Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Assange allegations

The allegations against Julian Assange have raised some sort of hell on parts of the Left. I don't really want to touch the issue with a barge pole, and in general I prefer to avoid the obvious, but there's some surprising things happening under the rubric of Assange's defence in the media. The arguments are happening partly because the use of the claims by the Swedish state is obviously politicised. I think Michael Moore made this case very well here. The release of police documents to The Guardian's Nick Davies was obviously part of a propaganda war against Assange, who has been subject to crazed assassination threats in the US, among other things. There's a history of the use of rape allegations to justify political persecution and lynchings, and of the self-serving appropriation of feminist language by violent empires. And the politicised use of charges of sexual assault is obviously no service to the victims of rape.

At the same time, however, there's just as long a history of rape victims being smeared, and rape allegations not being taken seriously. To dismiss these allegations, or to diminish their seriousness, is to risk opposing justice for rape victims. To impute dubious motives to the women alleging rape - for instance by claiming, which seems unlikely in the circumstances, that they are participants in a 'honeytrap' operation - risks blaming the victims. And if you do that in this case, you set a precedent for how you treat future cases.

The allegations are serious. In one instance, Assange is alleged to have tried to have sex with one of the alleged victims without a condom on, was rebuffed, and went to sleep. When the woman awoke, the allegation goes, he was already having sex with her without the condom on. Having thus penetrated her without her consent, he is said to have assured her that he did not have HIV and she did not tell him to stop.  The defence against such charges could only be that he didn't do it. But Keith Olbermann, for example, made the foolish claim that "the term 'rape' in Sweden includes consensual sex without a condom". Those belabouring him for this nonsensical falsehood have yet to induce a retraction from him.

More worryingly, in this debate, Naomi Wolf astonishingly characterises the claims as inconsequential, stating that even the alleged events amount to wholly consensual sex on the grounds that once the woman woke up, she and Assange consulted and continued to have sex. Jaclyn Friedman rightly retorts that this isn't 'consent' in any recognisable sense. You can't start fucking someone while they're sleeping and then take a lack of explicit protest upon awakening as consent; it might represent fear, or any number of possible factors.  There are, of course, complex arrangements and unspoken communications between long-term couples, and not all consent is explicitly verbalised.  But the point is that there is consent, in one way or another.  If someone says they didn't consent, there is a problem. And if the allegations were true, then the allegation would be one of rape, not of consensual sex. I have never had much time for Wolf's particular brand of entrepreneurial feminism, her shilling for right-wing Democrats like Bill Clinton and Al Gore, or her alarmist (now ridiculous) putsch-auguring in 2008. Her concern about freedom of information, torture and the rise of authoritarian militarism in the US seems genuine enough. But it is a real shame that in her determination to defend Assange, who is in real danger of extradition to America (thence to a legal black hole) if he is handed over to the Swedish authorities, she has made herself an accomplice of patriarchy.

In an even more alarming example, the radical US magazine Counterpunch has published an article co-written by a notorious antisemite and Holocaust denier who prefers to be called 'Israel Shamir', which imputed the rape allegations to a CIA plant, and called for the protection of Assange from "castrating feminists". Shamir claims to represent Wikileaks in Russia, though he was outed by Searchlight magazine as an ex-pat Swedish neo-Nazi named Joran Jermas some years ago. Not everyone knows who Shamir is, but if Wikileaks doesn't have the sense to check him out, I would expect that Counterpunch should. Still, if they can tolerate a clown like Gilad Atzmon, opening the magazine up to a closeted neo-Nazi to spew misogyny may not be a big step. And if so, that reflects a wider degeneration of Alexander Cockburn's political judgment, which has also manifested itself in some quite kooky output about global warming.

I don't raise these examples with any relish.  And I would much rather the conversation was about the content of Wikileaks' exposures, and what they tell us.  The politics of Wikileaks, which in Assange's case appear to be pro-market Libertarianism, are also worth thinking about. But instead of looking at that, we've been lured into an argument wherein the defenders of Wikileaks are tearing at one another's throats over these rape allegations. This is all the more absurd because it's completely unnecessary. It's obvious that there has to be an investigation of these claims, that Assange must answer questions and give evidence in circumstances that guarantee his safety, and that the attempts by the US government to thwart the Wikileaks project through intimidation - by mistreating Bradley Manning and targeting Assange - have to be resisted. The casual dismissal of rape claims doesn't help that. And all of this is patently obvious.