A textbook paranoid narcissist
As Julian Assange divides a confused left, Paul DeMarty seeks clarity
‘Beware Greeks bearing gifts’, goes the old saying. People would do well to bear it in mind when taking positions on the increasingly labyrinthine case of Julian Assange. The Wikileaks founder has taken refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, seeking political asylum from what he claims to be trumped-up allegations of rape, for which he would otherwise have been deported to Sweden.
And so, suddenly, the British state - which, as the headline statistics will tell us, cannot muster up the enthusiasm to convict any rapists at all under normal circumstances, and indeed only outlawed marital rape two decades ago - has reinvented itself as a crusading force against sexual violence. All options have been considered to get Assange out of this country, to be questioned (he has not yet been charged) by Swedish prosecutors - up to and including storming the embassy.
William Hague, and his superiors in the cabinet, have not undergone an overnight conversion to Dworkinism - because Assange is no ordinary suspected rapist. He is most famous as the de facto leader and public face of Wikileaks, whose periodic revelation of dodgy goings-on at the highest echelons of the US state (including the release of diplomatic cables which, most embarrassingly for the USA, revealed what they actually thought about various regimes around the world) has led Assange to the position of public enemy number one in the States. Obama and his minions want to try him not for rape, but for espionage. The maximum penalty is death.
The situation, on one level, is perfectly simple. Assange is the target of what amounts to a rather demented revenge quest by the US state department, and its pliant little poodle of a government in Westminster. While speculation abounds as to exactly what game these Machiavellian forces are playing, it defies credibility to consider insignificant the fact that they are hell-bent on seeing Assange in a Stockholm slammer (not that some gentle souls have not blinded themselves even to this, as we shall see). Under these circumstances, the ‘facts of the case’ are simply irrelevant - the notion that Assange can expect a fair trial in such a situation is transparently bunk, and any resultant conviction will lack the smallest particle of moral authority.
Yet leftwing and progressive-minded people all over the place - especially in the bourgeois commentariat - have been utterly blinded by the most dubious sort of moral authority in existence. This is, in short, the fetishisation of certain crimes in modern society - the suffusion of certain words with such an enormous weight of sheer horror that to utter them in vain is as irresponsible as it is for Harry Potter to name Voldemort aloud. In this case, that word is ‘rape’.
Were Assange being sought for almost anything else short of murder (a bar-room punch-up, for example) the world’s vision would be clear on the matter - but a rape accusation presents the good liberal (or the good social democrat) with a problem. It is important, to be sure, to stand up to the powers that be - but it is also important to stand with women against sexual violence. What line does one take?
It is in the structure of this kind of bourgeois political ideology - which sees the political as, if you will, a grab-bag of issues, more or less homogenous in substance, on each of which it is necessary to be with the oppressed against the oppressor - to meet conflicts of this kind with political paralysis.
There is no rational way out from within this problematic, and so it becomes a matter for the irrational. People are being asked to choose between the possibility that Assange may never tweak the nose of Uncle Sam again (if he is dispatched to Scandinavia), and the possibility that he may get away with rape (if he is left at liberty). The decision must be made by way of personal prejudice one way or the other. Assange claims he is the victim of a ‘honeytrap’ sting, but the real ‘honeytrap’ here is the lure of moral certainty provided by the absolute anathematisation of rape to the confused leftwinger.
Thus, Owen Jones - the rising star of left Labourism - argues that “people who do otherwise commendable work” may commit heinous crimes such as rape: “If presented with rape allegations, they must face them like anybody else, however otherwise worthy their past contributions. Now, these statements should be so self-evidently obvious, it is ludicrous that they need to be said. But the furore over Wikileaks founder Julian Assange sadly makes it necessary.”1
He lambasts Assange supporters for suggesting that the accusations he faces are of sins short of rape, and quotes no less an authority than one of those well-known friends of women’s liberation, a British high court judge, to this effect. He dismisses the objection that Assange has not been charged, because that is “not how the Swedish legal system works”, and also waves away concerns that Assange would be extradited onwards to the United States, on the absolutely beautiful grounds that in order to do so, in the opinion of Jones’s learned friends, “Sweden would have to gain the consent of the British home secretary first”. So that’s all right then.
In truth, Jones’s opening sentences need to be inverted. People may be accused - or even guilty - of the most horrendous crimes; but until they are convicted, they should be presumed innocent, and should be given a reasonable guarantee of a fair trial. This is so self-evidently obvious that it should not need to be said - but the idiotic moralisms of the Owen Joneses of this world make it sadly necessary.
