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Martyrdom, messianism and Julian Assange

[ by Charles Cameron ]

Martyr and messiah are two of the more intense “roles” in the religious vocabulary, and unlike mystics and saints, both martyrs and messiahs tend to have an impact, not just within their own religious circles but in the wider context of the times.

Martyr and messiah are also words that can be bandied about fairly loosely — so a simple word-search on “messiah” will reveal references to a third-person platform game with some gunplay and the white messiah fable in Avatar, while a search on “martyr” might tell you how to become a martyr for affiliate networks, just as a search on “crusade” will turn up crusades for justice or mental health – my search today even pointed me to a crusade for cloth diapers.

1. Martyrdom and messianism in WikiLeaks

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, both terms crop up occasionally in WikiLeaks, with the Government of Iraq, for instance, banning use of the word “martyr” for soldiers who died in the war with Iran, and US diplomats wiring home a report by an opposition psychiatrist to the effect that “Morally, Chavez [of Venezuela] combines a sense of tragedy and romanticism (a desire for an idyllic world) to project a messianic image.” Indeed, the whole paragraph is choc-a-bloc with that kind of imagery, and worth quoting in full:

Ideologically, Chavez wants to project an image of a “utopian socialist,” which de Vries described as someone who is revolutionary, collectivist, and dogmatic. In reality, de Vries argues, Chavez is an absolute pragmatist when it comes to maintaining power, which makes him a conservative. Coupled with Chavez’ self-love (narcissism), sense of destiny, and obsession with Venezuelan symbolism, this pragmatism makes Chavez look more like fascist, however, rather than a socialist. Morally, Chavez combines a sense of tragedy and romanticism (a desire for an idyllic world) to project a messianic image. De Vries, however, said Chavez is a realist who uses morals and ethics to fit the situation.

PM Netanyahu of Israel was using the term “messianic” with a little more precision when he described the Iranian regime as “crazy, retrograde, and fanatical, with a Messianic desire to speed up a violent ‘end of days.'”

2. Julian Assange in the role of martyr

The words martyr and messiah, then, carry a symbolic freight that is at the very least comparable to that of flags and scriptures – so it is interesting that both terms crop up in the recent BBC interview with Julian Assange.

My reading of the interview suggests that it is Assange himself who introduces the meme of martyrdom, though not the word itself, when he answers a question about the impact of the sexual accusations against him, “What impact so you think that will have on your organisation and what sort of figure do you think you, Julian Assange, cut in the face of all this. How will you be regarded? What will it do to you?” with the response, “I think it will be quite helpful for our organisation.”

In the follow up, interviewer John Humphrys twice uses the word “martyr” explicitly:

Q: Really? You see yourself as a martyr then?

JA: I think it will focus an incredible attention on the details of this case and then when the details of this case come out and people look to see what the actions are compared to the reality of the facts, other than that, it will expose a tremendous abuse of power. And that will, in fact, be helpful to this organisation. And, in fact, the extra focus that has occurred over the last two weeks has been very helpful to this organisation.


Q: Just to answer that question then. You think this will be good for you and good for Wikileaks?

JA: I’ve had to suffer and we’ve had incredible disruptions.

Q: You do see yourself as a martyr here.

JA: Well, you know, in a very beneficial position, if you can be martyred without dying. And we’ve had a little bit of that over the past ten days. And if this case goes on, we will have more.

3. Julian Assange in the role of messiah

If the role of martyr implies, at mimimum, that one suffers for a cause, that of messiah implies that one leads it in a profound transformation of the world. Both terms are now found in association with the word “complex” – which applies whenever a individual views himself or herself as a martyr or messiah – but a “messianic complex” is presumably more worrisome than a “martyr complex” if only for the reason that there are many more martyrs than messiahs, many more willing to suffer for a cause than to lead it.

It is accordingly worth noting that it is the interviewer, John Humphrys, who introduces both the word “messianic” and the concept of a “messianic figure” into the interview, although Assange makes no effort to wave it away…

Q: Just a final thought. Do you see yourself… as some sort of messianic figure?

JA: Everyone would like to be a messianic figure without dying. We bringing some important change about what is perceived to be rights of people who expose abuses by powerful corporations and then to resist censorship attacks after the event. We are also changing the perception of the west.

Q: I’m talking about you personally.

JA: I’m always so focussed on my work, I don’t have time to think about how I perceive myself… I had time to perceive myself a bit more in solitary confinement. I was perfectly happy with myself. I wondered what that process would do. Would I think “my goodness, how have I got into this mess, is it all just too hard?”

The world is a very ungrateful place, why should I continue to suffer simply to try and do some good in the world. If the world is so viciously against it ,why don’t I just go off and do some mathematics or write some books? But no, actually, I felt quite at peace.

Q: You want to change the world?

JA: Absolutely. The world has a lot of problems and they need to be reformed. And we only live once. Every person who has some ability to do something about it, if they are a person of good character, has the duty to try and fix the problems in the environment which they’re in.

That is a value, that, yes, comes partly from my temperament. There is also a value that comes from my father, which is that capable, generous men don’t create victims, they try and save people from becoming victims. That is what they are tasked to do. If they do not do that they are not worthy of respect or they are not capable.

