Why Wikileaks is now splitting the liberal elite

It is not ‘the Empire’ that is swallowing up Julian Assange – it is the very politics of exposé that he himself did so much to institutionalise.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Free Speech

So, is Julian Assange’s imprisonment in Britain and threatened extradition to Sweden on sexual-offence charges part of a political war against leakers? Is this an elite witch-hunt against a champion of political transparency? Is it possibly even a CIA fit-up, with a couple of Swedish broads coaxed by shady men in suits into badmouthing the man Washington loves to hate?

No, it isn’t. No doubt various political and censorious ambitions have attached themselves to Assange’s legal travails. US officials and others will be keeping a close eye on proceedings, hoping that they move in a certain direction, and knowledge of this fact could potentially impact on the way British and Swedish jurists carry out their duties. That would be very bad.

But Assange’s threatened fall from grace speaks to something far less dramatic, far less John le Carré, than a behind-the-scenes war against hackers by a grey-faced Empire. Rather, what we’re witnessing is the internal corrosion of the liberal outlook of Assange himself and of his fellow travellers, a very public playing-out of the inherent contradictions of what passes for radical and left-leaning politics today.

Various observers have talked up Assange’s arrest in Ian Fleming-esque terms. Assange is in ‘the grasp of the US Empire‘, we are told; ‘The Empire strikes back’, says one Wikileaks-supporting hack of Assange’s legal misfortunes. Pushing to one side these Stars Wars-style fantasies of a modern-day Luke Skywalker having his fate puppeteered by the Darth Vader that is the US State Department, in fact the most striking thing about Assange’s arrest is how quickly it gave rise to internal turmoil within the Wikileaks-backing liberal classes, causing ruptures between the kind of people who are normally united in their fawning over whistleblowers. One gets the distinct impression, not of a radical movement getting a beating from the Empire, but of a group of people being torn apart by their own warped political dynamics.

So the revelation that Assange is wanted in Sweden for various alleged sex offences has caused feminists within the Wikileaks set to rethink his earlier elevation to the status of silver-haired surfer for truth. A columnist at the Guardian, which has done more than any other newspaper to depict Assange as a kind of sexy cross between Steve Jobs and Carlos the Jackal, has slammed Assange’s supporters for indulging in the ‘basest slut-shaming and misogyny’ by daring to challenge the two Swedish women who have pressed charges against him. ‘It is terrifying to witness how swiftly rape orthodoxies reassert themselves’, she says.

Another left columnist reminds her Wikileaks-backing chums that ‘sometimes good guys rape’. ‘Rape, after all, is hardly a freak occurrence. Across the world, in every city and town, tens of thousands of times a day, in war zones and bedrooms and boardrooms, people – usually women and children – are raped.’ Rape: everyone’s at it. Except Assange, that is, who hasn’t even been accused of rape.

What this unappetising spectacle of feminists telling us that everything with a dick is capable of rape really represents is an attempt to assert one longstanding liberal orthodoxy – that rape is rife – over another, newer liberal orthodoxy – that Assange is an untouchable, saintly speaker of truth to power. This is a competition of victimhoods, with the feminist set within the liberal elite feeling aggrieved that their favoured victims – women, everywhere, at all times – have seemingly been elbowed aside by a new pet victim: Assange and political hackers. There is no meaningful principle at stake here; rather we’re witnessing a clash of miserabilist, conspiratorial outlooks, with one side insisting that all women are at potential risk from ‘rape culture’ and the other side arguing that Assange is at risk from the military-industrial complex’s ‘power culture’.

Yet those Assange supporters who claim that his alleged sexual offences are actually minor, and have been sexed-up by the media, really have no one to blame but themselves and their friends. Because the re-presentation in recent years of seduction as assault, drunken sex as potential rape, and sex without a condom as one of the worst things a man could ever do – which are all the kind of things Assange is accused of – spring precisely from the campaigning of the same illiberal liberals who have now made Assange into a hero. He is being eaten alive, not by a ravenous Empire, but by the politics of suspicion and demonisation of lust that have been a prominent feature of his own kind’s radical campaigning over the past decade.

Wikileaks supporters say Assange is really only guilty of ‘poor bedroom etiquette‘. One accuses the two Swedish women of ‘using feminist-inspired rhetoric and law to assuage what appear to be personal injured feelings’. They may well have a point. The things Assange is alleged to have done hardly make him the Yorkshire Ripper. There are two accusations of a specific Swedish crime called ‘ofredande‘, meaning ‘misconduct’: he allegedly ‘pushed his erect penis against the complainant’s back, thus violating her sexual integrity’; and he allegedly had sex without a condom with the other complainant ‘against her explicitly stated wish’. He’s also alleged to have had sex with one of the women while she was asleep, and to have ‘used his body weight’ to hold down the other woman during sex.

This looks more like a murky, messy sexual encounter than rape. But who was it who effectively redefined unpleasant, regretted sex as sexual assault? The very same radical lawyers, feminists and liberal commentators who now make up what we might call, for want of a better phrase, the Wikileaks set. The effective criminalisation of seduction, the transformation of sex without a condom into a secular sin without equal, was nodded through precisely by the kind of campaigners who now wring their hands over the alleged use of a weird sexual encounter to shame and possibly topple their man of the moment. The heated dinner-party debates over Assange really represent an attempt by one section of the liberal elite to backtrack on its complicity in the recent relentless politicisation of sexual encounters, while the other section tries to uphold that politicisation even in the face of someone as popular amongst their colleagues as Assange.

More fundamentally, both the pseudo-feminism that some claim is being used to attack Assange and Assange’s own style of political campaigning spring from the same source: the serious denigration of liberal thinking in recent years and its replacement by a culture of conspiracism and victimism. In the Assange view of the world, hidden forces, normally powerful men in suits, control pretty much everything, and the only way to deal with them is through the apparently cathartic process of revelation (read more of Assange’s utterly barmy views here). In the victim-feminist view of the world, patriarchical structures, normally powerful men in suits, control pretty much everything, and the only way to deal with them is through exposing their flirtations, offensive language and attitudes to women for what they really are: a kind of rape.

Assange now finds himself falling victim to the very conspiratorial, veil-tearing, super-suspicious politics that he himself promotes, this time with him as the ‘power relation’ whose private habits and antics must apparently be revealed, sluice-like, for the public to wade through. The whistleblower has been whistleblown. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is being swallowed up, not by the Empire, but by the cults of revelation and victimhood that are the two pillars of modern-day radicalism.

Assange should have a fair trial utterly untouched by political concerns. The rest of us should enjoy the freedom to read and discuss any published material that appears on the web. And everyone else who is currently fantasising that Assange is either a hero or the devil incarnate should urgently seek a reality check.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Free Speech

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