Occupy Wall Street, Julian Assange, and the Advantages of a Leaderless Movement

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Wikileaks founder Julian Assange pushes through photographers and camera crews as he leaves the High Court in central London, on July 13, 2011. Judges at Britain's High Court on Wednesday deferred a decision in the appeal of WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange against his extradition to Sweden to face rape allegations. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images, Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Intent on upending the status quo, a band of rebels gather to disrupt the underpinnings of U.S. society.  In the wake of widespread media coverage, they're branded as either free-thinking revolutionaries or filthy renegades. This year, Occupy Wall Street — and beyond — fits that description, but last year around this time, you would have thought of WikiLeaks. Just twelve months later, however, the organization has all but disappeared, save for the latest round of squabbling between Julian Assange and the media. Tonight, a new documentary, True Stories: WikiLeaks, airs in the U.K., and it has sparked chatter not about the group's accomplishments —  Wikileaks has published no major leaks in 2011 — but once again about Assange's personality, after he called the British press a "credit-stealing, credit-whoring, backstabbing industry." The contrast with OWS's relatively anonymous, semi-horizontal leadership structure is telling.

Although WikiLeaks first gained prominence with the "Collateral Murder" video of a U.S. helicopter shooting civilians and the Iraq War logs that followed, coverage quickly shifted to its enigmatic leader — and he welcomed it. An early profile in The New Yorker painted Assange as something out of a James Bond film, and he embraced his international fugitive reputation, even making his look slicker for embarrassing fashion spreads. Assange's dating life (and OKCupid profile) became objects of fascination. But his reputation was quickly complicated, to put it mildly, by allegations of sexual assault from two women, for which he could very well be extradited to Sweden from the U.K. by the year's end. (Assange contends the allegations are nothing but a conspiratorial witch hunt.)

Funny dancing videos and tales of bad manners soon followed, and WikiLeaks became indistinguishable from its leader's personal issues. Because they've reported on the rape claims, journalists with whom Assange once collaborated to publish state secrets have been blacklisted by WikiLeaks, and they have not hesitated to hit back. Assange is called an "extraordinarily dishonest man" by a notable reporter in the new documentary, while the Times has described in gossipy detail his transition from a "derelict" "bag lady" into an "outlaw celebrity," who was "evidently a magnet for women." The defection of a high-ranking employee and his subsequent tell-all book sent the exchange rate of Assange gossip soaring, and likely would have overshadowed WikiLeaks news, if there had been any WikiLeaks news to overshadow. Instead, it's The Julian Assange Show, which will continue next week when he's back in court to face that pesky extradition ruling.

The media has tried to put a face atop the Occupy protests: The New Yorker and New York Times have both recently zeroed in on Adbusters co-founder Kalle Lasn, who came up with the Twitter hashtag #OCCUPYWALLSTREET and the earliest ideas of a downtown occupation. But Lasn has made no major decisions — the demonstrating groups do that by a 90 percent majority vote — and he's insistent that he has no interest in a leadership role or speaking for the movement. And while there are prime movers on the ground at OWS, as John Heilemann details in this week's magazine, there is nothing close to an Assange-style chief.

As a result, while Occupy Wall Street's public dramas so far — crimes on location, shady characters on the fringes — have been extensively (and sometimes exaggeratedly) cataloged by outlets like the New York Post, and the movement has been characterized as made up of dirty, smelly hippies, reports of wrongdoing don't stick so well if they have no public figure to stick to. Instead, low-level troublemakers disappear from coverage as quickly as they can be thrown out of the self-policed encampments.

Assange's hole is deeper: In addition to his own legal issues, WikiLeaks has ceased publishing until they work out their financial problems, and an updated leak-submission system was delayed again this week. Occupy Wall Street has been set back by nationwide evictions and its fate is uncertain, but with money in the bank and no scandals to speak of, no one is writing them off yet. The next group of revolutionaries should probably take care to avoid relying at all on a charismatic yet troubled public commander.