UPDATE: Sady has started a Twitter campaign against Michael Moore. You should join in.
One of the things stopping me from writing as much these days, I admit, is that I’ve begun to wonder I wonder if feminism will eat itself. One day last week, I awoke to the news that Naomi Wolf herself, feminist icon, writer of The Beauty Myth, thinks that Julian Assange has been targeted by nothing more than a pair of jealous women in Sweden who, in her view, “are using feminist rhetoric to assuage what appears to be personal injured feelings. That’s what our brave suffragette foremothers intended!.” You know, it’s possible I have an idiosyncratic reading of feminist principles, but it is nonetheless obvious to me that when I see some kind of media frenzy building around an allegation of sexual assault, that I should make it my business not to cast speculative, evidence-free aspersions on the women at its center. Call me biased if you like, tell me I’m gynocentric, that I am throwing the very important principle of “innocent until proven guilty” right out the window, but I simply don’t feel, as a matter of suffragette foremothers or anything else, that women are guilty of lying and jealousy and general bitchery until proven innocent. But then, I guess I have not been in this game as long as Wolf has. (Perhaps that’s a good thing, if this is what lies in wait.)
It has nonetheless not escaped my notice that Wolf’s views on the Assange kerfuffle are more or less widely shared. The motivation for the defense, so to speak, is clear enough. There is a strong, if rather incoherent, sense on the left that Assange’s work is deeply important, and thus worth defending at all costs. And yet, at this juncture, the articulations of that value are rather unclear. Like everyone, of course, I’ve enjoyed the occasional bitchy statement that Cablegate has revealed from some State department lackey. (A personal favorite is the whiny memorandum about American stereotypes on Canadian television – we’re just glad you even care what we think of you, American brethren!) But so far, the information has been widely agreed to reveal no particular smoking gun, no admission that UFOs exist or 9/11 was planned or that Bush spent much of his time in office improving on prior MarioCart scores. And even when Wikileaks reveals something truly shocking, like the video of the murder of journalists in Iraq that it circulated some months ago, little seems to actually happen.
It’s possible, of course, that that argument sees too many trees to bother taking in the forest. Noam Chomsky, for example, has suggested that the takeaway from the cables is that they reveal a “profound hatred for democracy on the part of our political leadership”, and perhaps that metanarrative will actually win out among historians. But in terms of actionable specifics, things that will galvanize targeted calls for political change in the here and now, well, there’s not a whole lot to be found there. Yet, of course. Which is the rub, and the thing we all rely on when we think about why what Wikileaks is doing might be valuable to us. If one needle comes out of the whole haystack, that is probably enough to justify the entire Wikileaks enterprise. It’s probably true in this case that the very idea of Wikileaks is worth preserving in the abstract, even if we’re not sure about how it’s played out in the real world so far. So let’s be generous and say that it is that abstract value, Wolf et al. are relying on, after all, in their largely speculative adherence to the theory that fear of Wikileaks may be so strong that some covert agency has trumped up sexual assault charges against its mastermind.
But it’s funny how often we come back to this, isn’t it? Powerful man possessed of some quality that the public admires, rightly or wrongly – and it should be said that in Assange’s case, his almost evangelical defense of freedom of information is admittedly a lot more compelling than the one we had on display in the last go-round (Polanski in defense of Really Good Movies) – becomes unquestionable, at least in the sense of any real-world accountability, in all spheres of conduct. Oh sure, people say, he’s probably a bit of a creep, it’s probably true that you don’t want to date him or, you know, leave your daughter around him – I read the New Yorker profile, I’m well-informed – but you know, you can’t arrest people for being jerks. And look at what he is doing for us! (Few people ever append here some mention of the fact that Assange’s arrest notwithstanding, Wikileaks intends to trot merrily along.)
And, after all, these people always add, women lie.
The infuriating thing about that last statement, of course, is that I can’t deny it without sounding like I have a very Pollyanna view of my gender. I could argue statistics, of course, though rarely have I met a conversation in which those solved anything. I can point out that if you are a person who has been sexually assaulted, you usually face an uphill battle in the legal system in terms of being believed – though of course we aren’t talking American law here. I can also point out that just because the Swedish laws on sexual assault don’t mirror American laws, it doesn’t mean that their position on consent is philosophically indefensible. But this will not convince most people who use the “women lie” line of anything. They will stand their ground, and throw the “innocent until proven guilty” line around, as though the choice to believe the accused over the accuser were not, at some level, epistemologically arbitrary, and certainly so for purposes of conversation outside the realm of state power. Much less are they willing to consider that in a world where men are, so often, believed to be more trustworthy than women, the reason might be sinister. And in the end, the bitter truth is that they need only find one example of one woman who lied, one time, and they consider the argument over.
Frustratingly, in any event, the fact is that Assange’s guilt or innocence may be beside the point. All of this is less about whether any one person ever lies, and more about the contrast between the rhetorical power of the word “rape” and the way in which we treat sexual assault in our actual, lived experience. To be called a rapist in the media is, in the general understanding, a Very Bad Thing, a Very Serious Accusation. But to have committed a rape, or at least to have done something that the other person calls a rape: well, that, it seems generally agreed, is subject to discussion and interpretation. Isn’t there something fundamentally backwards about this approach? Isn’t it wrong that the word “rape” is more troubling to us than the possibility of its having actually happened to someone?
It’s true that sometimes, for some men, the label “rapist” has consequences. (For Mike Tyson, for example, it resulted a cameo role in a hit movie and a walk-on at the Golden Globes!) And it’s true that the word has been wielded in defense of power – not only state power, as in this instance, but white power, as when the rhetoric of the apparent threat of rape to white women justified lynchings of black men. But the point is that it’s willfully obtuse to claim this as another instance of cynical women wielding the legal system (which, in this bizarre view, is entirely on their side) to bring down powerful men. The cynicism resides entirely with those who believe that the problem here is terminological.