Follow-up: Martyrdom, messianism and Julian Assange

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on Zenpundit and ChicagoBoyz, picking up on some comments made on both sites, explaining my own interests, and taking the inquiry a little further.

On Zenpundit, Larry said, “Your need to destroy Assange is getting embarrassing. Why not make lemonaid?” and JN Kish, “The real story here should be about the data – and who is helping Assange – not Assange himself.” Meanwhile on ChicagoBoyz, a certain Gerald Attrick commented, “Ah, but as we say in in art crit: Deal with the Art and not the Man…”

To Larry I would say, I think that my post WikiLeaks: Counterpoint at the State Department? — in which I point up the irony inherent in the same State Department spokesman celebrating World Press Freedom Day and chiding Assange for “providing a targeting list to a group like al-Qaida” on the same day — could as easily be read as pro-Assange as today’s post, Martyrdom, messianism and Julian Assange can be read as calling for his destruction.

More generally, it seems to me that there are a whole lot of stories to be told here: the ones I wish to tell are those where I have a reasonably informed “nose” for relevant detail, and which tend to be overlooked by others — and thus have the potential to blindside us.


My own main interest is in tracking religious, mythic and apocalyptic themes in contemporary affairs, where they are all too easily overlooked, misunderstood or dismissed. Thus I have posted on Tracking the Mahdi on WikiLeaks, and added related material in section 1 of my post today.

I am also interested in concept mapping, games and creative thinking — interests which led me to post WikiLeaks: Critical Foreign Dependencies and The WikiLeaks paradox, and more lightheartedly to take an amused sideways glance at WikiLeaks in The power of network visualization.

And I certainly find Assange himself an interesting figure, and have done what I can to illuminate his background in mythology, religion and games in Wikileaks and the Search for a Cryptographic Mythology, again in Update: Wikileaks and Cryptographic Mythology and (again light-heartedly) in A DoubleQuote for Anders.


Let me be more explicit: I have no wish to lionize Assange, nor to feed him to the lions — I would like to understand him a little better.

I come from a scholarly tradition that doesn’t favor the demonization of new religious movements, and believes (for instance) that it is entirely plausible that the Waco inferno could have been avoided if the religious beliefs of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians had been taken seriously as such, and not dismissed out of hand as “bible babble”.

James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher in Why Waco for instance, write:

The Waco situation could have been handled differently and possibly resolved peacefully. This is not unfounded speculation or wishful thinking. It is the considered opinion of the lawyers who spent the most time with the Davidians during the siege and of various scholars of religion who understand biblical apocalyptic belief systems such as that of the Branch Davidians. There was a way to communicate with these biblically oriented people, but it had nothing to do with hostage rescue or counterterrorist tactics. Indeed, such a strategy was being pursued, with FBI cooperation, by Phillip Arnold of the Reunion Institute in Houston and James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, one of the authors of this book. Arnold and Tabor worked in concert with the lawyers Dick DeGuerin and Jack Zimmerman, who spent a total of twenty hours inside the Mount Carmel center between March 29 and April 4, communicating directly with Koresh and his main spokesperson, Steve Schneider. Unfortunately, these attempts came too late. By the time they began to bear positive results, decisions had already been made in Washington to convince Attorney General Janet Reno to end the siege by force.

Jane Seminaire Docherty’s Learning Lessons from Waco, similarly, “offers a fresh perspective on the activities of law enforcement agents. She shows how the Waco conflict resulted from a collision of two distinct worldviews-the FBI’s and the Davidians’—and their divergent notions of reality. By exploring the failures of the negotiations, she also urges a better understanding of encounters between rising religious movements and dominant social institutions.” [Syracuse UP]

I’d therefore be hesitant to drag Assange into a somewhat murky association with the “cult milieu” – but Assange himself was quite open in talking with Raffi Khatchadourian of the New Yorker about the man his mother lived with and had a child by, then ran away from, after her marriage to Assange’s father broke up. Khatchadourian writes:

When I asked him about the experience, he told me that there was evidence that the man belonged to a powerful cult called the Family—its motto was “Unseen, Unknown, and Unheard.” Some members were doctors who persuaded mothers to give up their newborn children to the cult’s leader, Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The cult had moles in government, Assange suspected, who provided the musician with leads on Claire’s whereabouts.

Wikipedia’ has an account of that group, also known as the Santiniketan Park Association.

And as you might expect, there’s a bizarre and frankly conspiracist take on this connection already out and about on the web.


