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’.