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.

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