28
Dec 2010

Wikileaks

The Irish media is still filled with talk of the IMF, the ECB and the bailout. And the snow of course. It’s remarkable when you think about it; there’s almost nothing the Irish government could have done to distract us from the economy. But a few days of frozen precipitation does the job. Suddenly the news is filled with images of kids on sleds and people standing next to snow-covered cars. I’ve not yet encountered anyone combining the two stories, but it’s surely only a matter of time before columnists start talking about the shroud of snow being “appropriately funereal”, or how a blanket has been drawn over the face of the Irish state.

In the rest of the world however, the fate of Ireland is beginnning to fade a little. And although the IMF thing is still getting the occasional headline, it’s more distant… something in the background. It won’t be so bloody distant if we succeed in bringing down the euro, mind. And if I was a citizen of Portugal I’d be getting a bit concerned right about now. Nor should the people of Italy and Spain be feeling too confident.

As I write, a huge amount of private debt is being shifted onto the Irish public. On top of that, we’re being strip-mined of our remaining assets. Goodbye National Pension Reserve fund, hello Wave of Privatisation. And given how fruitful this asset grab is turning out to be, only a fool would bet on it being the last. The Irish acquiescence, along with the failure of any of our neighbours to demand a halt to this daylight robbery, is actively encouraging the “contagion” that everyone claims to fear. The international markets are instruments of tremendous power, and our political leaders are giving them incentives to topple nations. I’ve gone from wondering whether it’s incompetence or madness driving this policy, to realising it’s both. What ‘The Market’ needs right now is a hefty dose of nationalisations to get it back in line. At the same time our political classes could do with a revolution or two in order to teach them some humility. Preferably dramatic but non-violent revolutions (violence tends to breed chaos and with chaos comes a whole host of unintended consequences, and while only a fool insists violence can never be justified, it should always be considered a last resort).

Isn’t this post supposed to be about Wikileaks, though?

Sorry, got a bit carried away with the intro there. Let’s shift our gaze away from Irish matters and take a glance further afield. Ignoring the snow — which is now news across much of Europe and North America — a look at the internet media suggests much of the world is fixated on the Wikileaks saga. And who can blame them? Suddenly the headline “Website sparks war” doesn’t seem entirely fanciful.

As is so often the case lately, I find myself irritated by the polarisation that has emerged as a result of this issue. Two narratives have emerged which reluctantly I find rather simplistic and lacking nuance. And I say “reluctantly” because many of my friends, plus commentators for whom I have a great deal of respect, are promoting one of those simplistic narratives (the “Julian Assange is a hero and the various charges against him are a big American plot” version). The other narrative — less prevalent amongst those I know, needless to say — being the “Julian Assange is a traitorous rapist who seeks to destabilise democratic governments and should be hunted down and shot like the rabid dog he is” version.

Before I get onto the “hero” narrative, let me say a little something about the “villain” Assange. Now, it goes without saying that I don’t know any more about the rape allegations than anyone else. However, there are two points worth noting that cause me some consternation with respect to them. Firstly, the general murkiness of the allegations and the extreme confusion surrounding them makes them — certainly not unique — but definitely atypical in such cases. The charges were dropped, reactivated, dropped and reactivated again. So the current charges are being handled by the third Swedish prosecutor to get involved in the case. It might be argued that this is a result of the difficulty securing evidence and, hence, convictions in this kind of case. All the same, from what I’ve read it is far from normal for such cases to be passed from prosecutor to prosecutor in this manner. A cynic might suggest that two people looked at the case, concluded it had either no merit or that — rightly or wrongly — it simply could not be successfully prosecuted due to a lack of available evidence, but that a third person took up the case for reasons of political ideology or personal aggrandisement.

I should probably take a moment to state clearly (because unfortunately we live in a world where it cannot be taken as read) that if there really is evidence linking Assange to a rape or sexual assault, he should face trial and suffer the full penalty. It is perfectly possible for a person to behave with honour in one area of his life while being depraved in another and the former simply does not excuse the latter.

Nonetheless, one only has to spend a little time reading about the allegations against Assange before confusion and apparent contradiction arise. This may merely be a result of bad reporting, but given how politically charged this whole situation is, I honestly feel one can be forgiven for raising a sceptical eyebrow while at the same time hoping that justice manages to assert itself (in whatever shape it takes).

The second question that gets raised about the rape allegations is one I first saw enunciated by feminist writer, Naomi Wolf, in her article betting tipsJ’Accuse: Sweden, Britain, and Interpol Insult Rape Victims Worldwide. Wolf, who has campaigned for two decades to raise the profile of — and seek justice for — victims of sexual assault views the treatment meted out to Assange in even more cynical terms than I was prepared to…

… Never in twenty-three years of reporting on and supporting victims of sexual assault around the world have I ever heard of a case of a man sought by two nations, and held in solitary confinement without bail in advance of being questioned — for any alleged rape, even the most brutal or easily proven.
[…]
… the highly unusual reaction of Sweden and Britain to this situation … seems to send the message to women in the UK and Sweden that if you ever want anyone to take sex crime against you seriously, you had better be sure the man you accuse of wrongdoing has also happened to embarrass the most powerful government on earth.