An excellent piece by Richard Seymour of the Socialist Workers Party rather blows this whole argument apart: comrade Seymour expresses bafflement at the sudden concern for and supposed expertise on Swedish due process on the part of people who hitherto had not noticed the country save for its famous welfare system, and points out that off-the-peg legal arguments can be had for both sides.2
On this ground, he misses an important detail - Sweden has not issued an extradition request, but a European arrest warrant (EAW). This rather fine distinction has two relevant consequences: firstly, a full extradition application (or, indeed, a formal charge) would expose the prosecutors to the possibility of criminal liability for false prosecution,3 or (less dramatically) civil liability for substantial damages; and secondly, going the EAW route prevents Assange from using the threat of further extradition to the US as a legal defence. Owen Jones prevents himself from considering this matter; a court, however, would be so prevented by the law.
If the Swedish prosecutors are playing subtle games with legality, then the same is true of the UK supreme court, which has had to redefine prosecutors as a “judicial authority” within the letter of the Extradition Act 2003 - against the arguments of the government, in passing the law, that they would not fit the bill.4 Official bending of the law is hardly a rarity in Sweden and Britain alike - but, when it happens, it is normally because the powers that be are up to something. Every bit of judicial finagling displayed here has the clear purpose of easing Assange’s extradition to Sweden, however thin the allegations against him.
All this leaves the small matter of whether or not Assange did in fact rape two women in Sweden. This in turn comprises two questions: is Assange guilty of the things of which he is accused, and do the allegations fall under a meaningful definition (rather than, say, the contingent legal definition that obtains in Sweden or Britain) of rape?
The first question is easier to answer: I do not know, you do not know, Owen Jones and the others baying for his blood do not know; nor does William Hague or the king of Sweden. This, again, should be obvious; but there is a certain tendency for those who are accused of rape to be presumed guilty until proven innocent. Still, there is a complication: this is the person of Assange himself.
On a charitable view, he is eccentric. To be less charitable, he has a screw loose. In the last two years, he has managed to alienate almost every ally he has had through his unstable behaviour. He has touted the crackpot theories of Israel Shamir. He has at least as much the public profile of a textbook paranoid narcissist as of a crusading journalist - and he is on record in simply too many places, saying too many odd things about too many people, for it all to be a CIA concoction.
The second question - concerning the nature of the allegations themselves - has already proven to be the most dangerous territory. George Galloway, who likes to make a habit of angering six feminists before breakfast, has come in for a firestorm of criticism for suggesting that Assange is accused of nothing worse than “bad sexual etiquette”.
In truth, he and all those shrieking ‘rape is rape’ in his face are equally wrong. If rape is to include everything from violently penetrating a victim using direct physical coercion to (as Assange allegedly did) unprotected penetration without explicit consent in the immediate context of a previous sexual encounter, then it is a concept that is getting too bloated for its own good. Put another way, it has the effect of cheapening rape as a whole. (Indeed, some anti-rape campaigners smell a rat in all this.5)
On the other hand, the deformed sexual relations engendered by a decaying patriarchy produce a great many more unequal, abusive and exploitative sexual practices than rape as such. Manipulating women into unprotected sex should not be seen as a capital offence, but nor is it a matter of etiquette - it is rather an expression of the structurally sustained subordinate position of women in society at large. As such, it is part of a serious political matter, which a man like George Galloway - infamously prone to reactionary politics as regards women - is typically wrong to dismiss.
The problem then becomes a different one. You cannot legislate culture out of existence. Expanding the definition of rape or sexual assault, in order to cover ever more marginal infractions of sexual autonomy, will not liberate women, any more than increasing state tetchiness about expressions of ‘racial hatred’ has eradicated racism. It is necessary to build a different culture, a better one, from the bottom up - and ultimately overthrow the systemic guarantee of sexual inequality, which remains today what it has always been: class society.
1. The Independent August 17.
3. www.regeringen.se/content/1/c4/15/36/d74ceabc.pdf. For this, and subsequent legal arguments, I draw on the views of my comrade, Mike Macnair.
4. See the dissenting judgments of Lady Hale and Lord Mance in the supreme court decision on Assange’s case: www.supremecourt.gov.uk/decided-cases/docs/UKSC_2011_0264_Judgment.pdf.
5. See Katrin Axelsson and Lisa Longstaff in The Guardian August 23.