The Left’s Huge Failure Over Julian Assange

Julian AssangeA couple of months back, I wrote a blog post lamenting the sad decline of the left: once the home of free thought and scientific reasoning, now the home of political correctness (aka “nice censorship”) and authoritarianism. A few weeks later, I was vividly vindicated by the furore around the British threat to raid the Ecuadorian Embassy, where Julian Assange was claiming political asylum (now granted by Ecuador).

For those of you have been off-planet for the past few years: Assange ran Wikileaks, a courageous organisation, dedicated to free speech, that has been publishing government and military secrets from around the world on its website since 2006. Government after government was revealed to be embroiled in corruption and illegality; but when in April 2010, Wikileaks released the infamous Collateral Murder video, providing strong evidence of the US military murdering civilians and journalists in Iraq, two things were instantly clear: first, that Assange was a hero of free speech; and second, that he was a marked man. The US has committed war crimes for decades, but now it was clear that it could no longer keep them under wraps. The only logical act for the US war machine (other than apologising and cleaning up its act) would be to make an example of those behind the leaks, and instil terror in anyone who thought they might emulate Wikileaks’ behaviour.

Bradley Manning, a US soldier suspected to have leaked the video, was arrested, and remains in detention without charge; his treatment appears to fall within the definition of torture. That, of course, left Assange. The Obama Administration, far from embracing the new openness, has declared war on whistle-blowers, especially anyone associated with Wikileaks. Those denying that the US is after Julian Assange, or that it would deprive him of his liberty permanently if captured, have clearly not been paying attention.

The accusations of rape that surfaced in Sweden in August 2010 were greeted by Wikileaks-watchers with instant suspicion, and with good reason. By early-2011 it had become crystal-clear that this was not being treated by the Swedes like a normal rape case, as shown by testimony from former senior Swedish prosecutor Sven-Erik Alhem, and an article by global rape law expert Naomi Wolf. Assange was in London fighting extradition to Sweden. He suspected (again with good reason) that the Swedes were working with the Americans to transfer him into US custody; in June this year, he offered to submit to extradition on the condition that the Swedes promised not to hand him to the Americans. This was refused, and Assange decided (and yet again it seems, with good reason) to claim asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

None of this, of course, casts doubt on the rights of the Swedish women to see justice done; but the behaviour of the Swedish and British authorities is blatant; they obviously have little interest in rape allegations, and every interest in grabbing Assange.

Then in mid-August, something truly astonishing happened. The British government threatened to raid the Ecuadorian embassy to arrest Assange. This was truly unprecedented and dangerous, and provoked outrage around the world; wars have been started for lesser reasons than this. Not only did the threat cause huge damage to Britain’s international standing, but the sheer scale of the threat provided proof that the Swedish charges were a cover for something bigger. Mass murderers have walked free from British custody, yet Assange’s arrest mattered enough that Britain was prepared to wreak huge damage to international relations, and breach a vital core principle of modern diplomacy: the right to claim asylum.

Twitter burst into life, followed by the blogosphere; demonstrators materialised outside the embassy. As I tracked events online, I began to wonder where the mainstream left were – they seemed entirely absent. OK, the threat against Ecuador did come in the middle of holiday season – but surely the opposition couldn’t be silent at such a moment?

In reality of course, poor Ed Miliband’s hands were tied. Senior Labour figures, including Ed’s own big bro are implicated in crimes against humanity; they played along with the worst excesses of America’s “war on terror”, including illegal kidnap, detention, torture, and mass-murder. Labour is as much a part of the repressive, illegal machinery as the Conservatives and the intelligence services, and it seems unable to separate itself from the Blairite clique that disgraced the party so badly. By the end of the day, the moronic, mainstream left had chosen its line: ignore Britain’s disgraceful actions, and instead play the rape card by restarting the old arguments over the Swedish allegations from two years previously. Followers on Twitter followed suit. Soon, anybody who supported Assange had been slurred with the moron buzzword-of-the-week “rape apologist”, as I blogged at the time.

The first word I saw from a Labourite came in the next day’s Independent from Owen Jones, a young and apparently left-wing activist/journalist who is a popular up-and-coming Labour figure. Jones’ article was entitled: There Should Be No Immunity For Julian Assange From These Allegations.

I have three basic problems with the article:

  1. It is bland and populist. It contains all the ingredients needed to appeal to the centre-left, without saying very much of substance. It is a rallying cry to the Labour heartland, and it seems designed to rally Labourites against Assange. It contains the kind of meaningless-yet-popular phrases that would go down brilliantly at a Labour conference – for example, “Let’s be clear: rape is rape”. Whatever next – “Education, Education, Education”?
  2. It is inaccurate. It amplifies some of the old arguments that had been used against Assange, but ignores some other key points. An excellent blog post, Don’t Call Me A Rape Apologist by @EthicalGirl, covers Jones’ apparent bias regarding his coverage of the “facts” of the rape allegations. In addition, Jones repeats an old slur against Tory Minister Ken Clarke, which I blogged about at the time. I’m all for Tory-bashing, but prefer when it’s done with honesty and good reason. Again, this was great for the Labour heartland, not so great for accuracy and integrity.
  3. But the biggest problem is, of course, that Jones almost entirely ignores the big, Huge, ENORMOUS story of the day. His only, tangential reference to it is as follows: “Though its UK Embassy must be protected from any British Government attempt to attack its sovereignty, it is wrong to offer Assange political asylum”. Yes, that’s it. No comment on the government’s quite-probably-illegal behaviour, at all.

