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Book Review: Gonzo journalist Barrett Brown’s memoir a piquant take on hacktivism’s rise

Book Review: Gonzo journalist Barrett Brown’s memoir a piquant take on hacktivism’s rise

His talents are in full bloom and basking in public admiration, gonzo journalist and veteran anti-establishment troublemaker Barrett Brown is jailed in his native Texas on various federal felony charges.

It is 2013 and Brown’s adventures have included helping Anonymous hacktivists publicly expose private US intelligence contractors engaged in deep-state power abuses at a time of rising concerns over Big Brother surveillance.

Brown has done this in swashbuckling style – often in a drug-altered state, chatting with executives whose hacked emails have been dumped online while on opiate maintenance medication. Brown, who was in withdrawal from antidepressants and opioids, would later testify when he threatened an FBI agent in a video posted to YouTube.

“I wanted to become famous for overthrowing things,” Brown writes in his much-awaited memoir, “My Glorious Defeats: Hacktivist, Narcissist, Anonymous.”

Mainstream press coverage at the time of Brown’s prosecution was uneven and sometimes just plain inaccurate. Beyond seeking to set the record straight, the book snapshots a pivotal moment in online activism, and pulls no punches.

Although not a hacker, Brown was a well-known actor/provocateur in the rise of hacktivism, a powerful strand of political activism pioneered by the likes of WikiLeaks that tapped the internet to expose wrongdoing and spur change. That includes supporting Tunisia’s 2011 popular uprising.

Those shenanigans preceded Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations of wholesale unauthorized National Security Agency surveillance of the US public, which would erase doubts about their fairness.

Brown is a showman, a gifted writer in the tradition of William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. He also has a knack for self-sabotage and has struggled with heroin addiction and depression. He is currently in Britain engaged in a legal struggle for political asylum.

A self-described “anarchist revolutionary with a lust for insurgency,” Brown became a cause celebre of press freedom champions a decade ago, a hero of stick-it-to-the-man radicals.

The bulk of the charges he faced in 2013 were unfounded computer crimes, absurd overreach. The likes of the Committee to Protect Journalists and Electronic Frontier Foundation insisted they be dropped — and they were.

But Brown had crossed paths with many folks at the Department of Justice and FBI. Pleading guilty to reduced charges, including for interfering with a federal investigation, Brown would end up spending four years in prison, ordered to pay more than $800,000 in restitution.

His escapades would extend to prison activism and, later, exposing allegedly racist police misconduct. Among observations from his experiences with Aryan gangs behind bars: “An American prison is many things, among them a Nazi training camp.”

Before his 2015 sentencing, Brown was for a time under a judicial gag order because he wouldn’t stop discussing his case with reporters.

So he started penning a series of jailhouse articles that included scathing Takedown of the Novelist Jonathan Franzen. Someone netted him a National Magazine Award.

“The public wants to be entertained. “And unlike the most wrongfully prosecuted political dissidents the world over, I just so happened to be an entertainer,” Brown writes of his winning formula.

Indeed, Brown’s persona in those articles is pretty much what we get in the memoir — “charmingly self-deprecating, winkingly narcissistic, comprehensively self-aware — and even candid.” Publications that carried his byline have included The Guardian, Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post and The Intercept.

But the fun-and-games end after Brown’s 2016 prison release. Some former close allies became “despised enemies.” A close collaborator dies of an overdose. An ambitious online project for investigating and exposing wrongdoing — Pursuance — fizzles.

This is far from a happily-ever-after story. Having alienated many who once held him in high esteem, Brown attempted suicide in 2022, alerting the world on Twitter.

In an email exchange this week, Brown said he’s now “actually pretty happy on a day-to-day basis” but also said “I don’t read anymore and I’m no longer able to bring myself to write, which hurts a great deal.”

The memoir’s last chapter was difficult to pen.

“I was deeply wounded by much of what I discovered about the last decade when it became my job to see all this completely and accurately,” he writes.

Long gone is the “formidable and serious network of noble saboteurs” who encouraged Brown to take action, in the words of NBC News at the timeas “a defiant and cocky 29-year-old college dropout” who was called himself a senior strategist for Anonymous.

This reviewer will refrain from further delving into the drama of Brown’s troubled legacy and current legal predicament. Between the memoir and continued online feuding, there’s plenty more to come.

There’s pretty much everything out there on the internet.

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