Assange Is No Tragic Hero

22 Aug 2012

Ravi Somaiya for the New York Times:

Beyond the reach of police officers waiting to arrest him and with hundreds of supporters looking on, Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, took to the balcony of Ecuador’s embassy here on Sunday to condemn the United States government and cast himself as one of the world’s most persecuted whistle-blowers.

The dramatic form of tragedy makes art out of suffering. Aeschylus pained Agamemnon and Orestes for the beauty of his Oresteia; Antigone had to choose between the laws of men and the Law; and Plato documented the trial of Socrates in order to showcase justice, both the miscarriage and the celebration of it. Of these figures, only Antigone and Socrates share a common bond: their obligation to a force that is beyond themselves. But of these figures, which should be praised and which should be scorned?

When Orestes avenges his father’s murder, we are supposed to praise his sense of duty and courageousness, but Orestes was not even sure that his actions were righteous. It is only after he holds the bloodstained robes of Agamemnon that he knows he has done good. Even the action of matricide itself is hardly worth of note, because Orestes believes he will be absolved of the crime. Simply put, Orestes stayed off of the grass because a sign told him too.

It is only in The Eumenides that we get our first glimpse of the tragic circumstances of Orestes and that is only because he must outrun the consequences of his actions: Clytemnestra’s summoning of the furies, but this is hardly the tragedy, because Orestes is simply getting what he should have expected of his crime. His suffering, as represented by the furies, is a manifestation of his own guilt.

Agamemnon thinks his kingly obligations allow him to shirk his fatherly duties and trade the life of his daughter to honor the gods. Orestes believes himself the sole keeper of the laws of men (in punishing Aegisthus for adultery) and the Law (in avenging his father by killing his mother). Antigone and Socrates are polar opposites to the House of Atreus. They are each bound, not merely by the creed of a king or the word of the gods, but by an obligation that has absolute rule over both. Their tragedy is that they both know their places in the world and suffer for it.

Antigone knows that she is Creon’s subject, but she also knows that she is first subject to something greater: to truth. Her brother must be buried, because it is the place of all human beings to end up in the ground. We are born and our lives can be as free as we desire, but when we die we are to return to the earth.

This act also serves to showcase the hubris of Creon. He may be king, but he is also a man and it is a Law far above him that he breaks in ordering the public display of Polynices. When he punishes Antigone for upholding the law, he is claiming that his rules are more important and is then punished himself, losing his son and wife before falling to madness.

Antigone and Socrates are tragic heroes because they, in recognizing their obligation to truth and answering the call, are punished. They do not attempt to escape or talk their way out of their situations: they have acted for the Law, but against the law and must face the consequences of those actions.

They suffer and ultimately die for doing the right thing. Does every answer to the call of truth have to end in death? Not necessarily, but for every Rosa Parks there is a Martin Luther King, Jr.; for every William Du Bois, there is a Malcom X. Speaking truth to power is always a dangerous exercise, but for some the call is too loud to ignore. These grand figures, with those of Antigone and Socrates, have not left behind guidelines on how to capitalize on moments of truth or beauty, because there are none. Sophocles and Plato simply remind us that, even amidst our strangely relentless struggle against the universe, there is something greater than ourselves.