Julian Assange and the Spectre of Rape

One step took him through the roaring waterfall
That closed like a bead-curtain, left him alone with the writhing
Of what he loved or hated.
His hands leapt out: they took vengeance for all
Denials and soft answers. There was one who said
Long since, ‘rough play will end in tears’.

Cecil Day Lewis, Sex Crime (in Joanna Bourke, Rape: A History from 1860 to Present)

And so the Julian Assange Rape Thing rambles on. For some of those keen to defend wikileaks from a legitimacy-crisis-by-proxy, the allegations have invalidated themselves in even being stated. The timing is more than suspicious, and public incompetence reveals machinations behind the scenes. It’s a classic Kompromat, a transparent stitch-up.

The standard ‘rule of law’ holding position – let due process take its course before condemnation – is strangely ineffective in this situation. The taint of sex crime is almost a performative speech act. The suggestion passes the sentence, and trimmings like ‘alleged’ only reinforce the effect, which thrives on ambiguity. All that said, there are two elements to the defences of Assange that deserve unpicking.

The first is the unforgivable recycling of rape myths. Smear is followed by counter-smear. After all, one of his accusers is a radical feminist! And we all know what that means. More than that, a lesbian! Or perhaps not. Like many a spectre of the inconstant feminine before her, she is not what she seems. Her identity, like her allegation itself, hints at a mercenary cunning.

The second, and related, problem is that of the pure non-sexuality implicitly attributed to Assange. Profiles brim with Matrix-y tropes, or paint him as the new King of the Hackerati, like Johnny Lee Miller with long hair. He moves mysteriously, a homeless pilgrim, and needs only a coffee and a laptop to wreak havoc on those stale old boys at the Pentagon. More than once he is identified as a monk, if one who self-flagellates at the altar of techno-modernity. Pristine public service. Political heroes don’t fuck, let alone rape. All those mucky fluids pull them down from their symbolic perch.

Why are these responses necessary? Clearly they are stand-ins for our feelings about wikileaks itself, and for visceral identifications with, and reactions against, the figure of the rebel. They are moves to person-alise the political. Assange is an embodiment, and the enterprise for all concerned stands and falls on the robustness or weakness of his flesh. But it is obvious that the stakes are wider than that, and that ‘the debate’ about information and truth in war can hardly be settled in the courtrooms of Sweden.

Instead of holding on to an agnostic distance from the allegations, could we not better serve both anti-rape politics and free knowledge by cutting the moral link altogether? In rushing to quash accusations and to lambaste accusers, matters on which we can’t possibly speak with authority, we only confirm their wider political power. Why should the outcome of the case affect our view on wikileaks at all? Can we really be saying that our politics is that reductionist? Or our moral sense so basic that the revelation of wrong-doing would bring the whole edifice tumbling down? Rape is quite bad enough on its own without it having to act as a keystone for just conduct in war or the rights of an informed citizenry.

UPDATE (30 Nov): The stakes in the game of embodiment have just been raised. An Interpol arrest warrant has just been issued for Assange, not on any charges of treason, breaches of secrecy, or hacking, but for ‘sex crimes’.

Pragmatist Notes, part I

It is no accident that American pragmatism once again rises to the surface of North Atlantic intellectual life at the present moment. For its major themes of evading epistemology-centered philosophy, accenting human powers, and transforming antiquated modes of social hierarchies in light of religious and/or ethical ideals make it relevant and attractive. The distinctive appeal of American pragmatism in our postmodern moment is its unashamedly moral emphasis and its unequivocally ameliorative impulse. In this world-weary period of pervasive cynicisms, nihilisms, terrorisms, and possible extermination, there is a longing for norms and values that can make a difference, a yearning for principled resistance and struggle that can change our desperate plight.

Prophetic pragmatism worships at no ideological altars. It condemns oppression anywhere and everywhere, be it the brutal butchery of thirdworld dictators, the regimentation and repression of peoples in the Soviet Union and Soviet-bloc countries, or the racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and economic injustice in the first-world capitalist nations. In this way, the precious ideals of individuality and democracy of prophetic pragmatism oppose all those power structures that lack public accountability, be they headed by military generals, bureaucratic party bosses, or corporate tycoons. Nor is prophetic pragmatism confined to any preordained historical agent, such as the working class, black people, or women. Rather, it invites all people of goodwill both here and abroad to fight for an Emersonian culture of creative democracy in which the plight of the wretched of the earth is alleviated.

