Julian Assange and the splintering of the left

Duncan Higgitt on the bitter debate created by the Wikileaks founder’s decision to seek asylum to prevent his extradition to Sweden

Summer is supposed to be a quiet time in politics, the so-called silly season. I’ve been spending more time than I should during this period losing friends and falling out with political colleagues over someone none of us have ever met.

I neither like nor trust Julian Assange. I think he’s a false idol of a left so used to defeat after defeat in the court of public opinion, and so impotent, that it grasps at and venerates to the point of faith those it believes embodies its values and – most importantly – is seen to be winning against those that have contributed to having laid it low.

Wikileaks has been such a winner. It has also been a hugely valuable resource in an increasingly public relations-controlled world. The Crazy Horse 18 film it first broadcast to the world retains its power to shock and provides an appalling (if solitary) example of US conduct during the war in Iraq. If you were conspiratorially-minded (and I am not, which has caused many of the disputes I’ve had), you would find the timing of Sweden’s interest in Assange extraordinarily convenient.

My dislike of Assange stems from his decision to release in unredacted form the Afghan war files. In here, for all to see, were the names and details of Afghan civilians that have worked for Nato. The Taliban is both smart enough and savage enough to act upon this information and visit a terrible retribution upon those people and their families.

Assange’s actions here stank of comfortable, European armchair warfare. In dismissing the lives of these civilians in order to pursue his vendetta against the US, Assange acted little better than the imperialists he aspires to bring to account, whom stand accused of regarding those in the undeveloped world as convenient collateral in their proxy wars.

But I’m not ready to condemn him as a rapist, not until he is properly convicted in an open court in Sweden. Neither am I prepared to dissect the allegations, or call them into question, nor the suitability of those making and pursuing them, or create new definitions of what constitutes sexual assault, as George Galloway lamentably did, or suggest Assange should be subjected to an entirely unique judicial process (including questioning in London) because, in the words of those who defend him, “This is political”.

Assange should return to Sweden to face questioning, and the UK should secure from Sweden an assurance – as it is expected to do under European law – that Assange will not be extradited on to a country where torture is employed. The decade-long battle over the deportation of Abu Qatada that the UK Government has been fighting turns on this very issue. Whitehall counsel should understand this law better than anyone.

The problem that Assange supporters have in convincing an indifferent public is that in backing his decision to hide in the Ecuadorian embassy, they must float a fantastic theory to justify why he hasn’t decided to prove his innocence. They say an acquiescent Swedish government will immediately hand him over to the US. From there it is but a plane ride to Guantanamo Bay and its water boards.

Here’s where Assange-ists begin to sound like the right-wing paramilitaries of the Michigan Militia, stitching together events in an implausible and unsupported manner in an attempt to prove that we do all live under the iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove rule of a Pax Americana. Implausible because, like all conspiracy theories, it requires a cast of obediently-silent thousands to prosecute its aims – aims that have been passed undiluted from official to official in successive US administrations since the advent of the Cold War. It takes no account for shifting cultures or changed political climates both within and without the White House. There is the mission, and nothing else.

In this world, the rest of us must collude to survive. Witness Noam Chomsky’s idiotic and insulting comparison between the Swedish government of today and that which collaborated with the Nazis over 60 years ago. Not only is this Godwin’s Law invoked (a sure sign that the argument is lost), it is also incredibly flimsy, rather like saying that Cardiff City should hope to avoid West Ham in the FA Cup this season because the East London side lifted the trophy in 1964. No one from that time now calls the shots (or, in West Ham’s case, takes them).

What we are really witnessing here is anti-Americanism, a hatred that blinds and transforms otherwise logical and liberal individuals into paranoiacs who ceaselessly hunt the internet for news and opinion features (often written by other anti-Americanists) that underline their faith rather than factually demonstrate it. And it is faith-based – why else would people who are genuinely concerned by lamentably low rape convictions begin discriminating in what constitutes the offence? Less discriminating, more dissembling.

Given the emotive nature of the two issues at the heart of this debate, perhaps it was no surprise I soon got into shouting matches. I have accused friends and party colleagues of being swivel-eyed, adopting the misogyny of the Taliban and, on one occasion, apologising for rapists. Few of them have risen above it, either. I have been called a dupe, a supporter of Israel (not quite sure how that got in there) and a Daily Mail reader – surely the most offensive latter-day insult traded among those on the left?

It is often the unsuspecting that creates the watershed moments. Is that happening here? Will those on the left splinter yet further? It’s probably too early to tell whether Assange will provide such a moment. Until the 1980s, the left’s preoccupation was with collective responsibility. Since then, it has championed the rights of the individual, particularly women and their concerns. Supporting Assange in defiance of those principles represents a significant move away from that agenda. However, it is hard to believe that it is anything but a step into anywhere other than further wilderness.

