetype is part and parcel of the emotional charge that can be held within celebrity and other public figures. We are triggered by archetypal symbols. They leap up into our conscious minds from their depths and move us through intense emotional outpourings. By looking at the symbolic content that lies beneath these emotions and by seeing the story that lurks underneath our personal motivations, we may broaden our understanding of the deep, unconscious forces that are in play culturally. And hopefully, we may work towards a more conscious way of interacting on a group and cultural basis.