- Cornel West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism

International Relations versus Punk Rock

Today I was re-reading a piece by Kevin Dunn, “Never mind the bollocks: the punk rock politics of global communication,” and it lead me to wonder how far one’s route into the study of world politics affects how one perceives the “object” of inquiry. Dunn starts out by stating:

I am increasingly concerned about the ways that International Relations (IR) as a discipline seems unable to communicate to everyday citizens about issues of tremendous importance. I am repeatedly struck by our inability to speak to the people whose lives are affected daily by the issues we are supposed to be studying. More importantly, I am struck by how irrelevant we and our work can seem to the world’s population.

In 2003, I grappled quite openly and vocally with this alienation. The annual International Studies Association (ISA) Conference was being held in Portland, Oregon that year. Throughout the hallowed halls of the soul-numbing conference hotel, the discipline of IR was displaying its strengths and weaknesses. The US and its ‘ coalition of the willing’ were on the verge of invading Iraq. But within the ISA, there was little attempt to grapple with what this meant. My few attempts to stage some form of protest and intellectual outrage proved heart-warming but ineffectual. Then, at the end of the week, I went to a punk club a few blocks from the hotel to see a Joe Strummer tribute show. Joe Strummer, the frontman for the Clash, had died suddenly a few months before, and now over twenty bands from all over the region were coming together to play a benefit show. Each band performed two or three Clash songs; one band getting up after the other, sharing amps and a drum set. On stage, the bands were using the songs to make sense of the dangerous world we all found ourselves in. The in-between song banter reflected this – comments about President George W. Bush, remarks about American fascism, concerns about the impending war on Iraq, and pleas to register to vote. The kids in the club were using the Clash and punk rock, much as I did years before, to help them understand the world they were inheriting. While the discipline of IR pontificated down the street to itself about world affairs, I swirled in the mosh pit wondering: what relevance did I and the ISA have to these kids? Sadly, it seemed to me that we as a discipline were doing a poor job communicating with most of the people outside that conference hotel.

Leaving aside Dunn’s very interesting analysis of punk rock’s role as a form of counter-hegemonic global communication and subversive political message, the opening lines resonated in a profound way for me, as I share Dunn’s experience of punk music providing a frame for engaging with world politics. This leads me to the question: how does our route into the study of world politics affect our work? Continue reading

Zero-Level Protest, the Student Movement and the Spectacle of Politics

I agree with Joe.

The fall-out from Wednesday’s fees protest has congealed into some familiar oppositions. On the one side, we have disavowal. The violent minority, undermining the broad case against cuts, inarticulate in their regression to a juvenile acting-out. On the other side, affirmation. The real vandals are Clegg and Cameron, the insurgents were the epiphenomenal expression of legitimate mass anger, and broken glass is the not-that-unfortunate substratum of all great political movements.

These are not morally equivalent narratives. The case for the disavowers is built on a palpable desire to appeal to bureaucratic reasonableness, and to present the case in terms sympathetic to the cadences and tones of power, as if the problem was one of flawed communication. More ‘rational debate’ please! More damagingly, the internal disciplining necessary to any movement conceived of as a Party is already under way. Bad protester, good protester. Wayward foot-soldier, clear-sighted leader. There was a serious message, and the hijackers lost it.

This is nonsense. That the march was larger than expected would have made news, barely. But the aerial shots of Westminster, and the collections of amusing signs and fancy dress, would have concurred fully with the established parameters, the well-worn rituals, of polite English disagreement. There would have been patronising cod-support about how polite the young are these days and Mock-The-Week non-jokes about the difference between Parisian insurrectionists and London shufflers. In such symbolic space, and especially on The Right, the trope of the feckless student is impermeable to disproof. This is the mistake of those scrambling for respectability. No amount of denouncing The Crazed Vandals Of Millbank will make the cause of education palatable (although those heading up the NUS will ascend, like those before them, into the lower ranks of party politics).

