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Rethinking Julian Assange’s Heroism

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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange peers from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Carl Court / Getty Images

In case you missed it, WikiLeaks celebrated 10 years of disseminating hacked information last month–but it couldn’t have been much of a party. Founder Julian Assange is still discomfiting the help at Ecuador’s embassy in London, where he’s spent the last four years holed up to dodge extradition to Sweden for questioning in a rape case. By now, any non-nut formerly convinced that Assange and his crew of cyberspace brigands are on the side of the angels— more or less, anyway—should have reconsidered once he started trying to diddle the 2016 election by airing everything potentially discreditable to Hillary Clinton he could hoover up. If you’re still on Team Julian, your faith in pied pipers must be a beautiful thing.

Not so long ago, Assange was the hipster left’s fond idea of a flaxen-haired, slightly doughy 21st-century Che Guevara who took on the American imperium with nothing but a laptop and a Wifi connection. Heck, he was even played by flaxen-haired, slightly doughy Benedict Cumberbatch—top that, Che —in 2013’s mostly admiring, only intermittently skeptical biopic The Fifth Estate. But now Donald Trump is singing WikiLeaks’ praises and openly rooting for Assange to fubar this election for good before the clock runs out. He may be the only foreigner to ever turn Fox News’s cretinistic Sean Hannity into a gushy cheerleader. These are not people you want co-signing your application to Valhalla.

Completing the perceptual somersault, Glenn Greenwald—known as left-wing journalism’s resident rectitude maven—thinks Assange is a sociopath. Whistleblower Edward Snowden is now distancing himself too. Even Michael Moore has knocked Assange for being an “anarchist” on onetime WikiKeaks fan Bill Maher’s show, Real Time. Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokno, who’s met with Assange and started out simpatíco, wants us to know he’s working hand-in-glove with Vladimir Putin—and I trust Pussy Riot in all things. (Well, except perhaps that ill-advised House of Cards cameo two seasons back.)

Assange talks big but then produces trivia. Worst of all, he’s also failed, which must gall him.

Even the Ecuadorians are fed up with their London houseguest. Reportedly, they briefly cut off Assange’s Internet access last month. Assange without Internet access is Beyoncé with laryngitis. Naturally, his WikiLeaks Munchkins accused the nefarious U.S. government of pressuring Ecuador to restrict their boss’s election-season fun and games, and if that was indeed the case, so what? We Americans have managed to turn this election into a train wreck quite well on our own, thanks you very much. It’s ridiculous to think this country is under any obligation to let a non-citizen in apparent cahoots with a hostile power add his own destructive agenda to the mix, because that’s not free speech—at least, not anymore. It’s more like amateur black ops.

Want to know what’s really bad, though? WikiLeaks, which did do some good in its heyday, has probably been schlonged beyond repair by its founder’s nihilism and egomania. (Excuse the Trump speak.) The Chelsea Manning info dumps, which exposed the seamy underside of our Iraq and Afghanistan misadventures and first brought Assange into public prominence in 2010, felt like real moral indignation at work and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer war. You could believe that, like a good reformer, he wanted the U.S. to clean up its act.

Now it seems he wants to bring down the curtain on the whole shebang altogether, but Assange hasn’t scored a comparable scoop since 2010. He talks big but then produces trivia. His lack of judgment has gotten worse too. Since he refuses to curate what he releases, which is Snowden’s and Greenwald’s big beef with him, the occasional gold nugget of genuinely damning material gets overwhelmed by floods of merely embarrassing tittle-tattle, and he’s chillingly indifferent to harming incidental players whose privacy and even well-being is put at risk by his revelations. On top of that, what used to sound like an admirable goal—forced total transparency—is now skewed beyond recognition by vendetta.

Worst of all, he’s also failed, which must gall him. FBI director James Comey did more to rattle Hillary Clinton’s campaign last week than all of Assange’s gaudy inside-dish scuttlebutt put together. (His one clean hit was nailing CNN’s Donna Brazile for passing debate questions to Team Hillary in advance, for which Brazile rightly got fired.) To his credit, Bernie Sanders was the first to say that his own campaign’s emails during the primaries would probably be as unflattering about Hillary as her gang’s were about him.

If Assange still has a bombshell in reserve, as he’s hinted, what’s he waiting for, Inauguration Day? At this point, it’s hard to see him recouping. Even though Chelsea Manning was the brave one—and lord knows she’s paying for it—we can still give WikiLeaks credit for its one great moment six years ago, no matter how dubious the outfit’s M.O. was. All the same, I miss the days when we didn’t know our Assange from a hole in the ground.

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