Keep Assange in prison without bail until he is questioned, by all means, if we are suddenly in a real feminist worldwide epiphany about the seriousness of the issue of sex crime: but Interpol, Britain and Sweden must, if they are not to be guilty of hateful manipulation of a serious women’s issue for cynical political purposes, imprison as well — at once — the hundreds of thousands of men in Britain, Sweden and around the world world who are accused in far less ambiguous terms of far graver forms of assault.

Anyone who works in supporting women who have been raped knows from this grossly disproportionate response that Britain and Sweden, surely under pressure from the US, are cynically using the serious issue of rape as a fig leaf to cover the shameful issue of mafioso-like global collusion in silencing dissent. That is not the State embracing feminism. That is the State pimping feminism.

It’s a difficult point to argue against. For no matter what you believe about Assange or the crimes he is accused of, it simply cannot be denied that his treatment is completely inconsistent with that of anyone else in the same circumstances. I honestly believe that the authorities in most nations fail to treat sex crimes as seriously as they should do. However, Assange’s experience doesn’t redress that; it merely highlights it further and illustrates the willingness of the judicial systems of Europe to bend to the political will of the United States when it suits them (on a day when “[t]he United States and European nations said the [Khodorkovsky] verdict raised doubts about the Kremlin’s commitment to the rule of law and human rights” an idiom involving pots and kettles springs to mind).

Nonetheless, while the Swedish allegations carry at the very least a whiff of conspiracy and political opportunism, I can’t help but be cynical about Assange’s decision to become “the face” of Wikileaks. A decision that has allowed his personal behaviour to begin overshadowing the work being carried out by Wikileaks. It seems it would have been perfectly possible for Assange to have pursued a different strategy… a small collective of semi-anonymous people (akin to “The Yes Men” perhaps?) could have become the voice of Wikileaks rather than a single figurehead whose personal behaviour — whatever the truth behind the charges — has at the very least opened him up to attack and risked discrediting Wikileaks in the eyes of many.

The sad thing is that what was once a low profile but nonetheless powerful collaborative tool for exposing government and corporate corruption around the world has become one man’s high profile stick with which to beat America. As such it’s less radical and less generally useful. Most worryingly though, it may be starting to inflict some collateral damage of its own.

Because moving away from Assange and the rape allegations there’s a larger issue at stake here. I still possess the remnants of the anarchist idealism of my youth. But it’s long been tempered by a realisation that while information may want to be free, it’s not always in the best interests of people that it should be.

It’s possible, for instance, that the North Koreans already knew China and the United States had discussed — however informally — the desirability of Korean reunification under a Seoul government. But if this is the first they’re hearing about it, then there’s a real possibility Wikileaks might provoke another ship being sunk, or another artillery barrage. Or worse. The politics of the Korean peninsula are complex to say the least, but I don’t think it can be denied that the latest escalation in tension can be at least partly attributed to the actions of Wikileaks. If the publication of these cables turns out to be a contributory factor in a new Korean War can anyone really say that these leaks were worth the lives of tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people? It’d certainly take someone seriously committed to anarchism and freedom of information to consider so much death and suffering to be a price worth paying.

Especially when you consider the practical usefulness of the revelations. I mean, who seriously is shocked or surprised by anything they’ve read in the published cables? Or even in the previously published documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? We learnt that US troops callously killed civilians in both nations. There may have been a handful of people in Iowa still resolutely denying that such things happened until that famous video of the gunship firing upon injured civilians hit the internet, but I suspect 98% of those who saw that footage were merely receiving visual confirmation of something they already knew was going on.

Similarly, the news that China and the US were discussing ways of sidelining North Korea, or that the Saudis were agitating for a US attack on Tehran were probably well known by the various parties involved — as well as by most informed members of the public — so the public confirmation merely serves to heighten tension, rather than genuinely inform. And the notion that it will force the US (or China or Saudi Arabia) to moderate their behaviour in the future is beyond naive. It will simply force them to tighten security while simultaneously seeking ways to crack down on internet and press freedom.

Ultimately I find myself deeply ambivalent about Julian Assange and Wikileaks. The man appears to be embracing shallow celebrity with a certain eagerness that undercuts his campaign, while the potential usefulness of the website (and the world is indeed improved by a system that facilitates whistle-blowing) is — I would argue — compromised by becoming so highly politicised. It needs to be more discerning, and dare I say it, more responsible, about what it publishes. What was once a facility that could be used to expose government and corporate wrongdoing, has recently become little more than a political powderkeg, helping ratchet up tensions between nations, providing recruitment videos to militant organisations and placing more importance in the ability to access information than in the actual importance of that information.


Posted in: Opinion