Julian Assange and Edward Snowden Speak to SXSW: A Tale of Two Rebels

Julian Assange appeared, as we told you before, by Skype at SXSW over the weekend. Set against a green-screened Wikileaks logo, wearing a scarf straight from the Doctor Who wardrobe department and an actually respectable showing of facial hair, he gave his usual kind of speech. That's to say, one grounded in a lot of really honorable principles about disclosure and democracy and openness and how constant surveillance undermines all of those things.

Characteristically, of course, all of this noble talk was laced with moments of pure self-aggrandizement:

I am able to exist in a situation which is every national security reporter's dream, which is a land without police... It is a no man's land, as far as coercion is concerned.

If this boast of transcending the police weren't coming from a man who has been confined to an effective house arrest for more than 625 days, possibly he'd be right. Within that context, it's... not right.

Today, it was Edward Snowden's turn to remotely address the assembled (and those of us watching the live feed). Like Assange, he appeared in front of a green screen. His backdrop was what appeared to be the text of the Constitution. Compared to Assange's appearance, the talk was impressively specific and practical. For example: the moderator joked that Snowden's feed was coming through no fewer than seven proxy servers from Russia, where he lives in exile.

Most of his speech had a strange echo effect attached to it, which lent the whole affair a Hollywood futuristic quality. But it also gave you, as the moderators pointed out, an idea of how primitive and buggy a lot of the security tools available out there are. Which makes them less-than-totally-effective solutions for your average citizen just looking to keep their communications relatively anonymous.

Julian Assange and Edward Snowden Speak to SXSW: A Tale of Two Rebels

Called upon to comment on Keith Alexander's worries that Snowden's revelations had undermined data security, Snowden offered a pithy and effective response, which characterized security officials as so eager to hack into others' communications they forgot to close their own backdoors:

They began eroding the protections of our communications in order to get an attacking advantage... It doesn't make sense to be attacking all day and never defending your vault, and it makes even less sense when you set the standards for vaults worldwide and leave a wide backdoor that anyone can walk into.

In case I'm not being clear: Snowden came off as an anti-Assange, the guy who'll show up to your videocast dressed for the office, to talk policy and sense. He didn't really talk about Assange or Wikileaks. Whereas Assange kept referring, over and over, to Snowden's bravery, to the bravery of the journalists who cover Snowden, etc. etc.

In short, Assange looked and talked like the older star welcoming the younger one to the biz, and not all that gracefully.

If you think I'm being too quick to apply the politics of celebrity to freedom fighters, you should probably read this excellent 26,000 word piece recently published by the London Review of Books. Written by Andrew O'Hagan, a regular contributor to the LRB and a contributing editor at Esquire, it details O'Hagan's abortive attempt to collaborate with Assange on a biography in 2011. O'Hagan was not particularly cowed by Assange's already well-documented eccentricities. But as he tells the tale, the far more frustrating thing about Assange was his (and Wikileaks') addiction to the spotlight:

He's not a details guy. None of them is. What they love is the big picture and the general fight. They love the noise and the glamour, the history, the spectacle, but not the fine print... even today, three years later, the cables have never had the dedicated attention they deserve. They made a splash and then were left languishing. I always hoped someone would do a serious editing job, ordering them country by country, contextualising each one, providing a proper introduction, detailing each injustice and each breach, but Julian wanted the next splash and, even more, he wanted to scrap with each critic he found on the internet.

And it was hard, watching both of these guys be livecasted over the last couple of days, not to agree with O'Hagan that Assange's thirst for fame has gotten the better of his project. Meanwhile Snowden's quieter jabs, filtered through the more "careful editing" they're receiving from the journalists who now have their hands on the documents, have probably been more effective than the Assange's sensational dump of cables.

The politics of being a freedom fighter have long been tangled up with those of celebrity. Part of your success at living "outside the law," no matter how just the cause, always seemed to depend on the romanticism of the public image you project. This helps explain why people like Jeffrey Toobin came out of nowhere to, with precious little actual experience of the man, preemptively accuse Snowden of being a "grandiose narcissist."

There was a hope that if Snowden could be turned into a jerk in the public eye from the get-go, the strange guy with the funny girlfriend, that nothing else he'd say would catch on. But here we are, a year later, and he has sparked a giant—and specific—tech conversation.

And the guy who made the much bigger, more deliberate celebrity splash, complete with the rich friends and the million-dollar book deal (that he promptly botched)—well, it really is a nice scarf he's wearing.

Photo Credits: AP.