Portrait

A videolink with the world’s most famous fugitive. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Watching Julian Assange

The alias John Smith hovers at the bottom of the enormous black screen. A small square in the top right-hand corner beams footage of the crowd back to us as we shuffle around, taking our seats. Despite the turnout and apprehension, there’s a strange nonchalance floating about as the crowd slowly files in and awaits the presence of the most recognisable fugitive on earth.

The face of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange suddenly flickers into view: pixelated at first, then ghosting transparently for half a second before it solidifies. In 2010, in the midst of Cablegate, at the height of WikiLeaks’ infamy as a source of leaked classified government information, Assange’s shock of white-blond hair seemed to illuminate his elusiveness; it was emblematic of his hacker-rockstar defiance. Tonight, after three years confined in the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange’s silver-white hair marks a fading man. His gestures are small: rarely expanding beyond the width of his chest. His eyes seem darker and less certain, darting frequently to the side as he speaks. His puffy face is blotched half-a-dozen bleached shades of sallow. The lean, smooth-faced catch-me-if-you-can cyberpunk of yesteryear has become a soft, pensive, grey-bearded man. The jet black of Assange’s T-shirt and jacket against the charcoal backdrop blows the colour contrast further off-kilter. The effect is one part reverse-negative, one part overexposure – a dramatic lighting palette of Caravaggio proportions.

“The US government emailed every single US government employer, every single US government contractor – about 30 million people – saying: ‘You must delete any stories derived from WikiLeaks on your machines.’ Setting up firewalls of quite byzantine types across the Department of Education and others, leading to a sort of neo-McCarthyist hysteria…”

Every single employer. Every single contractor. Thirty million people. Delete from your machines. Firewalls of byzantine types. Neo-McCarthyist hysteria. This, too, is where Assange excels. There’s extraordinarily frightening material to work with, but it’s also the dramatic, brilliantly Orwellian manner with which he threads his alarming findings into the narrative that captivates. “We managed to get an admission … they have a policy never to accept anything derived from WikiLeaks classified publications…”

Even now, there’s still a disturbing unreality about almost everything Assange says. We know it to be true, yet it still sounds Wag-the-Dog conspiracy-theory farcical. The crowd at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre crane their necks upward, stare unmoving at the screen as Assange looms down in imposing holographic translucence.

“No organisation, including the US State Department, wants to feel that its mission is basically immoral.” There’s a slight tittering among the audience, several guffaws at Assange’s matter-of-factness. “So they use euphemistic language. For example: states which attempt to keep control of their own resources … that’s described by the US State Department fairly uniformly as resource nationalism.” Assange’s eyes crinkle. An almost-delighted smirk flickers at the corner of his lips. He chuckles. “Rather than, say, basic sovereignty.

The trademark intelligence; the razor-sharp precision of argument; the earnest, idealistic eloquence. It’s still there. And that ever-so-blasé eccentric genius charm.

The first person to make it to the microphone at question time is almost quivering with anger: eyes boggling, voice shaking. “The Australian government should, in my opinion, use every available legal means to get any of its citizens involved in unjust indefinite imprisonment home. What are they going to do to make sure you’re not thrown in jail?”

I’m suddenly distracted. The white drawing on Assange’s black T-shirt has been cut off by the bottom of the screen. Obscured on either side, as it is, by the lapels of his black jacket, the resulting shape is a thin pole, topped by a small white rectangular flag. Assange shifts slightly in his seat. The white flag waves from side to side, swaying a truce.

 “The Australian government has done nothing… This is true for any Australian who gets into trouble overseas, where Canberra is trying to ingratiate themselves to that government. Australia is notorious, in the rest of the world, for abandoning its citizens.”

Assange’s voice is laced with frustration. The questioner returns to his seat. The microphone stands lonely for a moment, in a room of curious minds at least 200 strong. I shuffle in my seat, turn the page of my notebook, think briefly about heading up to the microphone. Assange has covered a lot of ground. Governmental secrecy. State-sanctioned terror. The ongoing complicity and collaboration of the West in the colonial project. But there are things that remain unasked. There are those two Swedish women; the sexual assault allegations that precipitated his confinement in the Ecuadorian embassy from which he’s now being broadcast. But no one says anything. This is Julian Assange. Friend of the people. Bringer of truth. Cyber savant. Deeply embedded thorn in the side of the most powerful administration on earth.

The long grey aisle leading from the audience to the microphone stand stays echoingly empty, the vacant carpet corridor projected back at us from the top right of the screen. Assange and his interviewer continue talking for a bit. Assange is sitting lower in his seat – his shoulders a little less square. The white surrender flag on his T-shirt gravitates towards the bottom of the screen, slowly sinking out of view.

This piece was modified on March 9, 2016, to make clear that sexual assault allegations against Assange have not resulted in formal charges.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 5, 2016 as "The righteous and the Wiki". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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