There Is Something To See Here
Julian Assange is not that important. Don’t give him a Nobel Prize. Don’t demonize him. Don’t line up in solidarity behind someone who may or may not be a serial rapist. Don’t demand the conviction of someone who is only accused of a crime, and needs to be presumed innocent until he is convicted. Demand justice for him — and don’t pretend you know what that is, unless you’re one of the three people who do — but don’t fall into the trap of thinking his conviction, in the long run, has very much to do with the whole host of really important issues that the Wikileaks revelations have brought up. Don’t make him more important than he is.
Wikileaks is only a single part of something that is, on its own terms, very important. They’ve given us a great deal of knowledge about exactly how the American state actually acts, proof that many of the state department’s secrets are simply a way of avoiding democratic oversight, that our diplomatic corps secretly does horrible things in our name. We already had a lot of knowledge of that, but now we have a lot more, and much of it utterly and uniquely damning. Julian Assange is a smart man who’s done some brave things in service of a good cause — and we owe him a debt of gratitude for the gift he’s given us. Thank you, Wikileaks. But that’s all we owe him, and them.
Which is why I want to say this, as clearly as I can: it’s exactly because Assange and Wikileaks are relatively unimportant (compared to the gigantic scandal of the anti-democratic security state in which we now live) that the media has made him into a superstar, has tried to make the entire story about Wikileaks and a single eccentric and interesting character, rather than about the United States government’s actions as a system. The more we focus on him — and I’ve contributed to that, which is why I particularly want to write this post — the more we take attention away from the real story, the substance of the things Wikileaks has revealed.
It tells you a great deal about how our media works, after all, that so very many of the people pronouncing moralistically on Wikileaks and Assange — either pro- or con- — seem more or less completely unblemished by more than a casual familiarity with the most sketchy and incomplete details of the case or the cabledump. On day one, long before more than a tiny fraction of the cables had been released, and long before they had a chance to look very deeply at more than a few, the fact that so many pundits were already pronouncing that there was nothing new here will tell you a lot about how seriously to take such people. They were wrong, but it’s more important to point out that they simply had no idea what they were talking about; even now, we‘ve barely figured out more than a little bit what‘s in those cables (and only 1/250th of the total has been released).
But this is why we need to keep a sense of perspective here. Julian Assange and Wikileaks are unimportant compared to the larger issue they’re raising: our “progressive” government’s basic antipathy to democracy, human rights, and international justice. Wikileaks has done a great deal to illuminate what our government actually does, but as Glenn Greenwald is absolutely right to point out, by far the most immediately revelatory effect of the Wikileaks dump was not in the cables, but in our government’s reaction to them. As we have seen, across the board, even “Democratic” politicians like Joseph Lieberman will piss all over due process and the bill of rights in pursuit of the right to keep anything secret from the American people. And anyone who is “against” the United States, in any form, is seen to deserve death, the laws be damned.
I’m grateful for what Wikileaks has done, and I think the benefits of their leaking vastly outweigh whatever negative side-effects the leaks may eventually prove to have. The fact that I’ve yet to see any credible evidence that they are having negative effects speaks volumes to me. I think the leaks have been, on balance, a very good thing. That will still be the case even if — as may prove to be true — Julian Assange is a serial rapist. It will be no more or less the case if he proves not to be. Whether he is a rapist is irrelevant, in that sense,
Assange’s rape charges are important for very different reasons, of course. It is a scandal how international law fails to take seriously a very serious crime like rape, but the scandal is certainly not unique to this case, nor should this case — because of its unique visibility — be distorted by being forced to bear the burden of the gigantic structural issues it brings into focus. The two women Julian Assange may have raped deserve justice, but no more or less than the millions of abused women world-wide who also deserve justice, and focusing on two very visible victims is only useful if it allows us to better focus our attention on the invisible ones. Does focusing on two visible victims, after all, do anything to reveal the structural and systemic reasons why some victims are treated as such while most are completely ignored? To some extent it might — and particular feminist writers have been doing really good work to make this point — but it’s also really dangerous to be distracted by this particular case, because if there’s one thing it does not provide, it’s clarity. In any case, I think it’s fair to say that most people who are moralizing about either the fact that Interpol has taken a sudden and suspicious interest in rape victims (or about the fact that, most of the time, they don’t) also don’t seem to have much interest in actually figuring out when and where and why Interpol does intervene. Lots of discussion of the Assange case has not been accompanied with much discussion of other cases like it; the latter has been ignored in favor of the juiciness of the former. That seems like as obviously a bad thing as it’s an utterly predictable thing.
I think we do everyone a disservice if we don’t take the rape charges seriously on their own terms. I think Assange should face his charges, but the Swedish court and British extradition process should be scrutinized as closely as it can be to determine the extent to which political pressure is distorting how the system might otherwise work. He should face justice, whatever that may prove to be, not politically motivated persecution. And unless we’ve given up on that ideal completely — and however damaged and imprecise the mechanisms may be, they can still work if we try to use them — we accomplish that by focusing on the system, not the case.
On the other hand, if all we do is look at Assange himself — which is what most of the media wants to do — we fall into the trap they‘ve set for us. If we moralize about Wikileaks and Julian Assange exclusively, we’re not doing our moral duties as citizens, and as human beings. Our job is to watch people with power and try to ensure that people with power don’t misuse it. Part of that is scrutinizing powerful men who have the opportunity to commit rape and be forgiven for it by people who are in solidarity with their politics. But a very different — and enormous — part of being good citizens, in this case, is observing that the United States government acts like a giant, amoral, and secretive machine for more deeply establishing economic and political privilege worldwide, and that keeping secrets from us — almost exactly as Julian Assange wrote, years ago — is the way they go about doing it. Whether or not he’s a rapist, and whether or not Wikileaks has been acting like responsible journalists or irresponsible anarchists, has very little to do with the fact that he was right, at least, about that.