I was disturbed when I saw this story by Kirk James White published on Firedoglake over the weekend. Of course, I’d heard about the talk of connections between Assange’s accuser and the CIA, but I was troubled by other aspects of the article. Most of its information comes from this shoddy, sexist Counterpunch article which claims that Assange is under siege by “castrating feminists and secret services alike.” Ugh.
White also re-circulates the silly claim that the accuser’s blog article about getting revenge on an ex is proof that she’s not trustworthy. Whatever the substance of the CIA connection, this narrative of the jilted woman turned castrating feminist is dubious crap. Defenders of Wikileaks should not be engaging in misogynist rhetoric or falling back on lazy tropes to defend Julian Assange.
Nor should feminists fall back on their credentials to give their seal of approval to anti-women sentiments to curry favor with the mainstream. Unfortunately, Naomi Wolf didn’t get the memo, and wrote this snarky open letter for the (notoriously sexist) Huffington Post yesterday. Wolf, after announcing her feminist bonafides, characterized Assange’s accusers as jilted women seeking revenge on a narcissistic playboy.
The court heard Assange is accused of using his body weight to hold her down in a sexual manner.
The second charge alleged Assange “sexually molested” Miss A by having sex with her without a condom when it was her “express wish” one should be used.
The third charge claimed Assange “deliberately molested” Miss A on August 18 “in a way designed to violate her sexual integrity”. The fourth charge accused Assange of having sex with a second woman, Miss W, on August 17 without a condom while she was asleep at her Stockholm home.
If these charges are true, Assange did not have consent, and may be guilty of rape.
The problem, of course, is that we have no idea if the charges are true. (We may never know.) We also have plenty of reason to be suspicious of the timing of the scandal, and of the unusual swiftness of justice.
I was relieved to see various commentators in the feminist blogosphere question the increasingly sexist discourse, which was beginning to remind me of arguments made on behalf of Roman Polanski. Kate Harding’s piece in Salon offered a thorough and fair analysis, challenging the smears, while acknowledging the widely-shared suspicion that Assange’s case is being fast-tracked for political reasons. (Is there anyone who really doubts that?)
Also weighing in on the discussion was Amanda Marcotte, a prolific feminist blogger, who I regularly read and follow on Twitter. Marcotte is a smart and passionate writer, and I often look to her work for a feminist analysis on the culture wars. (She has also, for what it’s worth, blogged on two occasions about my American Apparel spoofs.) Marcotte began her post with a sharp corrective to the victim smearing, rape apologetic rhetoric. But then, mid paragraph, her post shifted gears, from defending Assange’s victims against unfair smears, to making an unfair smear against Assange:
I’m sorry, but why on earth is it so hard to believe that Assange is the kind of guy who power trips on women by promising to use a condom and then slipping it off during sex? This is one of the most common kinds of sexual assault there is, and a favorite way for guys with power issues to get cheap thrills at the expense of women, who they often feel are contemptible and weak. Are we to assume that someone who clearly gets a rise out of making the most powerful nation on the planet scramble around in a chickens-with-heads-cut-off manner doesn’t have a tendency to ego trip? Are we to assume someone who risks life and limb for this isn’t the kind of guy who might get smaller kicks out of smaller, less internationally interesting power trips? Why are we to assume that?
What is Marcotte up to here? She seems dangerously close to drawing an equivalency between the mission of Wikileaks and a rapist’s desire to dominate a woman. Note her sexualized language about Assange getting “a rise” out of embarrassing the world’s leaders. Perhaps unintentionally, Marcotte is pathologizing the very idea behind Wikileaks, and in the process, smearing its leader. This seems to mirror the very mistake that Kirk James White and Naomi Wolf make. It clouds the important issues surrounding Wikileaks and characterizes the conflict in sexual terms.
And it gets worse. After rightly pointing out that leftist men can be just as sexist as those on the right, Marcotte writes:
We can be grown-ups here. We can entertain the idea that Wikileaks is performing a valuable service while acknowledging the strong possibility that Julian Assange is himself an asshole who treats women like they’re objects he can exert his massive power issues on.
Later, in a comment thread, there was this exchange between Marcotte and one of her readers:
Reader: I sense some sort of prejudice here. Yes Julian looks a little creepy and his lifestyle might make him an easy target, but that doesn’t make him a rapist.
