If You’ll Pardon the Presumption

by zunguzungu

I’m writing this post because I made the mistake of thinking I could heave some pissed-offedness on twitter yesterday and be understood; the brevity and crudeness of that forum (and its spontaneous channeling of the moment) have their virtues, but I don’t like the way I expressed myself and am writing this post as a kind of “this is what I actually think” way of putting some nuance back into what was pretty blunt and simplistic at the time.

It seems worth pointing out that both Michael Moore and Sadie Doyle are running up against the same kind of problem with respect to the allegations against Julian Assange: deducing facts about a particular case based on what you know — or think you know — from much more general tendencies and patterns. And then using rhetoric to paper over the disconnect between what you can authoritatively confirm and what you can only make an educated guess about.

It is certainly true, after all, that a great many men who are guilty of rape get categorically presumed innocent, and do so as a consequence of the way their accusers get categorically defamed. This is Doyle’s point, and she’s right: we’re seeing people like Naomi Wolf not only casually misrepresent the allegations (this is not about “injured feelings” and the allegations are of coercion) but also categorically dismiss even the idea that there might be something to the accusation at all.

After all, it is certainly and absolutely true that the powerful use dirty tricks and smear tactics to deal with people they view as threats, as Moore is only one person to assert. But look, for example, at John Pilger‘s column, who attacks feminists as a class and then happily quotes and concurs with Naomi Klein’s [mis-attributed that to Wolf; fixed] charge that “Rape is being used in the Assange prosecution in the same way that women’s freedom was used to invade Afghanistan.” Maybe. But the unfortunate thing about that analogy is that the Taliban really was guilty of institutional violence and repression of women. That doesn’t make invading Afghanistan the right way to address it, of course, but is their point really that violence against women doesn’t matter when an imperial power tries to use it to further its nefarious ends? Are they really arguing that the question of his guilt is irrelevant? Are they really so quick to make Assange the Taliban in that analogy?

It is, still, relevant to note the fact that Daniel Ellsberg was instantly smeared and defamed — his psychiatrist’s office burgled to find anything that could be used against him, for example — as soon as he leaked the pentagon papers, and Ellsberg has, himself, been one of the loudest to point out the parallel. This is not wild conspiracy stuff, but a completely plausible possibility. And there are real and legitimate questions to be asked about the way the Swedes have handled this case, but as Ed at Gin and Tacos puts it, this is a very different kind of skepticism than attacking the accusers themselves:

This is not a question of people accusing the accuser of fabricating the charges. It is a question of why the Swedish government suddenly decided that the accuser’s charges, which were filed months ago, needed to be upgraded to Most Wanted “Scour the globe for this guy, he is an extraordinarily dangerous criminal” status a few hours [ZZ: actually two days] after the accused squatted over the U.S. State Department and took an enormous Cleveland Steamer on its chest. These accusations are not new and yet the Swedish authorities did not file charges until August of 2010, conveniently on the tail of a summer of information disclosures by Wikileaks. The charges lingered for a few months and yet suddenly in early December Assange becomes the target of an international manhunt.

This case is obviously political, from top to bottom. But that doesn’t mean these particular allegations against Julian Assange are necessarily baseless, however much the US state department might welcome the prosecution and may even have quietly encouraged it. It has nothing to necessarily to do with whether the allegations are true, nothing necessary at all.

So, for example, this, from Doyle:

I really, really, do tend to believe that he raped those girls. When I look at the story these women are telling — a powerful, socially connected man rapes one woman, and she tries to stay friendly and doesn’t push it through the system; that same powerful man rapes another woman, and she tries to stay friendly and doesn’t push it through the system; these two women find out about each other, and realize that he didn’t just accidentally misguidedly rape one woman on accident, but apparently makes a habit out of raping women to the point that he did it twice in the space of a few days, and realize they have to do something about this, because it’s not just them, it’s other women at risk; they try a variety of things outside of the legal system, because God knows pushing this through the legal system will bring no amount of extra trauma and grief upon both their heads; eventually, after repeatedly trying to mediate with him personally and asking the police if there’s nothing else they can do, they try to take him to court, which is their least desirable option and last resort; he runs away — I don’t see a perfectly orchestrated plot. I don’t see a case that was manufactured out of nowhere to bring a guy down. I see something that looks exactly like how rape has played out in my communities.

…is rhetorically persuasive, and worth really hearing. She is absolutely right that what we see in this specific case bears a strong and persuasive resemblance to a broadly observable pattern, and a broadly ignored pattern. Rape is a hard crime to prosecute, because the rape victim is held to an incredibly high standard while the status of the accused is seen to vindicate them, the sort of person who would never do anything like that, etc.  Not only does this case quack like exactly that kind of duck, but people like Moore, Wolf, and Pilger (and Keith Olbermann) have been really quick to defame the allegers and dismiss the allegations without every even remotely taking them seriously. That’s exactly like claiming the Taliban to be virtuous as the driven snow, and that we know so, obviously, because the US is out to get them.

