Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Julian Assange and Rape-Rape

This may be a rather controversial post, so I will have an extremely short temper with anyone who does not actually read what it says on the page. In that spirit, this comes with three disclaimers:

Disclaimer 1: I think Wikileaks' actions are excellent and necessary. The Iraq and Afghanistan war logs show that we cannot trust governments to do what is right in the absence of transparency. They will abuse our trust to cover up killing journalists, spying on the UN, and letting outlawed munitions into the country. I look forward to further leaks, especially to the ones promised early next year featuring the deeds of a major US bank. And they make me hopeful that individuals can in fact challenge those who consider themselves beyond human accountability.

Disclaimer 2: Julian Assange does not equal Wikileaks. One can fall while the other survives. If Assange were to blink out of existence tomorrow morning, the leaks would continue. If he were assassinated, as some US politicians who should really know better have suggested, the leaks would happen a lot faster, courtesy of the infamous insurance file. And if it turns out that Assange is actually a horrible person, this does not invalidate what Wikileaks has done. They are not the same.

Disclaimer 3: Assange has just been arrested in the UK to be extradited to Sweden on charges of rape. (Having walked into a police station of his own accord with the intent to fight the extradition to Sweden, mind). He says that the allegations are false and orchestrated by the US. The two women who have accused him say otherwise. Swedish prosecutors are acting in a strange manner by refusing to actually communicate with him.

It's possible that Assange is right, and that the charges are bogus and a result of US pressure on Sweden. But it's also possible that Assange is in fact guilty of rape. I don't want that to be the case, but we can't just dismiss that possibility because we don't like it.

Now, assuming the charges are genuine:

What exactly is he accused of? Most news sources just recount the unhelpful official arrest warrant. But according to Feministe, his actual deed is this: "in one case, condom use was negotiated for and Assange agreed to wear a condom but didn't, and the woman didn't realize it until after they had sex; in the second case, it sounds like the condom broke and the woman told Assange to stop, which he did not".

At this point, I'm going to make a cruel comparison using a made-up summary:

"Well-travelled man, his work beloved by many, is accused of rape. Supporters rush to side, saying 'it was not really rape, those who say otherwise have ulterior motives'."

When Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland last year, his supporters rushed to his side, voicing their anger that such a great man would be so unfairly hounded. When challenged, they would tend to downplay Polanski's crime. Whoopi Goldberg infamously explained on TV that Polanski's sexual assault of a thirteen year old was not "rape-rape": not actual, proper rape.

Many people now say that what Assange is accused of is not rape but simply a bit of naughtiness, not a very nice thing to do, but not enough to warrant arrest. Sometimes this is because the crucial fact that he did not stop when told to is omitted by many reports, but others simply don't see what he did as rape. "Rape", to many people, is half-human monsters lurking near bus stops waiting to assault total strangers, not a "disagreement in the bedroom".

But if we actually want to clearly define rape, we end up with something like "sexual intercourse without consent". Polanski is definitely guilty of this. So is Assange, according to the women he slept with in Sweden. It makes me wince to see people who were baying for Polanski's blood now refuse to entertain the idea that Assange may be guilty of rape.

As a Swiss, it also makes me extremely angry to see a Swiss bank close Assange's account on a technicality, given that the Swiss government, having nabbed Polanski, ended up releasing him again, on a technicality. It seems such technicalities always crop up whenever there is sufficient political pressure.

But here's the thing: It is possible for Julian Assange to be both a crusader for openness and a rapist. After all, Polanski is both an accomplished director and a rapist.

Famous people are never entirely good or entirely evil. All human beings have flaws and contradictions. Assange can be a maven on political freedoms and a dunce on sexual ones. He can have a sophisticated moral compass in politics and still think "I don't like wearing condoms, and I'm not going to be told otherwise".

This does not excuse his actions. We can't simply offset a person's good deeds against their bad ones and judge them on the result. It may be that the right thing to happen is for Assange to go to prison for rape and for Wikileaks to continue leaking state secrets. After all, they are not the same thing.

We must evaluate Wikileaks' actions on their own merits and not confuse them with those of its figurehead.