Two unlikable characters share birthday today, both of whom have struggled with secrecy and transparency.
The French King Louis XI, known as “The Prudent” was born this day in 1423. Louis was a strong-willed and rebellious young prince. His intrigues and open rebellion against his father, Charles troubled the King but the son followed much of his father’s policies when he ascended the French throne in 1461 upon his father’s death.
Louis XI used secret plots and subterfuge to effectively curtail the power of local dukes and lords thereby uniting France under his command. He encouraged trade fairs and the building and maintenance of roads. He is seen as one of the first modern kings of France who helped take it out of the Middle Ages.
Louis XI was highly superstitious and surrounded himself with astrologers. Interested in science, he once pardoned a man sentenced to death on condition that he act as a guinea pig for a gallstone operation. We don’t know what happened to the poor wretch but we do know that this headstrong, secretive and cunning king made few friends during his reign.
Through war, cunning and sheer guile, Louis XI overcame France’s feudal lords, and at the time of his death in the Château de Plessis-lez-Tours, he had united France and laid the foundations of a strong monarchy. He was, however, a secretive, reclusive man, and few mourned his death.
Almost in complete antithesis, except perhaps for his misanthropic personality, today we can mark the birth in 1971 of Julian Assange in Queensland, Australia.
Assange is a mommy’s boy who grew-up under extremely unstable circumstances, moving dozens of times during his childhood with his mother, Chrsitine. At 16, Assange got into computer hacking and took the name “Mendax” as his non-de-guerre. He formed a group called the International Subversives who claimed to do ethical hacking. When he was 20, Assange was arrested and charged with hacking activities and eventually pleaded guilty.
The Judge at his trial said: “there is just no evidence that there was anything other than sort of intelligent inquisitiveness and the pleasure of being able to — what’s the expression — surf through these various computers” and stated that Assange would have gone to jail for up to 10 years if he had not had such a disrupted childhood.
Assange started studying at various Universities in Australia and was clearly a bright lad but he dropped-out and started Wiki-leaks in 2006. He writes that his thinking behind Wiki-leaks is; “to radically shift regime behaviour we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not.”
In his blog he once wrote: ”
” the more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…. Since unjust systems, by their nature, induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”
The accuracy of these reflections is matched, word for word by the arrogance of the man. His overweening sense of personal destiny and his need for publicity has been his greatest flaw and, will be his downfall.
Today Assange lives in a room in an embassy in London, a fugitive from Swedish sex abuse laws and the United States authorities who are seeking to try him for publishing their top secret documents on Afghanistan.
The management and control of information is a vexing and difficult skill. There is a need to maintain confidentiality because we all have the right to privacy and our own secret lives. The right to information about the actions of those who claim to act in our interests, are paid by our taxes and who represent us is also a right, and more urgently ensures that we can hold our public representatives to account.
King Louis XI would not agree with me and neither would Julian Assange. The former because he wants to retain power by keeping secrets, the latter because he wants to gain publicity by telling the secrets of others to the world at large.