I know. Well, sometimes a vulgar word is the most accurate we have.
Our definition of journalism has yet to catch up with the cyber age, and freedom of speech does not distinguish among blogs, newspapers and dissidents. What ensures responsible use of First Amendment rights is ethics, not law. America allows journalists to act as information laundries, taking material that a private citizen was bound not to reveal by law, contract, or professional duty, and to re-define it to the world as what “the public has a right to know,” defined any way the particular journalist finds appealing.
Despite all the fulminating and condemnations by the likes of Mitch McConnell and Newt Gingrich on the Sunday talk shows, the U.S. can’t make Wikileaks founder Julian Assange a terrorist just by calling him one, nor can it fairly declare him a criminal for accepting the product of the unethical and often illegal acts of leakers, and making it public, just like the New York Times has done on many occasions…not under current laws. Bradley Manning, the U.S. soldier who leaked many of the secret documents, is certainly a criminal. So was Daniel Ellsberg, who, to nobody’s surprise, is cheering Assange on and attacking his critics. . Assange, however, is not a criminal. He has not revealed any information that he accepted in trust while promising not to reveal it. He is no more a criminal than the New York Times, if the New York Times was published in Hell.
He is, however, an asshole. The term is variously defined as “one who behaves in an offensive, pompous manner,” “jerk,” “the worst kind of person,” “disgusting, loathesome, vile, distasteful, wrathful, belligerent,” “a thoroughly contemptible, detestable person.” Perfect. Assange has assumed a level of wisdom and competence that he does not possess, and used grand rationalizations to substitute his values, judgment and objectives for those of our elected government without due consideration of consequences to individuals, alliances, key diplomatic relationships, national security or anything else. He has sought to gain personal glory from this, while avoiding real accountability. And he has aided and abetted a criminal act by Bradley Manning and others, using the American ideal of freedom of speech as his accessory.
I would have been willing to leave Assange’s label within genteel limits, perhaps settling for my personal favorite, “jerk,” or perhaps “uber-jerk.” Assange’s latest move, however, attempting to extort the U.S. by threatening a massive new dump of information if he is arrested, clinched it. If Assange was really the champion for human kind he claims to be, and was willing to put lives and peace in jeopardy in pursuit of the ultimate good—transparent government—then he cannot make that ultimate good subordinate to his own interests. If his mega-dump is, in his narrow, deluded view, a boon to the world, then he has an obligation to dump it. If he knows it will do more damage than good, he has an obligation not to release it. Holding the information hostage to protect himself, however, shows that Assange really doesn’t care about the consequences to anyone else. Assange’s real priority is Assange, and everything and everyone else is secondary.
Luckily, there is a word for such people, a useful label that will help us assess his actions and motives.