The Manning Trial, Truth-Telling, and The Precariousness of Democractic Society

The following is a piece written as part of an interview I did at City University on the political and ethical significance of the Bradley Manning trial currently ongoing (links to potentially embarrassing video to follow).

I think that the most important thing that the Bradley Manning trial shows us is the gap that opens up between our legal institutions and our sense of right and wrong, between the law and morality. Many people around the world are shocked by Manning’s imprisonment. People are shocked partly because he has been held under conditions that the UN said violated his human rights, but also because Manning is being tried for exposing the actions of US soldiers and diplomats, including evidence of many potential and confirmed human rights violations. Manning’s supporters are incredulous and view the proceedings now taking place at Fort Meade as illegitimate.Bradley Manning War Crimes

I understand this incredulity and on a level I share it. What I want to suggest, however, is that what we are seeing in the trial of this young man is even more troubling than the corruption of the law by politics – it reveals that the law is always suffused with politics. The law is a technical code. Yes, it is also a normative system that is supposed to determine right and wrong, guilt and innocence. But it is vital that we do not forget that it is a technical code first and foremost, a code that political authorities use to justify their power. Therefore, those with the capacity to influence and manipulate the legal code will always be at an advantage, will always be able to shape that code not towards the pursuit of justice but towards their own interests. This is what Finnish legal scholar Martti Koskenniemi calls this the gap between apology and utopia. The law has its utopian moments and this is especially true of human rights law – for example, Manning supporters see him as a hero who has exposed the grievous crimes of the US government and its military, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. They appeal to human rights standards that are quintessential moral claims, but which sadly lack the force of political authority and so are not reliably protected. This is important, but the law also has its moment of apology, where it serves the interests of established authorities, of powerful actors like the US government.

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Intimate Dissidence: Assange, Foucault and (Feminist) Rape Discourse

At Critical Legal Thinking, Narnia Bohler-Muller takes issue with the narrow legalism of the often ‘surreal’ commentaries on the Assange controversy. In amongst the denunciation and counter-denunciation she detects an undercurrent of disciplinary power. On this account, the apparently ‘very broad’ rape laws of Sweden, like efforts in South Africa to force HIV tests on rape suspects, enforce dichotomies under the guise of legal formality, and so cast the accused as impurities of the social body:

The argument is that the law is not an appropriate instrument to deal with matters of sexual intimacy as general principles can never do justice to the particularity of the situation and the nuances of sexual game-playing. Such is the forceful and violent nature of The Law. To depend on legal regulation to resolve all the complexities and quirks of human relations is a dangerous precedent and enforces the dualisms of guilt/innocence and normal/perverted. It is such dualisms that serve to re-produce Foucauldian ‘docile bodies’ that do not threaten or resist the status quo

…The problem is that in such a way harmless conduct may be punished merely because we do not approve of it. If Assange is HIV negative, which one assumes he is, and neither of the complaints fall pregnant, then his failure to wear a condom caused no harm. Or are we now choosing to punish potential harm or the risk of harm? Or, perhaps, punishing the failure to be a considerate lover, or the narcissism and promiscuity of a man who fucks helpless women and then leaves?

This ends up turning sexual assault into a form of dissent, a refusal “to express comfort with any kind of subservience to Authority“. As before, Assange is not really the issue, merely a bystander and stand-in. But, amidst her caution against law as a substitute for political critique and her rejection of marginalising discourse (points well-taken), Bohler-Muller’s use of him to mobilise broader arguments about a Foucauldian analytics of rape raises some stark problems. Continue reading

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’.