Finally, there is the inscrutable topic itself. Anonymous is sometimes referred to in the mainstream media as a group or a collective—the Christian Science Monitor went with “a shadowy circle of activists”—but Anonymous, per se, doesn’t exist. It has no hierarchy, no leadership. So even though Bloomberg and others have called Brown a spokesman for the group (which, again, isn’t a group at all), Brown denies having any position within Anonymous.
“Anonymous is a process more than it is a thing,” Brown tells Isikoff. “I can’t speak on behalf of Anonymous, because there’s no one who can authorize me to do that.”
When he explains Anonymous to a newbie, Brown relishes the inevitable confusion and will toggle between sincerity and irony to heighten it. Until you’ve spent some time with him, it’s hard to know what to believe. When you’ve gotten to know him better, it’s even harder.
“You have to remember,” Brown says, reclining in the green lawn chair, one arm slung over its back, a cigarette dangling between his fingers, “we’re the Freemasons. Only, we’ve got a sense of humor. You have to wield power with a sense of humor. Otherwise you become the FBI.” Here Brown is half-kidding.
Brown wrote the following in an essay titled “Anonymous, Australia, and the Inevitable Fall of the Nation-State”:
“Having taken a long interest in the subculture from which Anonymous is derived and the new communicative structures that make it possible, I am now certain that this phenomenon is among the most important and under-reported social developments to have occurred in decades, and that the development in question promises to threaten the institution of the nation-state and perhaps even someday replace it as the world’s most fundamental and relevant method of human organization.”
As Brown paces and recounts some of the highlights he’s amassed in just 29 years, it’s tempting to brand him as a fabulist. He’ll begin an anecdote with “I once had to jump out of a moving cab in Dar es Salaam.” But then he mentions that he went to Preston Hollow Elementary School with George W. Bush’s twin daughters. My mother taught the Bush twins at Preston Hollow. I tell him this, and he remembers my mother.
“I was the poet laureate of Preston Hollow!” he says.
Later that night, I call my mother, who taught him art. “Do you remember a kid named Barrett Brown from Preston Hollow?”
“Barrett Brown? Oh, my God,” she says, instantly recalling an elementary student she taught more than 20 years ago. “I don’t remember them all. But I remember him. Yes, he was the poet laureate. I don’t have it anymore, but I kept that poem for years.”
Having now had several corroborative conversations like the one with my mother, I am forced to conclude that most of what Brown says is accurate—if not believable.
I also like this part (it reminds me of my own shockingly flat learning curve, as manifest by things like my inability to figure out how to mail a package):
He wears the same outfit every day. He owns a dozen identical blue pin-striped oxford shirts. He wears only boots because he hasn’t bothered to learn to tie shoelaces properly. (When Nikki Loehr told me that being Brown’s girlfriend can be exhausting because she must work to keep him on track, citing as one example of Brown’s ADD-powered absent-mindedness his inability to “tie his own shoes,” I thought she was kidding. She wasn’t.)
It was hard to pick representative selections from the article that would lead me to armchair diagnose him with even a semblance of accuracy (even for armchair diagnosis). He does seem like an interesting guy, though, and I think it is helpful sometimes for people to realize that not everyone thinks like them. That some people do things just because. Or for their vanity. Or because they need much more stimulation than a normal life would provide. And that they will do whatever it takes. The caption to the photo of him reads, "'He demanded that this story mention he outgrew his Ayn Rand phase when he was 17. He said, 'If you don’t put that in there, I will personally DDoS the f--- out of you.'"