I have no idea whether Jones’ omissions are made through genuine ignorance or not. If he was (hypothetically) building up his profile ready for a safe Labour seat at the next election, his Independent article would have been perfectly pitched to capture grassroots support, while giving a wink to Labour top-brass that he could be relied upon to behave himself when it came to the Big Issues.

I generally agree with much of what Jones writes – but I selected this article as the earliest and most high-profile example of how the mainstream left managed to ignore (or deflect from) a very important story. I’m pretty sure that if Assange had been accused of something else – violence against a man, for example – many more of his supporters would have largely raised eyebrows and stood by him. But the “rape apologist” slur is one that terrifies the “liberal” male, and many good people buckled and became silent under the onslaught. I’ve no idea who first used it to label Assange supporters, but it was very well-chosen to have a chilling effect on the debate. Apparently a rape allegation is sacred; no man may ever cast doubt on it, however bizarre the behaviour of the prosecutors, because he will be accused, stupidly, of somehow supporting rape.

It is only thanks to brave and unimpeachable female anti-rape campaigners, like Naomi Wolf (above) and the veteran British group Women Against Rape, who wrote a marvellous article defending Assange, that debate wasn’t crushed altogether. But what a sad state the left is revealed to be in, if it is afraid to defend a hero of free speech for fear of being branded with the R-word.

Is the British Left Defunct?

My recent post, I Never Left The Left, The Left Left Me has had a lot more hits and generated more discussion than I’d expected. John Brissenden left a thoughtful, fairly lengthy comment that I wrote a very lengthy response to; I thought it would be useful to share John’s and my reply as a new post, and invite further comments. This subject (the loss of civil libertarianism on the left) has been on my mind for a long time, and I wrote the original post to begin the process of defining what I think the left should become (or alternatively, what should replace the left). Myself and John appear to agree on many/most things – this is written in the spirit of friendly debate… so if you feel like commenting please keep it friendly!

John’s comment:

Moronwatch, I write this as a fan, so you know, more in sorrow than in anger and all that, but I’m struggling to see anything here beyond the anguish of someone on the hyphenated Left.

The gist of your post seems, from the title onwards, to be hankering after some non-existent Golden Age of the Left, and therefore inherently conservative. Anyone on the Left (a usage I personally hate, incidentally: can’t we just call ourselves socialists?) must, by definition, want to see a fundamental shift in existing relations of power. Yet, in your criticisms, as I read them, of positive discrimination and of “political correctness” – and I assume you’re familiar with Richard Herring’s take on all of that – you seem to be arguing for the maintenance of those existing power relations which suit you.

I don’t know your ethnicity, but I’m guessing from your comments that, like me, you are a white male.

The freedom of speech which you claim is under attack from the left is a privilege. And it is a privilege which you would not enjoy to the same extent were you a woman, or for that matter, a person of colour. I remember an occasion when you and I, trapped within patriarchy as we are, went to defend a woman on Twitter who had been attacked as being “fat” by some corpulent Moron. So I know you know what I’m talking about, and I further assume that you are aware of the horrific abuse that women who express opinions no more controversial than yours or mine face when they express those opinions online. You will also be familiar with the fact that people who happen to possess a vagina are subjected daily to ridicule, abuse, unwanted and often disgusting sexual advances, quote apart from more severe forms of abuse and discrimination.

So the freedom to make jokes about rape has to be considered in that context. And, as far as I am aware, no one prevented Richard Herring or anyone else from making such jokes. The simple fact is that they’ve had their freedom of speech. And others have the same freedom to call them out on it, as long as the power relations I have described persist.

Now, if you were to say that there is a tension between a class analysis and what has become known as identity politics, I’d agree with you. As Tom Waits says, human beings are just monkeys with guns and money. We’re all just trying to work our way through this mess. But that is not the same as saying that those who are working, through their daily lives, to confront and change a bewilderingly-complex system of inequitable power relations have suddenly “left” you. As long as those power relations persist, you and I don’t get to make that judgement unless we’ve decided that current power relations are just fine the way they are. And I don’t think you have decided that.

My response:

Hi John,

Thanks for the contribution.

