John Wight's comment on Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and the superpower fury he's brought down on his head is the best philosophical reflection I've read on the whole affair so far. But what John studiously avoids mentioning are the very uncomfortable allegations swilling around Assange's person, allegations that have turned out to be more serious than 'having consensual sex without a condom'. Unity has the full low down on the allegations here and some thoughts on sexual assault, rape and the Swedish legal system can be read here.
The left's response to the Assange rape claims has, unfortunately, tended to polarise it along gender lines. Men, or at least, the mostly-male cadre of Assange supporters see it as a conspiracy, of aspersions designed to discredit the man who's exposed the machinations of the US abroad more effectively than Noam Chomsky's back catalogue. Admittedly, most people would accept their point that the allegations have surfaced at a suspiciously convenient time. But their opponents - mostly women, and mostly self-identified feminists - are arguing against the downplaying and trivialisation of the allegations. This is in the context of there still being problems of getting (for want of a better phrase) "women's issues" taken seriously by the left and the labour movement. And with cuts being made to rape crisis centres and women's refuges in Britain, it looks as though these problems will not be going away any time soon.
Is there a third way between the two positions? A middle way that can reconcile both parties? No. Only one of the positions is consistent with the politics of social justice, gender equality, and socialism. And that is the one feminist comrades are defending.
Let me put my cards on the table. I hold to the peculiarly bourgeois notion that Julian Assange is innocent until proven otherwise. I have no opinion on the veracity of the allegations made against him. But the allegations of sexual assault and rape are extremely serious. As crimes they are historically under reported due to psychological trauma, shame, fear of reprisal, cultural pressure, and the complex of ties working to keep women in their place. Of those that are reported, the incidence of false claims are extremely low - a 1996 FBI crime report found only eight per cent of claims were false. A 2005 Home Office study using a similar methodology arrived at an identical figure. Furthermore in Britain rape convictions are low - very low. While the general conviction rate is 34%, for rape it is only 6.5%. I do not know what the equivalent figure is for Sweden, but it is known to have the highest rate of reported rapes in Europe - whether this is a result of less stigma attached to reporting or because it has real higher rates of sexual violence than the norm is anyone's guess. Nevertheless, while these figures are subject to scholarly dispute, you have to take together the statistical evidence that exists for false claims, the low incidence of conviction, and the cultural pressures on rape victims to remain silent. This suggests to me that given the costs of making an allegation, every rape accusation should be treated seriously by the criminal justice system even before the facts of an individual case is known.
I don't see why Assange should be given a special dispensation. If his self-appointed internet bodyguards are interested in improving the quality of legal redress open to rape victims - and assuming most of them are on the left, they should do - they definitely must avoid tying themselves in knots over the sexual behaviour of their latest poster boy. No one wants victims of rape and sexual assault to suffer in silence: they deserve justice and the right to be taken seriously. So these people need to ask themselves a question. In their rush to defend Assange are their actions likely to encourage the victims of sexual violence to come forward, or keep them in the shadows?
Yes, Julian Assange has struck a mighty blow for the freedom of information. But equally, that does not absolve him from answering the case against him.