People, Research, Politics & society, Profiles

WikiLeaks philosophy under a scholarly microscope

By Kathleen Maclay

While reporters, pundits and politicians write and rail about the latest WikiLeaks revelations of secret documents and the activities of its founder, Julian Assange, an online scholarly assessment of the WikiLeaks philosophy developed from Assange’s 2006 essays has turned a spotlight on a University of California, Berkeley, graduate student in African literature.

Aaron Bady

Aaron Bady (Jeffery Kahn photo)

The online analysis by Aaron Bady, a Ph.D. student in UC Berkeley’s English Department, had been drawing a respectable 500 to 1,000 visitors a day to his Zunguzungu blog about literature, film, higher education and other topics. But after his Nov. 29 entry on “Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy,” the number skyrocketed to 60,000.

The post exploring Assange’s philosophy and mission for WikiLeaks was quickly cited, excerpted and republished around the world by leading news and social media critics, journalists, policy wonks and even WikiLeaks’ Twitter feed.

In The Atlantic, writer Alexis Madrigal observed that Bady’s “probing analysis of Julian Assange’s personal philosophy and possible motivations quickly became an oft-cited piece of the global conversation about what WikiLeaks might mean.” Madrigal added, “At a time when stunned traditional media outlets and bloggers were struggling to understand Assange’s motives, Bady’s essay delivered a clear and cogent view that was also fascinating.”

Bady said his interest in WikiLeaks-released cables regarding Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia made him curious to learn more about WikiLeaks and its collaboration with mainstream media. His online explorations took him to the Assange essays “State and Terrorist Conspiracies” and “Conspiracy as Governance,” both explored on the “Work Without Dread” blog site of another literary scholar, Rei Terada, a professor of comparative literature at UC Irvine.

“The journalistic world is now aware of these writings, but only because two serious literature scholars wrote about them,” Bady said in an interview.

“The prominence of Aaron’s blog and his post are a testimony to him and to the field and its training,” remarked Samuel Otter, chair of UC Berkeley’s English Department.

“I could write this (about Assange) because I spent years learning to write this. I kind of submerged myself and tried to let those essays speak,” Bady said. He also credited his mother, an activist and founder of an Appalachia-based environmental group that opposes mountaintop removal mining methods, for teaching him “that you find your own way to be a good citizen, and you can’t do that if you don’t put yourself out there.”

In his post on Assange’s early writings, Bady guides his Zunguzungu readers, a good number of them Web 2.0 types accustomed to reading short bits of text at a time, through the Assange essays by breaking the material into easily digestible pieces and accompanying them with insightful, intriguing and often entertaining exposition.

In his blog, Bady made connections between Assange’s expressed philosophy and theories to a wide spectrum of social, political and historical points ranging from the cable TV series “The Wire,” James Bond, “The Battle of Algiers” film about French counterterrorism, hacker theory, Facebook wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg and the mid-term elections, to Assange’s own self identification with Theodore Roosevelt, who applied the originally disparaging term “muckraker” to journalists.

“Most of the news media seems to be losing their minds over WikiLeaks without actually reading these essays, even though he (Assange) describes the function and aims of an organization like WikiLeaks in pretty straightforward terms,” wrote Bady.

In Zunguzungu, Bady quoted Assange: “The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of government.”

And Bady offered his own online assessment, saying that the leak “is only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction; WikiLeaks wants to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat.”

He continued: “And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how WikiLeaks’ activities will ‘carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,’ a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets. The point of WikiLeaks – as Assange argues – is simply to make WikiLeaks unnecessary.”

Bady has since posted a video of Assange speaking last November at a UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism event, along with a transcription of the talk.

Now Bady is interested in monitoring the unfolding WikiLeaks controversies, an alternative offshoot of WikiLeaks that has sprouted, the effects of WikiLeaks on free speech and terrorism, how the news media at-large may be affected by WikiLeaks’ strategy of releasing entire, raw documents rather than select excerpts, and how Assange’s philosophy may change.

And, said Bady, this issue, like Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers back in the mid- 1970s, “is much bigger than Assange is.”