I don’t think I’m remembering a Golden Age. The left I grew up in was frustrating and often even reactionary for a number of reasons. There were the so-called “Communists”, who were so right-wing that many of them joined the SDP when it broke away from Labour, leading to a big collapse in CP membership long before the Berlin Wall fell. There were the trade unionist Old Labourites, who were working class and for social equality, but often socially conservative. There were the pro-terrorism groups of the far left. And so on…

Yet, Labour and the broader left in general had two features that seem to be largely missing today: namely, a deep belief in civil liberties, and close contact with Britain’s urban, working and poor people. As I was getting tired of activism for various reasons (post-miners’ strike), smart suits and posh accents were suddenly becoming the standard Labour look. There was a very abrupt change in style, a decade before Blairism. If you want to look for a Labour era to be proud of, look to Roy Jenkins’ social reforms in the late-60s, dealing with the death penalty (abolished), abortion (legal), gambling (legal), homosexuality (legal), etc. – that, and the Attlee government reforms of the 1940s, are the two moment in recent history for the British left to be proud of.

I voted Labour till 2001. The Iraq War and secret support for rendition and torture, meant that many senior Labour figures were/are war criminals or guilty of crimes against humanity. Not just Blair, but Brown, Straw, David Miliband, Reid… many of these people’s supporters are still at the top of the party. Is the harbouring of people who may be guilty of such crimes not enough to convince you that Labour is a dead force for progressivism? The only senior Labourites to resign were Robin Cook and (belatedly) Clare Perry. There have been a number of “last straws” for me: the Iraq War; the introduction of detention without trial and the attempt to extend it to 42 days; support for the human rights abuses known as the war on terror; continuation of immensely draconian drug policies; turning a blind eye to a rise in police brutality and their impunity; ASBOs; increase in prison population; the draconian “extreme porn” possession law; the failure to invest in what working people need most: housing and transport… the list could go on for a long time.

When the Tories came to power, Ken Clarke, to his great credit, tried to deal with the failed policy of locking people up in prison. When a Tory Home Secretary is more progressive than any of his Labour predecessors, hasn’t Labour died as a progressive force?

The conservatism extends to the grassroots. In my first podcast I spoke to well-paid, intelligent, trade unionised, working-class women whose jobs are under attack by Labourites (and also Greens), because they take their clothes off for a living. Some on the left are trying to push prostitution underground, from its current, semi-legal status. The moral agenda once pushed by the Tory blue-hair brigade is now mainstream left-wing orthodoxy. Bare flesh is a menace to society! Does that sound progressive to you? The tragic thing is, that the sexual revolutions that have happened since the 1960s have made Britain a safer place for women than ever before. The “objectification” brigade, far from protecting women, are trying to turn the clock back, putting sexuality back in its secret box (where abuse can take place, unseen by the outside world). The new morality agenda of the left is nothing to do with protecting women from abuse, and everything to do with middle-class people intellectualising their bigoted dislike of working class women who use their bodies to earn money.

A genuinely progressive government today would examine the following issues: Decriminalising drug possession; Regulating drug supplies; Legalising and regulating prostitution fully; Replace the IPCC with a genuinely independent body to hold the police to account; Roll back detention without trial; Roll back ASBOs; reduce prison populations; invest in housing and transport…

As for political correctness: yes, I’m a white (Jewish) male. However, as I’ve blogged previously, I’ve spent much of the past few decades as a minority among black communities. I can attest that there’s a racist minority in sections of Britain’s black communities; unfortunately, today’s left is made up of white, middle-class people who have no direct experience of urban life (beyond Notting Hill or Hoxton, anyway). Not only are they blissfully unaware that racism cuts both ways, but they even excuse black racism as somehow “our fault”. It doesn’t seem to dawn on many of the Oxbridge PC-left, who have little experience of black British society, that black people can be every bit as conservative or bigoted as anyone else. I’ve witnessed black-British racism (usually of the casual type) against West Africans, whites, mixed-race people, Asians and Somalis. The white, middle class left is either unaware of these issues, or afraid to comment; it is left to brave outspoken commentators like Darcus Howe to respond.

I tend not to use the word Socialist much, because in the 150 years or so of Socialism, the word has been appropriated by a huge diversity of people and movements, many of them authoritarian. Since (I believe) liberty has become detached from socialism, I prefer the term Social Libertarian, to demonstrate that the two sides are inseparable. Authoritarianism is THE great danger of the present day, and to me, authoritarians are the enemy of progress, regardless of whether they call themselves socialists or conservatives.

My grandfather’s generation of poor, 1930s East End Jews, saw similar when fascism arose in the East End. None of the main parties (including Labour) took the fascist threat seriously, and many Jews turned to the Communist Party as the only anti-fascist force. Now again today, fascism and police brutality are on the rise, and no mainstream political force seems to understand what’s going on – indeed, they are pandering to the anti-immigration sentiment. I have sympathy for many of the young people who find the BNP or EDL attractive – the far-right, unlike today’s left, knows how to speak the language of today’s urban youth.

It’s time for the rise of a new progressive movement with balls – and I don’t care if that sounds sexist. 😉