But Doyle’s “I really, really, do tend to believe that he raped those girls,” is nothing more than a statement of belief, and it would be irresponsible to make it into more than that. The fact that she “see[s] something that looks exactly like how rape has played out in [her] communities” should make us pause before dismissing the allegations, but what it “looks like” proves, quite literally, absolutely nothing.

Which is why, by the way, profiling is a bad way to do criminal justice. After all, suppose we grant the (untrue, but intuitive) proposition that all terrorists are Muslims. Now, this is really not even close to true; we tend only to use the word “terrorist” when talking about political violence by Muslims, while a great deal of what should be called “terrorism,” by any reasonable use of the term, is done by non-Muslims. The Oklahoma city bombing, or the IRA, or other examples don’t spring to mind, but they’re there. But grant it anyway: all terrorists are Muslims. If you then move from this general pattern to identify an individual Muslim as being more likely to be a terrorist than a non-Muslim, you’ve just forgotten that while the incredibly microscopic fraction of people who are “terrorists” might be more likely to be Muslim than not, the overwhelmingly vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, and treating them as if they were is counterproductive at best.

That analogy is inexact, but it serves to demonstrate a general principle: turning valid statistics into logical policy choices can easily produce bad effects in practice. You use generalizations to talk about society level issues; for specific cases, you need specific evidence or it’s simply a version of guilt by association, guilt by correlation. Ah ha! Black people commit most x type crimes, therefore Y black person is guilty, etc.

Back to the actual case at hand, as Matt Cornell argued with Doyle on twitter, assertions like this:

are a real problem; you cannot use broad societal statistics to speak with authority about a specific case. You can use it to make an educated guess, and depending on how good your statistics are, you will be statistically more likely to be right, but that‘s all. If it is true that only 8% of rape allegations are unfounded — and I only use the conditional because all statistics are less authoritative than they seem — then it is certainly true that, all other things being equal, it seems pretty likely that Julian Assange probably assaulted those women. Sady Doyle’s reasoning remains strong, in that respect. But she’s not a judge, nor should such reasoning be admissible to a court in that form; when “educated guess” becomes a reliable standard for criminal justice, we have bigger problems. We can all privately come to our own conclusions, and we can even post them on the internet. But our opinions cannot be meaningful in discussing what a court of law should or should not do, unless we’re really happy with asserting guilt by correlation. I’m not.

That said, I participated in Doyle’s twitter campaign yesterday not because I think Doyle is right that Assange is probably a rapist (and my opinion would be as irrelevant as hers), but because I think she’s right that Moore was flagrantly wrong (as John Pilger was wrong, and as Naomi Wolf was wrong) to dismiss both the possibility out of hand and ignoring what is known about the allegations. The relevance of Doyle’s profile of a rapist is a way of demonstrating that there is nothing crazy and outlandish and ridiculous about these allegations, not that they’re true, but that they’re plausible enough to take seriously. Only if we categorically decide that anyone the US state deems to be an enemy is our friend — e.g., Michael Moore’s attitude towards Latin America — does it become “obvious” that there is nothing to this case.

So, note for example, the credulity with which Moore and Pilger and Wolfe have taken the things Julian Assange’s lawyer says about the charges (and especially about the accusers and their evidence) as reliable fact. But when charges haven’t yet been filed, no one outside the lawyer bringing suit and his clients can really say what the charges are going to be, and yet people who are suspicious of the Swedish/British/American axis of evil have been very quick to make authoritative assertions about what is and isn’t alleged, at a point in the proceedings when there is very little concrete to go on (and often directly contradicting what is actually reported). This is irresponsible at best. Julian Assange’s lawyer is not a trusted source of information on Assange’s accusers, especially since he’s the guy that made up the whole non-existent “Sex by Surprise” charge, which was so credulously repeated by an irresponsible media. But he’s a lawyer; his job is to be an amoral advocate for his client, and by all accounts, he is doing his job well. Our job is different. And the way people like Pilger have been talking about how “this isn’t even a crime in Britain,” as if that’s anything but a mark of shame if it’s true, is pretty piss poor. The fact that British (or our) criminal justice system doesn’t allow a woman to remove her consent once she’s given it, that’s our problem, not theirs. When, as is alleged, a woman who consents to have sex with a condom demands that the sex stop when it is clear the condom has broken or has not been used, well, refusal to heed her wishes is rape, no matter what a government says. Good for the Swedes for calling it what it is.

