Book Review: Andrew Fowler’s Biography of Julian Assange

Julian Assange’s rise to global notoriety has been lightning quick. His whistleblower website Wikileaks began merely as an inspired idea written on a piece of paper and placed in his Carlton bedroom in the inner city suburb of Melbourne. Early on Assange assumed that leaking government secrets would set the world on fire. This did not happen. The world, it appears, did not share Assange’s moral outrage. All of that would change when Wikileaks released a video in April 2010 the site labelled ‘Collateral Murder’, a classified US military video showing the killing of over a dozen people – including two Reuters news staff.

The theory behind Wikileaks is that complex and powerful bureaucracies rely on secrecy, and that once their ability to communicate in this clandestine manner is removed it makes it more difficult for them to exist. Therefore powerful institutions can be crippled by exposing (or rather leaking) their secrets. Basically taking away an organisation’s ability to harbour secrets is like taking away its oxygen, according to Assange’s political philosophy. It reduces the powerful organisation’s ability to communicate within itself; it makes it dysfunctional.

As Assange writes:

“The more secretive or unjust an organisation 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 governance.”

Julian Assange, Electronic Media and the Threat to the Status Quo

The Most Dangerous Man in the World explores three main themes: the character of Assange; the old print and new electronic media; and how powerful political systems react to the threat of having their secrets exposed. Andrew Fowler, a journalist with the ABC, has written a well-considered and thoughtful book about the whole Wikileaks phenomenon, and the mercurial character of Julian Assange. Usually these types of books are quickly knocked up, and are little more than cut-and-paste jobs that lazily skim the surface. As a globetrotting journalist immersed in international politics and media, Fowler brings a refreshing range and subtlety of analysis to his subject. He has also interviewed Assange, for the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program.

The question that most often comes to mind when assessing the cultural significance of Julian Assange is whether he is a freedom warrior, a scourge of despots the world over, or an over hyped computer nerd living in a world of instant media fame.

In Fowler’s portrait, Assange comes across as a bit of an international hobo, travelling the world and staying wherever friends will put him up, but with no fixed address of his own. His essential character is as hard to pin down as his fixed address. Obviously highly intelligent and also creative, he has jokingly described himself as a bit autistic. He also has a tendency to flip friendships into disgruntled enemies with alarming alacrity.

From all the information that Fowler puts forward on Assange, it’s hard to take him seriously as a Messiah of the Internet age. Information technology, with its inexorable march towards complete openness, always made Wikileaks seem like a child predestined to be born. An early supporter of Assange, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, has said he identifies more with Bradley Manning, the 22 year old soldier who leaked the mammoth cache of classified documents to Wikileaks, than with Assange himself. Assange, afterall, is publisher of leaked documents, not the actual leaker. Manning faces life in jail, whereas whether Assange will ever be given a prison sentence seems unlikely.

What The Most Dangerous Man in the World really highlights is the intersection between the work of journalism and the free-for-all world of Internet publishing, where there is no editor, only individuals self-publishing and Google’s mysterious algorithm, which ranks search engine queries as a sort of machine-editor. In the end it was Assange who approached various media outlets to seek advice on how to sort through the material from the leaked US cables. On his own, as a rogue publisher, he made serious editorial mistakes by not redacting names from the Afghanistan war logs, thereby potentially putting lives at risk. Maybe this is Fowler’s journalistic bias coming through in the text, but it seems that editors and journalists are still more important than the absolute freedom of information. Information still needs to be assessed and sorted; individuals need to have their privacy protected from leaks that may endanger their lives, careers or reputations.

Whether Assange’s reputation as a freedom fighter and enlightenment figure will grow with time, it is still too early to tell. Andrew Fowler’s biography of Julian Assange persuades that the Wikileaks founder is more of an old style journalist than anything else, making public what vested interests would like to keep secret.