For a more detailed and indeed harrowing view of the Santiniketan Park Association from a member who left, see this excerpt from Sarah Moore’s book, Unseen, Unheard, Unknown.

A couple of odd remarks here strike me:

Some of us had multiple birth certificates and passports, and citizenship of more than one country. Only she knows why thus was and why we were also all dressed alike, why most of us even had our hair dyed identically blond.
The motto of the sect is ‘Unseen, Unheard and Unknown’, and even now the thought of the consequences of betraying that motto still worries me sometimes.
We weren’t often allowed to see newspapers, in fact that happened only after we were quite a bit older and even then they’d been censored .


Looking back, I can see that any game or hobby that we started we would get hooked on, playing it over and over again in our limited spare time. If we got into a game or fantasy we tended to want to keep on with it and it assumed the utmost importance in our lives.
It might have appeared that we were obsessive kids but it was understandable considering the malevolent reality we faced outside our games. Usually Anne and the Aunties saw to it that as soon as we started enjoying ourselves, it was stopped, and a new rule would be made, forbidding us from playing that particular game. We would thus be forced to try and make up a new one within the boundaries of the rules that governed our lives, still knowing that eventually this new one would be banned also.


Speaking of “cults” – there are several WL cables that make reference to a cult or cults, generally in the context of a “cult of personality” (Mao, eg), and in one case with reference to Scientology. There’s also – and this where things get interesting from my POV — one intriguing reference to a cult in Iran:

Though stressing that he is not an opponent of the Islamic system, he warned that the Revolutionary Guard-based faction which “stole the election,” and is now seeking total control is “extremely dangerous to both us and you.” He repeatedly characterized this group as “a criminal cult,” motivated by its fanaticism, ignorance, and the monetary self-interest of its members. He added that the group is intent on exporting revolution. According to source, both Ahmedinejad and Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi are affiliates rather than “leaders” of this group, and neither will likely end up with significant power if the group successfully consolidates control over the state and its economy (see reftel).

A religious group of which “both Ahmedinejad and Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi are affiliates” sounds suspiciously like the Hojjatiyeh.

But that’s the topic for another upcoming post, I promise.

2 thoughts on “Follow-up: Martyrdom, messianism and Julian Assange”

  1. I don’t think there is a need to evoke cults to explain Assange.

    From revelations about his personal and professional life, he is just an egomaniacal narcissist and possibly borderline sociopath. He didn’t startup Wikileaks out of any righteous zeal, he did it as a means of self-promotion to feed his ego.

    His public statements and general attitude is one of utter self-rightousness and utter indifference to the negative consequences of his actions. He believes himself always right and beyond questioning by anyone else.

    Had the good that Wikileaks could do been his primary motivation, he would have remained anonymous to make it harder for authorities to target the organization. He wouldn’t have turned himself into a media star. He certainly wouldn’t have centralized all control of Wikileaks technical infrastructure (including things like passwords) to himself such that his removal would cripple the organization.

  2. Hi Shannon:

    Over at Zenpundit, David Ronfeldt commented, encouraging me to “keep at it” in “inquiring persistently into the messianic and related mental dynamics” — and mildly suggesting “hubris and nemesis dynamics” as areas of equivalent interest — he discusses them in one of his RAND reports, Beware the Hubris-Nemesis Complex. I was very glad of his encouragement, but unsure as to why I found hubris and nemesis different enough from messianism that I wasn’t tracking them with equivalent interest.

    I think it’s for the same reason I personally am unlikely to use words like “egomaniacal narcissist and possibly borderline sociopath” to describe Assange. If someone talks about being a martyr or a messiah, they’re self-identifying as such, and i don’t feel any discomfort in discussing the matter on that basis — but if they act in ways that might well be considered hubristic, or narcissistic, or sociopathic, I may have a layman’s intuition about them, but I lack the professional qualifications to back up a diagnosis.

    I do think it’s interesting, however, that the person primarily responsible for all these leaks was in childhood associated with (or on the run from) a sect that had as its motto, “Unseen, Unheard and Unknown”… So from my POV, research into the religious “background” of Assange is of value in understanding the man, besides being the natural direction of inquiry my mind tends to adopt — and if I’d grown up with the interest in psychology that I now have in religion, I’d probably be using other yardsticks, and might well be evaluating Assange for signs of hubris or narcissism.

    I’m certainly interested to read your insights, or David’s, in regard to those issues.

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