Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Leftist Critique of Assange

While the cult of personality around Julian Assange is tiresome, to say the least, it's become important in its own right because the debate over Wikileaks has morphed into some disturbing displays of hero-worship, particularly around Assange's rape accusations.

Bill Weinberg provides one of the most interesting discussions of Assange, largely because he's an old-school doctrinaire leftist. While his post does contain some hard-left pablum, Weinberg's indictment of Assange and his left-leaning supporters can often be quite cutting. He attacks Assange and his supporters on a couple of important lines.

Demonizing "revolutionary feminism"

The most blatantly irritating thing is abject demonization of the women who have made the charges of sexual abuse against Assange. In any other context, the summary dismissal of a woman's rape accusations would be seen as utterly politically incorrect. But Assange gets away with anti-feminist rhetoric that would do Rush Limbaugh proud. In an interview now receiving widespread coverage in the British press (e.g. The Telegraph, Dec. 26), Assange says: "Sweden is the Saudi Arabia of feminism... I fell into a hornets' nest of revolutionary feminism." Assange added that one of the women who said she was assaulted took a "trophy photo" of him lying naked in her bed. (TMI, Julian.)

Especially sickening is Naomi Wolf, who sneers in Huffington Post at the international "Dating Police" that have snared Assange. Flaunting her supposed creds as a "longtime feminist activist" in the opening sentence, she writes that "Assange is accused of having consensual sex with two women, in one case using a condom that broke." A Dec. 17 account in The Guardian (based on Swedish police documents that were—ahem—leaked) paints a rather different picture. (E.g.: "She told police that she had tried a number of times to reach for a condom but Assange had stopped her by holding her arms and pinning her legs.") John Pilger, who presumably wasn't there when the putative leg-pinning took place, nonetheless told ABC Sydney on Dec. 8 the case against Assange is a "political stunt." Wolf's glib dismissal of the allegations is especially ironic in light of her own sexual harassment claims against Harold Bloom, which many had similarly dismissed as spurious (e.g. Meghan O'Rourke in Slate, Feb. 25, 2004).

While I'm not sure the term "revolutionary feminism" is all that useful here, there's no question that watching progressives turn into rape defenders has been the worst part of this whole incident. As many others have said, while it's quite possible that the enforcement of the charges against Assange could be politically motivated, that hardly means he didn't rape these women. Moreover, if that's true, it's an indictment of how lightly rape accusations are taken around the world, not that Assange is some kind of victim. Assange may well be right on his actions in terms of Wikileaks (though I'd qualify that statement), but a complete asshole when it comes to women. These are not mutually exclusive.

A far more important critique of Assange is, as Weinberg puts it, that he hung "dissidents out to dry."

But those responsible for passing on incriminating information to diplomats may face repercussions on the ground. Reuters reports Dec. 25:
Zimbabwe's attorney general plans to set up a commission to investigate possible treason charges against locals over briefings with US diplomats reported in confidential State Department cables released by WikiLeaks.
The move appears to be targeting Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, following state media reports that hawks in President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party wanted an official probe into Tsvangirai's briefings with the US ambassador in Harare.
In comments cited in one US State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks, Tsvangirai appeared to suggest that his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was not genuine in calling for the lifting of Western sanctions against ZANU-PF.
There is admittedly a certain irony in the fact that Robert Mugabe's regime may prosecute dissidents for talking to the US while the White House may prosecute Assange for revealing those conversations. But are Assange and his supporters going to loan any solidarity to the dissidents if they do face prosecution? Or they are all dupes of US imperialism, and we don't care about their rights?

In Belarus, WikiLeaks and Israel Shamir have been directly implicated in repression—reportedly passing on to the regime leaked evidence that opposition figures were in communication with Western governments. From The Guardian Dec. 23:
Assange defended one of WikiLeaks' collaborators, Israel Shamir, following claims Shamir passed sensitive cables to Belarus's dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko has arrested 600 opposition supporters and journalists since Sunday's presidential election. The whereabouts and fate of several of the president's high-profile opponents are unknown.
Of Shamir, Assange said: "WikiLeaks works with hundreds of journalists from different regions of the world. All are required to sign non-disclosure agreements and are generally only given limited review access to material relating to their region. We have no reason to believe these rumours in relation to Belarus are true."

While I'm as much for open information as anyone else and have by and large found the Wikileaks refreshing and even enlightening, Assange's utter indifference to dissidents on the ground who might die because of these leaks is revolting. Assange's moral consciousness seems simplistic and self-serving rather trying to achieve a greater humanistic aim. And that is very dangerous.