The Most Dangerous Man in the World, by Andrew Fowler. Published by Melbourne University Press. ISBN: 978-0-522-85866-2

Book Review: The Bible: The Biography, by Karen Armstrong

To many people in the twenty-first century, the Bible may seem an anachronism, but as an all-time best seller, it still attracts many new commentaries. Undoubtedly, Karen Armstrong is one of those best qualified to add to this vast body of literature. Her breadth of knowledge is impressive. After providing an outline of how the sixty-six books were assembled she turns to describing how these texts have been interpreted by different groups of scholars over the ages, in a process which she constantly reminds us is called exegesis, a Greek word meaning to lead or guide out.

Karen Armstrong explains that for hundreds of years before any of the words were committed to writing, the wisdom of the past was passed orally from generation to generation. Story tellers have always been given licence to modify and embellish their tales and this licence was extended to the generations of new authors, many anonymous or purporting to be well-known past prophets, who reworked and rearranged the early texts. ‘From the first, biblical authors felt free to revise the texts they had inherited and give them entirely different meaning.’ Much was added and some things were lost, but eventually an effort was made to establish an official canon, a set of books approved by religious authority.

Two canons are discussed. The books of the Old Testament, originally composed in several languages including Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, are shared by both Jews and Christians, but the books of the New Testament, all originally composed in Greek, are used only by Christians. Karen Armstrong describes how both Jews and Christians have undertaken the process of exegesis over the ages, each seeking new insights from old texts in the belief that this patchwork of ancient papers preserves the hidden Word of God.

Exegesis has been undertaken in an astonishing variety of ways. Many scholars have devoted their lives, and schools have worked for generations, on detailed analysis of every book, chapter and verse. Most efforts have involved looking beyond the words for an underlying meaning. Others have sought new insights by linking words and phrases from different books, often far removed from one another in time and context. Only one system is condemned. The Bible lacks historical accuracy and contains so many contradictions that any attempt at a literal understanding soon leads to confusion. Karen Armstrong is sympathetic to most of the religious groups who have wrestled with this literary leviathan but she warns of the dangers of literal interpretation leading to fundamentalism.

Andy Warhol Biography

A multifaceted personality, Andrew Warhola, popularly called Andy Warhol, began his career as an advertisement illustrator after completing a Bachelors’ Degree in Fine Arts from Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. Born in August 6, 1928 in Pittsburg to parents of Slovakian origin, Andy Warhol suffered from learning disability during his childhood. At the tender age of eight he suffered from the deadly disease of chorea that affected his nervous system and also affected his skin, an ailment that bothered him for the rest of his life. In spite of these impediments, Andy fared well in his academics and later in his career that spanned from an artist, to an author and also as a filmmaker.

Andy’s career as a commercial artist working in New York was a successful one but his quest for attaining popularity for his skill as an artist he drifted into taking up painting. The exhibitions he showed them up with gained immense attraction by art lovers. He intended to popularize paintings and introduced a culture of pop painting. Andy later set up the ‘Factory’ where he built a conglomerate of artists and illustrators who could work for him to produce more of his paintings. The Factory became a popular name and was frequented by several persons of eminence. Andy went to the extent of making screen prints of paintings. That however received severe criticism from several quarters.

His creativity ran boisterous when he began to tread into a pervert domain, when he started making pornographic films and erotic paintings. Some of these like such as Blow Job, Lonesome Cowboy and Chelsea Girls are considered as underground classics. While Factory provided him with a platform to elevate it also brought him close to his death. He was shot at by Valerie Solanis, an associate of his, who turned antagonist over a trivial issue. This gunshot was near serious. It was miraculous that Andy survived. He underwent prolonged surgical treatment and made a come back but the effect of this dreadful act left an adverse effect both on his life and creativity.

Andy Warhol died of a massive heart attack in 1987 on February 22 while undergoing a normal gall bladder operation. His art and the philosophy of his expression has left behind a plethora of creative designs both famous and infamous, but un-ignorable nonetheless.

Display of his woks at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania stands testimony of the creative excellence of this renowned public figure of recent times.