Duncan Higgitt is press and political officer for Bethan Jenkins AM.

12 thoughts on “Julian Assange and the splintering of the left

  1. Firstly, Duncan, I believe that the Swedish prosecutor has dropped the charge of “Rape” against Julian Assange. It has been reported that this is because nothing alleged against him constitutes an offence that fits the legal definition of Rape in Sweden. This decision has been a long time in coming and the absence of such an obvious ruling has fed conspiracy theory from the outset. Assange could never have realistically been charged with rape in Britain and we should be careful not to too readily accept the definition of a “Crime” alleged in other countries… just in case we become willing to extradite Christians to Pakistan to face allegations of blasphemy (for instance).

    I don’t find Assange an attractive character but that should have no bearing on what we think of his actions. He was altogether too cavalier with the release of information on Wikileaks and dramatically showed the reverse of the policy of obsessive secrecy employed by all states in the world. Not all secrets are best revealed.

    What I don’t find at all convincing in your essay is your belief that a policy or viewpoint or as you put it “Conspiracy” needs generations of thousands of compliant individuals to operate it.

    I read yesterday a phrase that I was un-familiar with; “Post-truth politics”. The author (Peter Preston) was looking at media neutrality in reporting. Neutrality means that neither side of an argument is examined for any obvious, provable untruth. Instead both assertions are given equal billing by the media. The US is particularly vulnerable to this kind of irrationality; it is common for a large proportion of the populace to claim equal status for “Creationist Theory” alongside Darwinism for instance. Once the press and media start to give credence to obvious dishonesty on the spurious basis of a need for “balance” or equality of expression then it is quite easy to see how, not just thousands but millions of people, can be led into a conspiracy to act in a certain way.

    I know that you regularly make this sort of comment: “Not only is this Godwin’s Law invoked (a sure sign that the argument is lost),” but in doing so you gloss over an important lesson of history; people are putty in the hands of determined and consistent propaganda. Governments through the ages have perpetrated some quite extraordinary extremist policies; history sometimes uncovers what has been done but, I suspect, mostly not.
    In short, just because you are not a “Conspiracy Theorist” doesn’t mean that a conspiracy doesn’t exist.

    Assange has done some good and some harm. He is personally un-lovely and may have been guilty of criminal sexual behaviour. I have no problem with separating good from bad and worthy from unworthy but, at the same time I have no problem believing that within the US administration there is a core of very angry Old-Testament vengeance seekers using as much influence as possible to get Assange into the Electric Chair.

  2. Sorry for such a short response, but I just wanted to express my appreciation for such a clear and well-balanced summary and analysis of the issues, Duncan. Thank you.

  3. Well said and bravely said.

    The politicisation of rape this summer has been most dismaying. In the USA, the hard right now distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate rape, with the insistence that the rapists’ reproductive rights must prevail over their victims. On the left, allegations of sexual assault are meant to be brushed aside when the alleged perpetuator is involved in suitably anti-American activities.

    When politics prevails over one of women’s most basic rights, politics becomes perverted.

  4. Whatever you think about Ecuador’s decision to grant Assange asylum the fact is that they have. This raises a further dilemma that is not addressed in this article, which is that Assange is now an asylum seeker. Is the author proposing that signatories to the UN’s declarations on the rights of asylum and the rights of refugees, signatories such as the UK, Sweden and Ecuador, now over-ride Assange’s rights as an asylum seeker? What would be the impact of that decision globally? Would the author now be happy for other countries to initiate sieges on embassies to prevent those who have been granted asylum from having safe passage?

    So what is more important to the author; returning Assange to Sweden to answer questions, which he has already done once and been told he had committed no crime, or the rights of asylum seekers seeking safe-passage when they feel under grave threat? Answering that you don’t believe he is under threat is not good enough. Ecuador has stated that they believe he is under threat and so his status as an asylum seeker must be taken seriously and cannot be swept under the carpet.

  5. Thanks everyone for their comments.

    Maldwyn – you’re quite right that Ecuador’s involvement is not addressed in this piece. That’s predominantly because it attempts to portray the impact this episode has had on me and those around me. It is a personal piece that asks a few questions about values of the left (I hope).

