The Nation, 17 September 2012

The current issue of The Nation carries a piece in which JoAnn Wypijewski remarks on the low probability that the rape charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will be investigated in a proper fashion.  Ms Wypijewski points out that Mr Assange’s status as an enemy of the US national security state renders any criminal action taken against him suspect:

This is not about the particulars of oppression; it is about the political context of law, the limits of liberal expectations and the monstrosity of the state.

Liberals have no trouble generally acknowledging that in those [early twentieth century] rape cases against black men, the reasoned application of law was impossible. It was impossible because justice was impossible, foreclosed not by the vagaries of this white jury or that bit of evidence but by the totalizing immorality of white supremacy that placed the Black Man in a separate category of human being, without common rights and expectations. A lawyer might take a case if it hadn’t been settled by the mob, but the warped conscience of white America could do nothing but warp the law and make of its rituals a sham. The Scottsboro Boys might have been innocent or they might have been guilty; it didn’t matter, because either way the result would be the same.

With Assange, the political context is the totalizing immorality of the national security state on a global scale. The sex-crime allegations against Assange emerged in Sweden on August 20, 2010, approximately four and a half months after WikiLeaks blazed into the public sphere by releasing a classified video that showed a US Apache helicopter crew slaughtering more than a dozen civilians, including two journalists, in a Baghdad suburb. By that August, Pfc. Bradley Manning, the reputed source of the video and about 750,000 other leaked government documents, was being held without charge in solitary confinement at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, subjected to what his attorney, David Coombs, describes in harrowing detail in a recent motion as “unlawful pretrial punishment.” In plain terms, Manning was tortured. He faces court-martial for aiding the enemy and has been denounced as a traitor by members of Congress.

I am not at all convinced that the charges against Mr Assange cannot be investigated and prosecuted fairly.  Ms Wypijewski acknowledges several times that the comparison with the Scottsboro Boys is inexact; in view of the level of support Mr Assange enjoys and the conditions of the criminal justice system in Sweden, it strikes me as, well, silly.  I do lament the fact that so many people seem to think that we must choose between support for Mr Assange’s anti-imperialist activities and support for the investigation of the charges that have been brought against him.  Not so very long ago, Western publics would have responded to the sequence of events Ms Wypijewski describes above with deep suspicion of the national security state, even as the case worked its way through the courts.  So, when in 2003 it was made public that Major Scott Ritter, then an outspoken critic of the invasion of Iraq, had been arrested on suspicion of soliciting sex from an underaged girl, the news proved more embarrassing to the Bush-Cheney administration than to Major Ritter himself.  Some years later, the major was proven guilty of similar charges, and sent to prison.  In the Ritter case, I see a model for a healthy public reaction to the Assange case.  By all means one should be suspicious; if the American people were still as jealous of their liberties as they were in 2003, the Obama administration would be experiencing a public relations nightmare as long as the case is pending.  But the case should nonetheless be handled in the best manner available to the criminal justice system, and if Mr Assange is guilty of the charges against him, it would be no injustice to punish him as Major Ritter has been punished.

The best manner available to the criminal justice system in this case may be far short of what we would hope, but, as Lissa Harris points out in an unforgettable piece on The Nation‘s website, that is so for virtually every rape case.  At the age of five, Ms Harris was raped on several occasions by a sadistic teenaged boy.  Apparently the facts became known to the authorities, but no charges were ever brought.  Over the years, Ms Harris has been presented with many explanations as to why they did not act.  What she considers most noteworthy is that while she knows many women and girls who have been raped, but cannot think of one whose assailant was sent to prison for the rape.  Not one.  So, while she is horrified by the prospect that the laws against rape will be rewritten by men like Congressman Todd Akin, who recently proclaimed that “legitimate rape” rarely produces pregnancy, Ms Harris admits that she cannot see how much damage men like Mr Akin can do to the criminal justice system when the system simply does not function most of the time.  She argues that ideologies thrive on both left and right that allow us to turn a blind eye to rape, to minimize rape, to accept as normal a status quo in which the rapist faces little risk of punishment and the women and girls he has attacked can expect little support and less  respect.

In the same issue, a cartoon pokes fun at novelist-cum-ideologist Ayn Rand.  Rand did make a couple of contributions that I find valuable; I’m fond of the expression “anti-concept,” a term she introduced and defined as “an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The use of anti-concepts gives the listeners a sense of approximate understanding.”  Mr Akin’s immortal phrase “legitimate rape” comes to mind under this heading; unnecessary and rationally unusable, it may well enable a person indoctrinated in one of the rape-minimizing ideologies Ms Harris calls out to replace and obliterate a realistic understanding of rape with some vague approximation that makes it impossible to imagine useful action against it.

One of the examples Rand gave of an anti-concept was the term “isolationist.”  This term, never a self-description adopted by any political movement, was used in the late 1930s and early 1940s by advocates of US intervention in the Second World War to label their opponents.  Since the interventionists eventually had their way and, by most people’s lights, it is just as well that they did, the term has continued to be useful in the decades since as a means of smearing and belittling all anti-war and anti-imperial voices, especially those that emanate from right of center.  I bring this up because the issue carries Jackson Lears’ review of Christopher McKnight Nichols’ Promise and Peril: America at the Dawn of a Global Age.  On its face, the term “isolationist” is absurd.  Nothing could be more isolating than a habit of bombing, invading, and occupying countries; the neighborhood bully is always the most isolated of figures.  Mr Nichols writes a history of American anti-imperialism starting with those who opposed war with Spain in 1898 and leading to those who tried to prevent the rise of a permanent war economy after the First World War.  Mr Lears focuses on the book’s depictions of William James, Randolph Bourne, and Senator William Borah.

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