The words "Julian Assange" have become rhetorical poison, quickly turning even sane conversations into bilious screaming matches. Here's why the discussion about him has gotten so goddamned awful.
1. Assange is a hero to some, and he's been accused of rape.
Seriously, do you want to have a Terrible time? Mention rape allegations against anyone with a popular following, whether it's Roman Polanski or an athlete like Ben Roethlisberger. Watch as people you ordinarily like and respect bend over backwards to explain to you how their hero could not possibly have done something like that. Watch as they then bend over even further, to tell you either that a) that person's accuser must obviously be untrustworthy because she was drunk or not a virgin or wrote a feminist blog or b) that whatever the hero did cannot possibly be rape because a hero would never rape anybody, because he is a hero! And just keep watching as all these people you once thought of as fair-thinking are forced to chip relentlessly away at their conceptions of consent and basic human rights, all to protect and excuse the person they think is awesome. In response to the Julian Assange case, several smart people have pointed out that in fact, guys who do good or even heroic things in other areas of their lives are capable of rape, that most rapists "have jobs, friends and roles to play in their communities," and that a person could even have a giant international fan base and still be a rapist. Sadly, the idea that anybody who supports WikiLeaks must avow Julian Assange's innocence corrosively persists.
2. The accusations were confusing.
Why do I say "were?" Because as I've reiterated several times, anyone with the Internet can now look up a clear breakdown of what Assange stands accused of. Initially, though, the waters of the case were muddied both by Assange's own lawyer and by shitty reporting. This initial muddiness has allowed a whole bunch of people who should know better — including Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore — to claim that the charges are inscrutable or "strange", and to cite outdated or inaccurate information as though it were fact. And if that fails, they can say "none of us knows" what the charges really are, thus misleading the many laypeople whose jobs don't include reading about Julian Assange every damn day.
3. Even when you understand the charges, it's not a "perfect" rape case.
You know, rape-rape — when a slavering stranger assaults a virgin at gunpoint and then she immediately goes and gets a rape kit without doing anything else first. Everybody's against that kind of rape — but if a victim consents to one form of sexual contact but not another, or, even worse, appears "friendly" with an alleged rapist after the fact, then she's no longer perfect and those anti-rape-rape folks lose sympathy. This despite the fact that, as Jill Filipovic points out, "I have a difficult time imagining any decent human being hearing their partner say "Stop!" in the middle of sex and not, you know, stopping." And despite what Diane Moyer, legal director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, told Broadsheet about victims acting "friendly" towards their rapists: "It may seem counterintuitive but it is not unusual for a victim to want to normalize the situation. Essentially the victim is prey to self-doubt." A victim who's imperfect in any way is a big risk factor for the conversation becoming Terrible.
4. Accusations are flying, and nobody is admitting they're wrong.
A lot of the blame for this aspect of Terrible goes to Keith Olbermann, for refusing to retract erroneous statements he made about the case on Twitter (notably, the damaging misinformation that consensual sex without a condom is rape in Sweden). Tommy Christopher of Mediaite says, "One of the reasons I kept watching your show was that you used to be able to admit when you were wrong" — but instead of doing that, Olbermann is blocking people and continuing to perpetuate the "charges are muddy" narrative. He also retweeted an even more baseless story about Assange accuser Anna Ardin's CIA ties, and for that he deserves criticism too. What Olbermann doesn't deserve is to be pilloried for is naming rape victims — Ardin's name has been public for months, and retweeting a link to one of the many articles that mention it does not an outing make. I only mention this Twitter warfare because it's a hallmark of a truly Terrible conversation — smart people fighting amongst themselves, when they could move things to a higher level if the initial perpetrator of Terrible (Keith, that's you) could own up to his mistakes.
5. There's an international, political scandal.
Or, more accurately, a whiff of one. Despite Michael Moore's rhapsodizing about the importance of WikiLeaks, the most recent cables have mostly been of the "Berlusconi parties too much" variety. And yet there's the constant threat of more serious shit to come — like high-profile bank documents. Meanwhile US prosecutors are reportedly working on an espionage case against Assange. Oh, and there's the fact that, as many have pointed out, Interpol doesn't usually hunt down alleged rapists (though to use authorities' all-too-frequent ignoring of rape as a justification to keep ignoring rape is, as Kate Harding handily explicates, all kinds of fucked up). Also, as Michael Moore will happily remind you, the US invaded Iraq under false pretenses in 2003 and has a history of doing bad things and covering them up. So! Stir all this together and you get a witches' brew of international anxiety, accusation, and confusion — confusion that allows dudes like Moore to say Julian Assange going free is somehow an effective remedy for the war in Iraq, and that allows a bunch of people to actually believe him.
See what I mean? Fucking Terrible.
Keith Olbermann [Twitter]
#MooreandMe: On Progressives, Rape Apologism, And The Little Guy [Tiger Beatdown]
Day One of #MooreandMe: Or, How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love Being Blocked By Keith Olbermann On Twitter [Tiger Beatdown]
Some Shit I'm Sick Of Hearing Regarding Rape And Assange [Kate Harding]