On Julian Assange – A Social Bandit

5 03 2011

As we explore morality of Wikileaks and having read numerous accounts and journalistic pieces on the process of releasing top secret information, about ego of its chief hacker who has also considered himself a journalist, and about a careful creation of formal media distribution channels for this type of illegal content — I have an admission to make — my opinion on the matter remains unclear.  Nevertheless, it has made me toss this subject around a bit.

I read something recently in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Bonfire of the Vanities” that reminded me of Julian Assange, and for that matter many other ‘unreasonable’ and ‘uncompromising’ characters who end up making history.

Tom Wolf compared one of his civil rights fighters in his novel to a concept coined by the Brit Hobsbawm

“He had this theory about primitive revolutionaries.  There are certain natural leaders of the underclasses, and the power structure interprets what they do as crime–they may even sincerely interpret it that way–but what that person is, is a revolutionary.”

This act of a primitive revolutionary, Eric Hobsbawm termed “social banditry” in his book “Primitive Rebels.”

Social banditry is a popular form of resistance that is also characterized as illegal by law.    It is also a typical Robin Hood model in which individuals who live on the edges of rural societies rob and plunder from the rich.  They are often seen by ordinary people as heroes.

Today, this outlawed activity can be compared to computer hacking, piracy, organized crime, street gangs, illegal drug trade.  Hobsbawm describes an outlaw as a bandit in the following way:

“The point about social bandits is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported. This relation between the ordinary peasant and the rebel, outlaw and robber is what makes social banditry interesting and significant … Social banditry of this kind is one of the most universal social phenomena known to history.”

In Tom Wolf’s novel, the civil rights revolutionaries were not necessarily depicted as the ones with the cleanest moral character, despite the fact that their cause was the just one.   The just cause sometimes can cause an upheaval which may result in the destruction of the innocent.

Perhaps so it goes for the Julian Assange story, which in its entirety– it is not so clear cut as to arrive to a black or a white conclusion.





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