4. Julian Assange, martyr and messiah?

I think it is clear that both Assange and his interviewer are in effect reframing the religious terms “martyr” and “messiah” in non-religious, basically psychological senses — although I don’t suppose Assange is exactly claiming to have the two “complexes” I mentioned above.

Here’s what’s curious about this reframing, from a religious studies point of view:

Assange’s implicit acceptance of a “messianic” role undercuts the specific force of the role of “martyr” – one who gives his life for the cause. “Everyone” he says, “would like to be a messianic figure without dying.” Assange wouldn’t exactly object to being a martyr without dying, too.

8 Responses to “Martyrdom, messianism and Julian Assange”

  1. Larry Dunbar Says:

    Your need to destroy Assange is getting embarrassing. Why not make lemonaid?

  2. jeane Says:

    Julian Assange invites comparison with other charismatics who take on a world changing role.  This is not a "lemons or lemonade"-scale issue.  It is doing social science in situ as something familiar appears.  It was Assange who introduced the word "messiah" and the word "martyr."

    He also, please notice, refers to the morality of his mission.  That is also typical of the world changing charismatic.  In fact, bin Ladin is an insufferable moralist himself.  Not that Assange is bin Ladin, but Assange and bin Ladin fit a paradigm that might be termed "messianic." 

    This, of course, is a preliminary assessment, and it occurred to me when Wikileaks dumped its third mountain of inchoate material on the Internet.  Others have pointe out also, that this was not your normal leak.  It did not target a particular problem or deal with a particular offense, as did the first leak of the atrocity video.  This leak was indiscriminate and larger.  In fact, one can see an "escalation" in the leaks, culminating the the careful plan to leak a "nuclear" file that he encrypted and holds the key to as a threat if he is "martyred."

    Messiahs come in all shapes, sizes, purposes, and senses of self-regard.  Assange seems to be putting himself forward on the world scene by his deeds.  It is difficult to regard him as other than self-serving, despite his "message" of reforming the world.

    So, I would consider him someone who is consciously taking on a messiah role in order to fulfill some internal purpose of self-regard.  He is a magnetizing personality.  Charismatics do not brainwash.  That is a mistake.  They attract followers who willingly give them their allegiance, because they believe charismatics have miraculous (or genius-like) powers.

  3. Bryan Alexander Says:

    Charles, have you played with the N-grams and various messiah words?

  4. J.N. Kish Says:

    @ Larry Dunbar – People have to learn the real story behind this media-created character Julian Assange.  It is not embarrassing to go "on alert" when something is obviously wrong with someone or something.  In fact, it is natural and correct to alert others to a dangerous situation.  Make no mistake, the WikiLeaks situation (and Julian Assange) is dangerous – for reasons you will not see reported in the mainstream media.Links-Article – The WikiLeaks Trap – Don’t fall for it!Kish Collections: The WikiLeaks Trap – Don’t fall for it!Message board post that outlines leads into the past of WikiLeaks-Huge Wikileak document dump – TFPIf We Lose our Internet Freedoms Because of Wikileaks, You Should At Least Know Why « American EverymanActivist Post: BREAKING: WikiLeaks Being Used to Justify "Patriot Act" Legislation For InternetKish Collections: Media Hypes New WikiLeaks Front Man – John Young“Trying to Explain the World” – How the Globalist’s PR Agents Use the Wikileaks Psyops Program « American EverymanJournalists at Pentagon daily barred from WikiLeaksDRUDGE HEADLINE – UN PLANS INTERNET REGULATIONUN mulls internet regulation optionsWikiLeaks sparks push for tighter controls.http://www.itnews.com.au/News/242051,un-mu…on-options.aspxKeep up the great work Zenpundit – you are on the right track.Note:  In the first linked article above, pay special attention to quote from Andy Greenberg which was published in a Forbes article."Admire him or revile him, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is the prophet of a coming age of involuntary transparency, the leader of an organization devoted to divulging the world’s secrets using technology unimagined a generation ago."People must maintain perspective -"Prophet of a coming age of involuntary transparency"? Assange is a guy with a web site. The real story here should be about the data – and who is helping Assange – not Assange himself.

  5. J.N. Kish Says:

    My comment lost all of it’s formatting when I pressed the Submit button – sorry.  I went ahead and created a separate (and more readable) post with the same information here – Kish Collections: Fighting the Mainstream Media Machine – Revealing the Truth about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Jean — thanks as always for your comment.
    My one comment in return would be that Assange doesn’t himself introduce the actual words "martyr" and "messianic" into the interview in question, though I’d say he introduces the theme of martyrdom, and doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with the idea of himself as some kind of messianic figure.

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’ve tried using the Google N-grams, but mostly learned that 1834-44 was a peak time for references to the "Second Coming".  But you know me — I prefer qualitative tools to quantitative, and anecdote and quotation to simple word counts… <grin>

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Larry and JN —
    Thanks for your comments.  I’ve posted a follow-up that responds to them (among other things) here.
    JN — thanks for the reformatting and link.

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