Revisiting Julian Assange


A piece by Julian Assange published last November catalogs the malevolent machinations of the U.S. government as revealed by thousands of U.S. State Department cables released by Wikileaks.  Reading it, one cannot help but discern whose interests U.S. foreign policy actually serves.  (SPOILER ALERT!  It is not We the People.) 

Yet a curious thing often happens when I mention Wikileaks:  people express a visceral disgust for Julian Assange, even though in context he is personally irrelevant.  Why?  Well, the press campaign to smear him has been relentless and nearly universal — and it is worth noting that it long preceded the sexual abuse allegations against him.  Years before Wikileaks dropped its first bombshell, the Pentagon issued a report deeming it an “enemy of the state” and set out to destroy its credibility and reputation.  But the Pentagon did not need to do anything:  U.S. and U.K. “journalists” descended on Assange with a vengeance, exhibiting a pettiness and personal animosity bordering on deranged.  Rather than focusing on the monumental threat to press freedoms at stake in any U.S. prosecution of Assange, instead we learn about his dirty socks, his alleged toilet habits, uncorroborated musings on his assumed motives and amateur psychological diagnoses by Assange’s enemies.  Glenn Greenwald put it this way:

“By putting his own liberty and security at risk to oppose the world's most powerful factions, Assange has clearly demonstrated what happens to real adversarial dissidents and insurgents – they're persecuted, demonized, and threatened, not befriended by and invited to parties within the halls of imperial power – and he thus causes many journalists to stand revealed as posers, servants to power, and courtiers…nothing triggers their rage like fundamental critiques of, and especially meaningful opposition to, the institutions of power to which they are unfailingly loyal.”

With a minimally functional adversarial press, there would be no need for Wikileaks.  But the establishment press, as its name suggests, serves the establishment.

A second curious thing occurs when I mention Wikileaks:  almost invariably the unevidenced assertion is made that Assange sought asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London only to avoid questioning by Swedish authorities on the sexual assault allegations.  Worse, prominent feminist writers have uncritically endorsed the Fleeing Rapist narrative, as if there were nothing else of importance going on that long preceded the sexual assault allegations.  What I find most troubling is the implication that one cannot be a defender of Assange’s rights as a political prisoner and also advocate that he face justice in Sweden:  defenders of his asylum request have been accused of being “rape apologists,” despite repeatedly asserting that Assange should be subjected to questioning by Swedish investigators, and charged and tried if warranted — just like any other accused offender. 

But this is manifestly not what Swedish prosecutors are after.  If they were, they could interview Julian Assange at the embassy in London today: interrogating suspects abroad is, in fact, a routine matter for Swedish prosecutors.  They could question him, today, via Skype.  They could interview him today in Sweden, provided they guarantee he will not be extradited to face the U.S. legal system — once the envy of the world, now a Kafkaesque nightmare — where Assange would face espionage charges that could put him in a supermax prison for decades for committing the heinous crime of...journalism.  This is hardly unprecedented:  the U.S. imprisoned a Sudanese journalist for Al Jazeera at Guantanamo for six years, without charges.

Assange sought asylum from Ecuador only after a U.K. court determined that he should be extradited to Sweden.  (This is the same U.K., by the way, that refused to extradite Augusto Pinochet, the architect of a mass rape, torture and murder regime.)  While it would be a welcome development if U.K. authorities were serious about seeking justice for sexual assault victims, the reality is quite the opposite.  In an extraordinary editorial in The Guardian last August, Women Against Rape, a U.K. advocacy group supporting women and girls who were subjected to sexual abuse (including asylum seekers), took an unequivocal stand against Assange’s extradition, noting:

“In over 30 years working with thousands of rape victims who are seeking asylum from rape and other forms of torture, we have met nothing but obstruction from British governments. Time after time, they have accused women of lying and deported them with no concern for their safety. We are currently working with three women who were raped again after having been deported – one of them is now destitute, struggling to survive with the child she conceived from the rape…
“Like women in Sweden and everywhere, we want rapists caught, charged and convicted. We have campaigned for that for more than 35 years, with limited success.”

Does that sound like a country that takes justice for sexual assault victims seriously? 

When interviewed about the Women Against Rape statement, Amanda Marcotte gave a dismissive and presumptuous response:

“I don’t know why they do that...It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you support Wikileaks then you must support Assange at all costs.  And I think that’s basically what’s going on.  Even if they really should know better, because again if you look at accusations they’re not anything that falls outside of the realm of even questionable assault. If they’re true, they’re obviously assault. So I really just think it’s one of those situations where they may not know the details, but more importantly they may be ignoring inconvenient information, because they have fallen into the trap of thinking that support Wikileaks equals support Julian Assange.”  

The only trap anyone seems to have fallen into is thinking that one cannot be a defender of Assange’s rights as a political prisoner and also advocate that he face justice with respect to the assault allegations. 

On a recent trip to London I went by the Ecuadorian embassy and interviewed some Assange supporters keeping vigil.  One was a woman, and I was particularly interested in her reasons for being there.  Although I directed my questions to her, her male counterpart interjected to answer, while she nodded along.  “Well,” he said, “We’re here because we’re anti-war, anti-imperialism, and pro-free speech.”  He then launched into a monologue on the history of extradition treaties, beginning in the fourteenth century (?!). 

“I’m interested in more current events,” I finally interrupted, and turned to her again.  

“To bring you up to the 1950s,” he continued, “Blah blah blah reformed extradition treaty of 1979 between the U.K. and Ireland…” 

“That’s interesting,” I said, “but I’m focusing on recent events.”  I asked her if she was involved with the Occupy movement.

“Then in the 1990s, — wait, Occupy?  Yes, yes, in fact I was the spokesman for...”

I moved between them to face her.  “It’s a shame,” she said, “But it’s pretty clear they were infiltrated.” 

“In fact, I gave a 45 minute interview on...”

“I find it difficult,” I said to her, “to defend the rights of Assange without getting pushback on the rape allegations.”  She reached into a folder and handed me a printout of the Women Against Rape editorial.  “Here,” she said.  “This is key.”

“... because, you see, the United States is not a signatory to the ICC...”

I thanked them both for their protest work and said goodbye.  As I walked away he was still talking. 

Unfortunately, women are entirely used to being dismissed and lectured to by men.  (There’s a good word for that.)  It seems to be particularly common in the context of political discussions.  Thus it is problematic that the Fleeing Rapist narrative is so ubiquitous in the feminist blogosphere, and so effective at derailing discussion of other implications of the Assange case.  To the extent that those things are in conflict, only the Swedish government has the power to resolve it — today.