We write about Assange’s lasagne because we can’t stomach ourselves
“[Julian] tended to eat pretty much with his hands. People in magazine articles say he doesn’t eat, but he had three helpings of lasagne that night and he ate both the baked potato and the jam pudding with his hands …”
Oh good god, here we go again. It’s another elephantine article/expose/hatchet job on Julian Assange, in which the grey blur’s habits, table talk and sock preferences are examined in minute detail for several thousand words, at the end of which he is accused of being self-obsessed. This time around, elephantine doesn’t really sum it up. It is a balene, blue whale-sized piece, 27,000 words from the London Review of Books, written by Andrew O’Hagan, the ghostwriter of Assange’s “unauthorised” autobiography, the half-completed memoir that Canongate put out in 2011, when it was clear that a full and finished manuscript would not be forthcoming.
The piece is a record of the months O’Hagan spent working with Assange at Ellingham Hall, the Norfolk pile where WikiLeaks was based after Assange was bailed during the extradition proceedings against him by Sweden in 2011. It’s also a playing-out by O’Hagan of his own contradictory feelings about Assange, who he seems to feel is something more than a Jack-the-lad — more a malign manipulator, too chaotic to be purposeful with it — but with whom he kept up a sort of friendship until very late in the day.
Needless to say, it’s being taken as another and decisive denunciation of Assange, exposure of hypocrisy, etc, and shooting around the world. What makes it of interest is from whence it comes, and at what moment — a bulletin from the British Left-liberal establishment, at a time when its project and identity is under more great pressure.
To do the book at high speed, O’Hagan moved up country and spent months hanging out with Assange and the floating WikiLeaks staff, amid what he portrays as a sprawling work, or non-work, process. Assange gave him the run of the organisation and opened up to him about WikiLeaks strategy and tactics, worldviews, etc. A risky thing to do with a novelist — although by now it is quite possible that he is using such notoriety to stoke a striking media presence. O’Hagan justifies it by the usual defence, that WikiLeaks believes in transparency, and sauce for the Norfolk-reared goose, etc. That’s a travesty of the WikiLeaks position, which argues that personal privacy should be respected while public institutions should be transparent, but that is by now par for the course with meeja encounters with WikiLeaks.
Thus we get thousands of words on how Assange eats lasagne, his relationship with Sarah Harrison, the WikiLeaks staffer with whom he had a personal relationship, his liking of the expensive suits donated by a well-wisher, and so on. More pertinently to a degree, O’Hagan alleges that Assange manipulates staff to some degree, has scratchy relations with some supporters, and a tendency to cynicism and backstabbing of some of those who’d supported him.
He portrays the WikiLeaks work process as chaotic and wasteful, but he also notes that they get things done, and stuff happens. He portrays a half-dozen of them, at the height of the Egyptian uprising in 2011, doing a hack to reopen the Egyptian telecoms connection to the world after the Mubarak regime had cut it off:
“At the time of the Egyptian uprising, Mubarak tried to close down the country’s mobile phone network, a service that came through Canada. Julian and his gang hacked into Nortel and fought against Mubarak’s official hackers to reverse the process. The revolution continued and Julian was satisfied, sitting back in our remote kitchen eating chocolates.”
That event, which — supposing it was not exaggerated to O’Hagan, who appears to be as technologically illiterate as every British Left-liberal — was of more import than anything else O’Hagan witnessed, gets five lines. Assange’s apparent obsession with landing in helicopters — at the Hay festival, having a helipad for his 40th birthday party at Ellingham, etc — gets paragraphs and paragraphs. To the casual reader, it’s merely a novelist’s expose, the material gathered under the moral rule of caveat interlocutor.
“The ‘redaction’ issue matters … because it has always been the way in which the UK Left-liberal media establishment distinguishes itself from Assange and WikiLeaks.”
Central to that impression is O’Hagan’s tone by turns amused, impressed, and ultimately dismayed and disturbed. In reality however, it’s a piece tilted against Assange and WikiLeaks, even as it appears to be more indulgent of him than most.
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