A six-month-old story in the British Daily Mail has been popping up all over my Facebook feed lately. It's about a photograph that Julian Assange believes will clear his name of the sexual assault allegations he faces in Sweden.
From the Mail:
It seems an unremarkable image: a group of friends smiling broadly. But this is the photograph Julian Assange hopes will clear his name.
For although she is seen beaming, she would later tell police that 48 hours before the picture was taken, the WikiLeaks founder pinned her down in her flat and sexually assaulted her.
If the case ever reaches court - Mr. Assange is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London - his lawyers will argue that the photograph undermines the 33-year-old woman's entire story."
And it's true. In the photo are Assange and four other smiling people; including the woman who now claims he assaulted her. She's right there on the left, three days after the alleged incident took place. That does seem like a pretty good defense, doesn't it? I mean, especially when you consider how the victims of sexual assaults perpetrated by (powerful, charismatic) friends never, ever decide to cope by pretending everything is OK, keeping their heads down, and smiling in photographs. So obviously she's a lying slut and Julian Assange is being set up because, come on, just look at the picture, right? Right?
That this is Assange's defense doesn't surprise me. Really, if there is any surprise to be had, it's that a man purportedly so clever, so internet savvy, and so left wing would resort to so gross a cliché when attempting to persuade the (clever, internet savvy, left wing) world that he isn't a rapist.
But I'm not here to talk about Assange. Like I said, the story is old and there are far better voices than mine out there to explain why this run-of-the-mill victim-blaming is just another high-profile example of rape culture. Rather, I want to talk about my friends.
This story caught fire recently on my corner of the internet. Somebody posted it, and somebody else shared. Third, fourth, and fifth people reposted from there, and soon it was every sixth story in my news feed. It happens all the time. What's been shocking me is that, so far as I've seen, this story has been reposted not in outrage, but in triumph. Friends of mine are using this article as proof that Assange is innocent.
To make clear how strange this is, let me provide a bit of context: If you've read my work before, you've probably deduced that I'm on the Left. I'm a liberal. Hell, I'm the kind of liberal who gets upset when the Tea Party calls President Obama a socialist not because its an insult, but because I'm a socialist and from over here, the President sometimes looks about three steps to the right of William Buckley.
But despite all that -- at least amongst my friends -- I'm usually the right-wing antagonist. I'm always the guy who "likes" the article you shared from Thought Catalogue or Jezebel or the Huffington Post, but who insists on leaving some obnoxious, contrarian comment about how, in this particular case, we've gotten a bit ahead of ourselves in the fight against all forms of oppression, real or imagined. I'm the guy who gets called a FINO ("Feminist in Name Only"). I'm the one who sometimes thinks drone strikes are defensible. I'm the conservative, relatively speaking.
Given all that, I was confused when those same friends -- who make me look reactionary, who couldn't jump over each other fast enough to condemn Seth McFarland's last week, who believe Schrödinger's Rapist isn't the least bit hyperbolic*, who use the term "homonormativity" without a hint of irony -- seemed so stoked to find their faith in Assange's innocence confirmed on such flimsy grounds. Are we really that weak? Are we really that hypocritical? Do we really believe in fighting rape culture, in standing up for victims, in ending the cycle of silence and shame in all cases except when the alleged perpetrator is a darling of the Internet Left? If Assange's defense wasn't cliché enough, this recent spurt of bias-confirmation certainly is.
Perhaps this is simple, but it seems to me that if we're going to fight the stigma that surrounds rape victims, we ought to be especially committed when the rape in question is especially stigmatizing. Especially when it's inconvenient. Especially when it's one of our own. If we want to be outraged whenever some town or university or church decides to look the other way when one of their members is accused of a crime, we've got to hold ourselves to the same standard. By the most fundamental conceits of contemporary feminism, Assange's photo defense is offensive, even laughable, if it were the sort of thing to laugh about. It's the sort of the thing that would be reductive even for The Onion, and I challenge anyone to suggest that if the name of the defendant was John Doe and he was an auto-mechanic in Queens instead of the founder of WikiLeaks that the very same people who're promoting this article wouldn't be re-posting it with equal fury, this time accompanied by their own scathing condemnation of its bullshit.
Look: If we want to admit that we put our own first, if we want to decide that we're willing to let sexual violence go unpunished when the perpetrator's more public activities are in service to our own ideals, that's fine. We can do that. Plenty of people already do. But if so, I don't want to see even one more reblog from Jezebel about how awful it is that somebody's community is letting them get away with rape. Then we're just hypocrites.
Of course, I don't know for certain that Assange is guilty, and I don't want to throw away the presumption of innocence anymore than I want to throw away the fight against rape culture just because the circumstances make it convenient. If Assange truly believes that this photo, and any other evidence he may have are enough to clear his name, then so be it. I'd love to see him make that case in open court. But of course, we aren't going to have that, because Assange is holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy of London, protesting the unfair treatment he'd assuredly get in the notoriously martial, kangaroo courts... of Sweden. We aren't going to have that because, according the Assange, the possibility that he'll be extradited to the United States to stand trial for his (also illegal, but far more justifiable) actions against our national security apparatus means he's excused from answering for his more private sins. We aren't going to have that because a broad section of the digital Left is more than willing to let him get away with it.
The cause of government transparency in general, and even of WikiLeaks in particular, doesn't live or die with Julian Assange. If he's innocent, then I'm happy to let him keep his place at the head of this important movement. But if he's guilty, the world won't end. We'll find someone else to take up the banner - this time, somebody who isn't a rapist, and who doesn't think we're dumb enough to believe this photograph proves a god damn thing.
* Before the hate mail comes in, try this experiment. Copy the complete text of Schrödinger's Rapist into a Word Document. Then, find and replace every instance of the word "rape" with "mugging" or "murder", and every instance of the words "man" or "men" with "black person" or "black people"