    Regarding Ecuador, I see no need to involve the UN because I think Assange should walk out of the gates and return to Sweden. Apart from it having never been demonstrated convincingly that such a move would end in Assange on the next plane to Cuba, how could that possibly happen now that there is so much light on this whole episode? If I thought that were even remotely possible, then I would not advocate Assange’s own surrender. The fact that such a leading light as Chomsky has to resort to Nazi comparisons further undermines the arguments of those who claim Assange is not safe from the US in his own country.

  6. Just briefly:

    Yes, Assange appears to be a deeply unattractive character. I say ‘appears’ because the only information I have comes from either the corporate media on one side or his fan-base on the other. Certainly, the release of unredacted information about Afghan civilians (and others) was a tactical blunder of the first magnitude and deserves condemnation.

    I do not however think that this enables anyone to dismiss the concerns for his safety as ‘conspiracy theories’; we know enough from the last decade or so alone about how the US influences and pressurises other governments to be aware that there are, as it were, ‘wheels within wheels’, and that the people currently in charge of US policy and actions – in the political, economic and judicial spheres as much as in the military and diplomatic – view their remit and their jurisdiction to be global. Those who pay attention would have known this much before the release of The Cables.

    To dismiss these concerns as mere ‘paranoid anti-Americanism’ may appear, therefore, to serve the same purpose in debate as shutting down all discussion of the less savoury actions of Israel as representing ‘paranoid anti-Semitism’.

    You say: “I’m not ready to condemn him as a rapist, not until he is properly convicted in an open court in Sweden”. Are you aware that rape trials in Sweden are held in camera, without a jury and presided over by a judge and two lay officials, both of whom are political appointees? The first anyone outside those immediately involved knows about it is when the verdict and sentence are announced. So you are likely to have a long wait, unless Jon Jones is right about the Swedish prosecutors having dropped that particular charge.

    There are other inconsistencies in the behaviour of the authorities in Stockholm and London which cause head-scratching, but these have been well enough rehearsed elsewhere, and so I won’t expand on those now. I would simply recommend reading Craig Murray’s take on it: http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2012/09/the-assange-case/

  7. Like Steve Garrett, and others, this is just a quick comment to say ‘well done’ – it’s all too infrequent to find people speaking it how it is these days!

  8. I would say “well said” as well, but to Jon Jones, not Duncan Higgitt. The latter seems to me to be just another poster boy of the Establishment.

  9. But very common to find them speaking it how it isn’t.
    The weakness of Assange’s conspiracy case is that there is one government far more likely than Sweden’s to lie down in the face of US demands for extradition – that of the UK. We have shown ourselves ready to render to the US British citizens whose crimes, if any, were committed in Britain. Why need Assange fear the Swedish government when he already lives under the biggest crowd of lickspittle American poodles on earth? In fact we’ll extradite anyone for anything. And Assange is a case in point. There are no criminal charges against him in Sweden. How can you justify extradition for questioning? As he says himself, why don’t they come and question him here? They know where he is. If the evidence warrants criminal charges, then this is the time to apply for extradition. The real scandal here is that the British judiciary will put anyone on a plane. Thank God for the European Court of Human Rights.

  10. Tredwyn – I understand that Sweden has offered to send officials over to ask him questions on at least one occasion and that he has declined to meet them.

  11. I hold no brief for Assange but he has recently said he would answer Swedish questions in the UK. I don’t know the rights and wrongs of that but the point remains: if the Swedes want to extradite him, they should charge him first. Extradition for questioning is an illegitimate extension of extradition treaties and it is a shame on British judges that they agreed to it. Unfortunately it is all too typical of them. Abu Qatada would have undergone heaven-knows-what treatment in Jordan a decade ago if left to them. Only the European court saved him. That’s what I find odd about Assange’s fear of Sweden. If the US wants Assange, they only have to ask. On past form our government and judges would fall over themselves to hand him over.

  12. This whole discussion is all “my understanding is..” or “I heard that..” , on both sides. There are so many allegations flying around and so many waters being muddied. My belief is this. US conduct in Iraq and so on is bad enough on its own- not just Duncan’s citation of ‘Crazy Horse 18’ but Abu Ghraib, the horrors in Fallujah, and most unsettling of all the legacy of babies being born with appalling birth defects, reminiscent also of US imperialism’s actions in Vietnam. We don’t need Assange to venerate us or justify us. Trying to defend him ends up in very murky waters, questioning rape and arguing about legal loopholes. Trying to attack him ends up with calling for Ecuador’s rights to be violated. In particular i’ve seen Ecuador’s name dragged through the mud by people that had never heard of Rafael Correa a month ago. I think we need a whole load of perspective on both sides of the argument. The real debate that needs to happen is about the price we are paying as a society in Afghanistan, and trying harder to understand the middle-east and especially the Muslim world.

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