Marcotte: It doesn’t for sure, but please don’t be so condescending. You aren’t a woman and you don’t have to always be gauging men for their trustworthiness, and therefore you haven’t developed the skill set here. Creepiness is a big red flag. There are others, but while it doesn’t make Assange a rapist, it sure does—in the experience of someone like myself who has been threatened and raped and has to be on guard simply due to my gender—raise the odds.
Got that? Assange is “creepy.” And this assertion is above examination, unless you are a woman. His “creepiness” doesn’t mean he’s a rapist, but it does “raise the odds.”
In a later tweet, Marcotte pushed this subjective impression further, writing:
Assange is “creepy,” and Marcotte doesn’t like his “vibe.” This kind of rhetoric, coming from Marcotte is deeply disappointing.
As I tweeted to her yesterday, her statements, taken together, go far beyond asserting the possibility of Assange’s guilt. They stop just short of calling the man a rapist. Marcotte disagreed replying in four subsequent tweets that I had lied about the content of her post.
Marcotte is correct, insofar as she never directly calls Assange a rapist. Instead she asserts that Assange is the kind of guy who would rape a woman. In the process, she casts the very nature of Assange’s work with Wikileaks not as an idealistic, noble or necessary pursuit, but as a “power trip.” How is this type of argument by insinuation substantively different from the smears against his accuser?
For example: what if White and Wolf had said “Hey, we’re not calling these women CIA honeypot moles and jilted groupies, we’re just saying it’s very possible.”
If Assange is, in fact, guilty of these crimes, then Marcotte’s comments about him (though not about his organization) might be justified. But, what if he’s innocent?
In a subsequent tweet, Marcotte seemed to soften the tone of her attack on Assange, writing:
This is better. Still, I got to wondering why Marcotte chose not to weigh in on the larger issues surrounding Wikileaks. Why, for instance, hasn’t she blogged about the chilling, authoritarian crackdown on Wikileaks by the political and financial establishment? Or about the outrageous calls for Assange to be designated as a terrorist and murdered? Aren’t these outrages also worthy of her analysis? What about the cables themselves, which reveal the machinery of the American empire, the way we bully smaller nations, and the scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton’s use of diplomats as spies? And what about the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Aren’t these also feminist issues?
When I asked Marcotte how she felt about the crackdown on Wikileaks and the policies it has helped to exposed, she conceded that the government was retaliating against Assange and only “using the rape allegations to get him.” Then, I pressed Marcotte to comment on the attack against Wikileaks, and the wars they seek to expose. Here was her response:
This was disappointing. Is it really possible, that Marcotte has no opinion on these issues? That her only comment on the entire Wikileaks saga is to argue that Julian Assange seems like the kind of guy who might be a rapist? We need voices like Marcotte’s in this discussion– not just the hypothetical one about Assange’s sexual character– but the larger discussion about what Wikileaks has revealed about our country, and the powerful forces being marshaled to discredit and destroy it.
Watching the discussion unfold today, I was reminded of a CIA memo, released by Wikileaks (natch) back in March. Headlined “ ‘Public Apathy Enables Leaders To Ignore Voters … But Casualties Could Precipitate Backlash,” the memo revealed the CIA’s plan to manipulate feminist sentiment in Europe to gain support for the war in Afghanistan. It’s exactly this kind of tactic that worries me about the unfolding dialogue surrounding Assange and his accusers. One friend has already observed that the constant association in the media of the words “rape” and “Assange” have an almost hypnotic effect, regardless of your opinions on his case. What is the net effect of this obsession with Assange, his accusers and the murky facts of a case, that we know almost nothing about?
The American left is already fractured enough. The anti-war movement is in tatters. The Democrats have all but abandoned any remaining promises to protect civil liberties, reform the financial system or end our various declared and undeclared wars. It can only serve the interests of the political establishment to continue to speculate on Assange’s character and that of his accusers. What we should be doing instead is proudly defending Wikileaks and the democratic traditions it promotes. At the same time, we should be using this occasion to draw critical attention to the machinery of the security state and the breathtaking force with which it seeks to crush Wikileaks. We live in scary fucking times.
Wikileaks is a feminist issue.