Whether or not this is what happened, of course, is a different proposition. But none of these people are addressing that question in a way that‘s relevant to legal procedure. Contra Doyle’s certainty, the thing about specific cases is that all other things are not always equal, and in this case, they are particularly not so. After all, while Julian Assange might have been “a powerful, socially connected man” at the time the alleged assaults were to have taken place, to call him that now would be fairly naïve. However paranoid he may be, they all really are out to get him. And so Michael Moore is not wrong to small a rat here:

Moore: …This whole thing stinks to the high heavens. I mean, I wasn’t born yesterday, but I’ve seen this enough times where governments and corporations go after individuals. I think I was just on your show a couple of weeks ago talking about this with my film and the health care industry. They go after people with this kind of lie and smear. Daniel Ellsberg told you about it last week on how they went after him. We’ve seen this before. Now, his guilt or innocence of this— I mean, what he said they did— [grinning] and the lawyer said this today in court in London—that what they say he did and the charge is his [rolls eyes] condom broke during consensual sex.

Olbermann: Mm-hmm.

Moore: That is not a crime in Britain, and so they’re making the point how can we—how can we extradite him over this? This is all a bunch of hooey as far as I’m concerned! And, and the man at least has a right to be out of prison while awaiting the hearing, and this is why I participate in it; this is why I put up a chunk of the bail money, and, I’m proud to do it because I think this man and what he’s doing, and what his group is doing, is going to save lives.

This case stinks in lots of ways, and while the claim that Wikileaks will “save lives” is hard to substantiate, I certainly do share Michael Moore’s admiration for what Wikileaks has done. And the moment a credible extradition to the US gets under way is the moment we can authoritatively say that things are fucked up, a game changer which should have us all screaming bloody murder.[1]

But Michael Moore has exactly as much evidence that Julian Assange, himself, is innocent of rape as Sadie Doyle has that he’s guilty. That it looks one way or another doesn’t make it so, nor authorize us to act as if it were so. But at least Doyle was basically upfront about what she thinks to be the case; the language of “well, obviously” used by the people for whom this is obviously a honey-pot is of a different order of problematic altogether. Moore should be ashamed of the way he sneers at the question of Assange‘s “his guilt or innocence of this— I mean, what he said they did,” and then faithfully quotes how Assange’s lawyer said it isn’t true, so there, and repeats the lawyer’s misrepresentation of the charges. The allegations are serious, and he loses any authority to argue against unserious charges and legal shenanigans when he can’t distinguish between the allegations of two women — who have a right to bring charges even against people we might personally like and admire — and the activities of Sweden, Britain, and the US, whose activities actually do deserve to be scrutinized pretty damn closely. It’s a real problem when leftists choose not to do that. Instead of focusing their attention on what these states have actually done, they have chosen to defame and dismiss two human being; instead of actually learning what the allegations are (and getting educated on extradition law), they have preferred to live in a fantasy land and take warmth and comfort in faithful sexist social bias against rape victims. Versions of their fantasy might be true. But it’s still a fantasy when you haven’t bothered to find out any of the relevant statutes or address the aspects of the case that actually are legitimate. Sady Doyle has not convinced me that Assange is actually a rapist, but she is absolutely right that Moore, Pilger, and Wolf are acting irresponsibly at best. We need better leftists than that.

One thing the case has clarified, then, is the extent to which a different worldview shapes the “progressivism” that Sadie Doyle and Michael Moore might ostensibly seem to share. L’Affaire Wikileaks has revealed so very much more than what was in those cables, and — as Millicent put it on twitter — here “it’s exposed the tacit faultlines we knew existed between many male progressives & feminists.” Those who attack the corporate state and those who attack our rape culture are not necessarily doing the same thing, from the same place, or sharing the same presumptions. The fact that George W. Bush was everybody’s enemy has left us ill suited, again, for thinking about politics in an era of the neo-liberal security state Democratic president. And being both a feminist and a leftist, for those of us who want to be both, requires us to merge both these worldviews, a task which many of us are not doing very successfully (to the extent we’re trying, since, as usual, the fairly empty category of “progressive” does a great deal to obscure real political fault lines). So let’s try harder.

[1] I’m sort of skeptical it will happen, by the way, since it’s such a bad test case for this kind of executive branch expansion of powers; Assange is a celebrity, and they like to indefinitely detain people whose human rights are invisible by virtue of being brown and unknown. But an awful lot of journalists actually will go ape-shit over te extradition if it happens; even the NY Times has got to understand that getting in bed with Julian Assange is something they can’t take back, and the Columbia school of Journalism has already come out in support of Assange‘s journalistic credentials. If they extradite him, also, they make the rape charges — so useful in smearing his name — disappear behind a new aura of martyrdom. Not to mention the Swedish politicians who would have to face Swedish voters and the new headache for Obama with progressives. I just don’t see the angle (but I’m no expert and I guess we’ll see).