Julian Assange is the Man of Our Time. In the space of a single generation, our “icons” have gone from being simple, straightforward exemplars of a single quality to enigmas who exist in fragments, unknowable to us, perhaps even unknowable to themselves.
Is Mr. Assange a heroic fighter for political honesty and decency? Judging by the way The Times and other major newspapers have been prominently publishing his leaks of secret diplomatic cables, you would think he was. Is he a threat to the legitimate protection of political and national interests? Judging by the way the same papers have been conscientiously, yet somewhat surreally, reporting the destruction of legitimate careers and legitimate relationships as a result of the leaks, you would think he was. Reckless sociopath? Knight of populist redress? Compulsive rapist? Defender of democratic virtue? In a 10,000-word New Yorker profile, he comes across as victim, paranoid, hero, a case of arrested development, an absent-minded genius, a vulnerable innocent, a “devilish” calculator, a mama’s boy, a mensch, a megalomaniac.
In T magazine, however, he appears in a glossy fashion photograph as stubbled, impish, masterful, relaxed and utterly divorced from any context that might define him.
So who is this “icon”?
It used to be, not long ago, that we were content to allow our celebrated figures to serve as rudimentary moral guides to our national existence. Often, they simply stood for the proverbial American promise of going somewhere from nowhere. By talking about them, we reassured ourselves about the possibilities of American life. Europe had the grandiose Age of Romanticism. We had the humbly born Marilyn, or Sinatra, or Elvis. We liked to crystallize an epoch in an individual as a way to offer individuals the hope of transcending their epoch.
Of course we knew there was more going on behind the scenes and under the surface. The gossip industry emitted steady inklings of Marilyn’s bruising sex life, Sinatra’s gangster connections, Elvis’ drug use and his taste for prepubescent girls. But our own lives were so layered, nuanced, complex and secretly startling that we let sleeping dogs lie.
Back then, you might say that everyone, straight or gay was, to one degree or another, in the closet where identity was concerned. We liked keeping public figures public; it certified our own sense of security about our private lives. Plus, we needed public myths because they provided something simple to navigate by. They were a relief. Enjoying them made up a big part of our leisure time. If we wanted complexity, ambiguity and nuance, we read a serious novel.
Now the steady deluge of information has turned all our leisure time into work. We read the superficial revelations of chatter–or at least skim them–incessantly. The very volume of informational stuff makes it necessary to sift through it and determine what’s true and what isn’t. In the Age of Sinatra, you read the paper or watched the evening news, reflected on what you read and watched and then osmotically allowed it to settle into your picture of reality. That was what was known as leisure time. Now we read dozens of accounts of the same event as it’s unfolding; we examine, analyze, compare. There’s no time for leisure at all.
No time for judgment, either. Each version of an event gives way to another. Each interpretation of a person gives way to another. Life has become Cubistic. There are dozens of Assanges. Dozens of Elizabeth Edwards. Dozens of Barack Obamas. One minute Mel Gibson is beating his girlfriend, the next minute the gossip sites are sizzling with photos of him playing tenderly with his young daughter. Michael Jackson: Pathetic? Perverted? Princely? No wonder that when they release some new Nixon tapes every couple of years, commentators report on Nixon’s racism and anti-Semitism with something like relief. His villainy is a kind of White Christmas. It is consistent, reliable, and predictable, just like the ones you used to know.
One of the reasons the novel has become culturally irrelevant is that the cult of information now performs the novel’s function. What with leaked emails, and Facebook pages, and memoirs, we see the public and private dimensions of people’s lives simultaneously. You used to have to go to a literary novel for that.
Even as Elizabeth Edwards was trying publicly to weather the storm of her husband’s betrayals with dignity, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann were exposing selective episodes from her private life in their book Game Change. At one point, they depict her fighting with her husband in an airport and tearing open her blouse to show him her mastectomy scars, as she staggered, “nearly falling to the ground,” in the two authors’ words. (And there on Chris Matthews was none other than Mr. Halperin, who had humiliated Elizabeth and vilified her as a monster, appearing just after Elizabeth died and paying tribute to her as “one of the most public and valiant cancer survivors this country has ever seen.”)
When Nixon’s men had operatives break into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, they were looking for the kind of information that has now become standard in mainstream journalism. The expertly rendered New Yorker profile of Mr. Assange came with all the detail necessary for a clinical diagnosis. Seeming to have never known his father, Mr. Assange was shaped by an unhealthy attachment to an unstable and nomadic mother, who joined her self-destructive impulses to an intolerance for any type of social or emotional relationship–except, maybe, the one with her son. Mr. Assange’s subsequent antagonisms to his mother’s second husband and her lovers sealed his fate as being helplessly driven against authority. Not long ago, it took decades to make public that kind of intimate material about someone. Can you imagine Daniel Ellsberg’s mother telling a reporter, as Mr. Assange’s mother told The New Yorker about her son, that she was sure Daniel “has some P.T.S.D. that is untreated”?
Then, again, there is that cool, beautiful, glamorous, master-of-the-world photograph in T.
We all thought we knew who John F. Kennedy was. Until history Cubistized him. Try to put your finger on Mr. Obama. He is pre-Cubistized. You read his memoir and put it down less sure of who he is than before you picked it up. He has been compared to, or compared himself to: J.F.K., F.D.R., Lincoln, Truman, Reagan, Carter, Clinton. He is (a) a socialist; (b) a capitalist tool; (c) a soggy-eyed idealist; (d) a callous pragmatist; (e) an arrogant elitist; (f) a downtrodden revolutionary; (g) a frantic amateur; (h) a cynical opportunist. When, last week, Mr. Obama turned a White House press briefing over to Bill Clinton, it was as if he was acknowledging that his authority and appeal, such as they are, lie in not standing for anything, as a personality, at all.
I don’t know whether getting contemporary icons beamed at you in fragmented rays of public and private is a good or a bad thing. It’s unclear whether the new simultaneity of public and private adds up to anything truer than the old romantic opacity. But here’s another way of looking at it. In the age of Kennedy, Sinatra, Marilyn, Elvis et al., no one was scanning your naked body at airports. Maybe we respond with special horror to the fact of standing there fully clothed while someone is looking at us stark naked because, after all, we expect to be entertained by the same phenomenon the minute we touch down.