I have to admit a certain ambivalence towards Julian Assange. On the one hand I admire what he and Wikileaks have done. At least from a distance however, he comes over as somewhat egocentric, grandiose and reckless, with an appetite for self-promotion that has overshadowed the collective efforts of the Wikileaks team.
And even if the so-far-reported stories concerning the allegations directed against him fall short of rape – something that has yet to be proven one way or another – they are less than edifying and somewhat creepy.
I’m also not entirely convinced by the argument that if Assange returned to Sweden to address these allegations, it would begin a process that would lead inevitably to his extradition.
That said, I can’t help being struck by the visceral loathing directed towards him from the liberal commentariat. Ever since the white-haired one took refuge in the Equadorian embassy, journalists have been falling over themselves to express their contempt and outraged disgust.
Last week, there was Joan Smith in the Independent dismissing Assange as ‘ a fabulist, someone who stretches and distorts the truth to make himself look exciting in the eyes of his diminishing band of followers’ and condemning ‘ the people’s champion, shopping for human rights near Harrods’.
Smith accompanied this sarcasm with a feminist critique, claiming that Assange ‘ has employed every trick in the book to avoid going back to answer serious allegations of sexual misconduct’ in Sweden, and that the authorities there ‘ have been trying to question him for almost two years’.
In fact Assange did offer to present himself to Swedish prosecutors in Sweden when these charges were first brought up, and they were initially dismissed. It was only after he left Sweden that they were brought up again, for reasons that are not clear and which certainly contain the possibility of a stitch-up.
In the Daily Mail, Stephen Glover, formerly of the Independent, launched an equally scathing attack on the ‘cowardly and amoral founder of Wikileaks’ and his ‘useful idiot’ supporters, such as Jemima Khan and Ken Loach.
Glover accused Assange of endangering Afghan informants through Wikileaks’ revelations and also declared that ‘a true hero would relish going to the U.S. to defend his actions and show solidarity with Private Bradley Manning, the alleged source of many of the WikiLeaks documents’.
There is no evidence yet that anybody has been harmed by the Wikileaks revelations, and Glover’s suggestion that Assange should prove his courage by defending himself in the US is laughable, coming from a journalist who has never demonstrated his courage anywhere.
Elsewhere Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, the New Statesman blogger David Allan Green and Oliver Kamm of the Times have been exchanging sneering and somewhat gloating tweets about Assange and his supporters, like a gaggle of vindictive teenagers engaging in text-bullying.
And yesterday Cohen wrote a typically intemperate and intellectually dishonest piece in which he labelled Assange and his supporters ‘paranoid’ for fearing that the US might seek to extradite him from Sweden, when he could just as easily be extradited from the UK.
But until Assange entered the Equadorian embassy and effectively defied an extradition order that would have returned him to Sweden, he hadn’t committed any criminal offence in the UK.
In Sweden, on the other hand, he would be placed in detention, and it is certainly possible that the US government might then seek to have him extradited if it was able to – and it is also possible that the rape allegations that have been bought against him might have been trumped-up in order to put him in jail for something.
It’s also worth pointing out that ‘paranoia’ about what might happen to him is not limited to Assange and his supporters. Australian diplomats, for example, have also expressed concern at rumours that the US government is seeking to prosecute Assange for espionage. The Sydney Herald reported that
While the Justice Department has been reluctant to disclose details of the WikiLeaks probe, the Australian embassy in Washington reported in December 2010 that the investigation was ”unprecedented both in its scale and nature” and that media reports that a secret grand jury had been convened in Alexandria, Virginia, were ”likely true”.
Cohen also insists that ’ the incontinent leaker’ is protected by the First Amendment and America’s traditional defence of freedom of speech’ and that ‘ it would be unconstitutional for a judge to punish Assange.
This argument ignores the Obama administration’s aggressive assault on whistleblowers - or the possibility that the US government might seek to make an example of the man who has become the public face of Wikileaks and find legal loopholes that might enable it to do so.
Cohen expresses fake sympathy for the fact that the US government has held the ‘ wretched Bradley Manning’ in solitary confinement for passing information to Assange. If Manning is ‘wretched’, it is because a vengeful government has decided to make him into a scapegoat and because he is almost certain to spend the rest of his life in jail for releasing information that he – like Assange – believed was in the public good.
Ultimately, Cohen’s attack on Assange is essentially another means of pursuing his bitter vendetta against the left, which is described with the usual strawman rhetoric. Therefore
Reasonable doubt cannot stay the tongues of Ken Loach, Tariq Ali, Jemima Khan, Naomi Wolf, John Pilger and their comrades. They lament western wickedness with the reliability of professional mourners. For them, America is a demonic empire with supernatural power and reach.
Er yes, Nick, that’s really what they think, and just keep those parodies coming – they will always be useful substitutes for actual thoughts.
Much of Cohen’s wrath is directed at the American journalist Glenn Greenwald, who wrote an article defending Assange’s asylum bid last week. Greenwald is a forensic and indefatigable critic of American warmongering and the lawless swathe of violence that America has carved across the planet for the last decade, which undoubtedly explain’s Cohen’s anger towards him – and also towards Assange himself.
This is something that many of Assange’s liberal journo opponents have in common. Oliver Kamm is a bizarre former banker-turned-neocon warmonger, whose arid, dessicated prose is notable for its nitpicking pedantry and endless cheerleading for the western war du jour, all of which is laced with a streak of adolescent vindictiveness towards opponents who he invariably regards as his intellectual inferiors.
Aaronovitch, like Kamm and Cohen, was one of the most fervent liberal supporters of the Iraq war, who once predicted that Iraqis would greet American troops with flowers, and that if WMD were not found he would no longer believe a word the British government said.
We all know how that one went, but Aaronovitch went on believing and continued to insist that a war launched under blatantly false pretences was right anyway. Aaronovitch presents himself as an iconoclast and fearless free thinker, but his views on foreign policy invariably converge seamlessly with those of his government’s, in ways that suggest that free speech is too often a wasted opportunity amongst writers who have neither the guts nor the vision to actually use it.
Wikileaks, by contrast, performed some brilliant and essential work in revealing the sewers that underpin Western foreign policy and breaking down the barriers of secret diplomacy that governments erect to conceal their intentions and machinations from public scrutiny.
Whatever his personal quirks and character flaws and possibly morbid sexual inclinations, Assange has been crucial to that process, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is why the liberals hate him, and would like everybody else to hate him too.
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