Slavoj Žižek put the appropriate response nicely:

“You could have delivered the same message without violence”. Fuck them, of course you can deliver the message. But nobody would hear the message. This is what they like, that 100 people gather and write a message and then you don’t even get the bottom note [in the day's paper]…You have to break some windows to get the message through.

This is true enough, but should already alert us to some dangers, and to the necessity of overcoming the choice between affirmation and disavowal. Continue reading

Ethics of Austerity 2: Interlude of Broken Glass

There’s always a surprising disconnect between experience and public reality when you attend an event that goes on to become an “event.” On such occasions, I find myself wondering how my experience can run so counter to the public narratives that emerge. Yesterday’s (10 Nov.) protest march in London is no different.

Here are some media images that reflect the protest I attended:

But the images that defined the “event” were slightly different. We’ve all seen them on the TV, in the papers, and on the web.

What I don’t want to do is engage in hand wringing over a protest hijacked by violent fringe elements, or tut at those smashing up the office building or gathered outside to watch. Instead, I want to do the opposite, I want to imagine myself as the one who failed, failed to fully grasp that it wasn’t just a sunny afternoon of political play acting. Continue reading

Inequality and the Human(e) Development Index

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) has for the last 20 years pioneered seemingly innovative approaches to development that have substantially redefined the terms on which development aid is conceived, offered and spent. The publishing of the first Human Development Report in 1990 was a bold move which made a case for measuring and judging countries’ developmental status in a way which focused on quality of life indicators as well as macro-economic statistics – an idea now which is completely mainstream and commonplace amongst donor governments and development practitioners.  It also proposed the notion of ‘human security‘ in 1994; a subversive response to the ‘securitisation’ agenda emerging in the wake of the Cold War which sought to broaden both the referent of security and the range of relevant concerns.  It was absolutely instrumental in pushing the Millennium Development Goals agenda – an incredibly ambitious and detailed set of targets for international development practice that served to underpin widespread agreement for the expansion of development funding across donor governments.

Its recent decision to measure inequality as a constituent part of development through its apparent role in determining the quality of life is, in this context, really interesting. On one level, it is indicative of the development community’s constant reflexivity – a term often used by David Williams – which recalibrates the tenor of its activities according to whatever the relevant crisis is supposed to be. Having been roundly critiqued and lambasted for the MDGs’ complicity with impoverishing neoliberal economic structures, we can read this ‘equality turn’ as the UNDP’s attempt to once more place itself on the vanguard of a more humane and responsive development agenda, moving itself away from the territory that the IFIs are starting to encroach upon.

It will be interesting to see whether and how the donors follow down this particular road. To a certain extent, the UNDP’s previous ‘innovations’ on human development, particularly with regard to adjusting for gender inequality, levels of absolute poverty and service provision, have all found various champions amongst western development agencies, all of whom have incorporated these issues seemingly deeply into their approaches to development, albeit perhaps through substantially de-radicalising the most substantive aspects of critique.

Inequality as an issue however poses a much more substantive threat to the international development agenda when pushed too far – not only does it cast doubt on the shining beaconof the self-made rich in the global South, but specifically, it starts to push against the foundational myth that ‘development abroad’ can be achieved with no corresponding change in the fortunes of ‘developed’ countries, a key threat to donor sanguinity and compliance with the UNDP’s more radical agendas. After all, if it is true within countries that vast inequalities impact on quality of life through skewing access to the goods that constitute human well-being, why would this also not be true between countries? The nonsense and yet widespread idea that some countries merely have to ‘catch up’ with others is belied by the inequality point but poses the much harder question for western countries and populaces to deal with: do I support international development enough to sacrifice any aspect of my own well-being?

As argued on an earlier post, the failure of highly-moralising development and anti-poverty agendas to deal at all with the central problem of inequality, both international and domestic, has been egregious and pervasive over the last 20 years, and looks to remain so in the future. The UNDP’s intervention is no doubt a timely one, although given the history of its more radical proposals, one which will probably be so watered down in practice as to be meaningless. Furthermore, by bringing this question within the competence of the ‘development’ policy specialists rather than engaging it as a public political question in ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries, the potential for getting to grips with the depth of this challenge seem remote.