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The Rest

Aug 20, 2012

Assange as Poppins meets HR Pufnstuff

Noon, down in Hans Crescent, Knightsbridge, behind the regal bulk of Harrods, and the crowd was already building outside the Ecuadorian embassy.

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Noon, down in Hans Crescent, Knightsbridge, behind the regal bulk of Harrods, and the crowd was already building outside the Ecuadorian embassy. London. It was the hottest day of the year, all of London’s summer concentrated into one weekend, the sun beating down on the pavements, and the British, as they are wont to do, taking off all their clothes and wearing shorts that look like tartan dishrags.

The floating crowd of 10-15 Assange stalwarts — a mix of Anonymous ops, V for Vendetta mask-wearers, slightly over-exuberant young women, and not a few tea-cosy wearers — were today swamped by mainstream supporters, a few enemies, and a great many of the simply curious. Down one side street of the grand red-brick Victorian building, a line of TV vans stretched to the far horizon. Dozens of camera set-ups stretched along the front of the embassy. Ecuadorians and other South Americans were there, an entirely separate faction, cheering on their feisty nation’s stand against the UK, US and Sweden. And there were cops.

Lots and lots of cops. There were waves of them, in concentric rings around the embassy, on the steps, in the back streets. There were cops under each window, and vans stretching down the other side of the street from the TV vans.

Thus began the return of Julian Assange to public appearance, after a two-month enforced absence, hunkered down in the embassy — and by agreement with the Ecuadorians, refraining from overt political statements and appearances. It had been announced late last week, when it was suggested that Assange would appear “in front” of the embassy, a few hours after it had been announced that he had been granted diplomatic asylum. This led to renewed speculation as to his possible arrest, etc — the topic of feverish debate around town. Would he allow himself to be arrested, having made his point? Would a fast motorbike etc? Or, by contrast, would he address everyone by video link, having already escaped to Quito?

We waited to see, but first there were the warm-up acts — Assange’s international lawyer Baltasar Garzon, who spoke mostly in Spanish, venerable street-fighting man Tariq Ali, and then Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, who gave a roaring denunciation of large sections of the UK diplomatic apparatus, while also pointing out that he had used the UK embassy to harbour Uzbek dissidents, so the UK’s huffing and puffing about “no diplomatic asylum” came and went a bit.

Then there was a bit of faffing around with a microphone on the small corner balcony, and through the crowd, distributing red, yellow and blue (colours of Ecuador) helium balloons, “to be released when Julian finishes speaking”. It’s stuff like this that makes you cringe a little in matters Assange, although it was quickly defeated by the balloons clumping together and people losing hold of them anyway. Then there was a highly engineered roar, and Assange appeared, in clipped white hair, blue shirt, a maroon tie and a sheaf of papers, all the world like he was about to process your home loan.

His speech was brief and circumspect — apparently there were still agreements with Ecuador that he wouldn’t call for the overthrow of all governments. He referred to the solidarity of South American nations, in resisting the UK government’s blundering threat of invading an embassy, expressed gratitude to his supporters, and most importantly called on President Obama to “end the witch-hunt against WikiLeaks” and persecution of all whistleblowers. He gave a shout-out to Pussy Riot, the recently convicted Russian punk band, defying those who thought that his alliance with the state-controlled Russia Today channel would preclude any sort of mention. There was no account of the Swedish accusations, his view of them or the rationale for taking asylum.

It was a dignified speech, and he avoided the inevitable Evita comparisons with the whole Italianate balcony thing, but it was a close run.

Assange’s getting of asylum has coincided with a further backlash against Assange — one curiously, which did not emerge when he spent two years fighting extradition through the courts. Centre-left figures have always lined themselves up against Assange and the WikiLeaks project, which they find to be a disruption to business as usual. But now there are those from the further left, who believe that Assange should simply go to Sweden and face the accusations.

One of the most prominent is Owen Jones, the young, rising author of Chavs, a vigorous denunciation of the culture-hate directed towards the white working class, who wrote an article in The Independent calling on Assange to renounce asylum and face the accusations. The article was full on inaccuracies — Jones had Assange accused of two rapes, not one, mangled a quote from one of his accusers, is ignorant of Sweden’s peculiar extradition laws, and makes no mention of the clear and visible threats of further extradition to the US.

The piece has become a rallying point of sorts, for those who are willing to question state power — Jones says, for example, that “democracy in the UK has been corrupted and destroyed” for a generation, by the hacking scandal — but are curiously unwilling to apply that scepticism here. Why? The answer is obvious. The mere cry of rape is sufficient for people to withhold their critical faculties.I don’t propose to go over the wonkiness and shonkiness of the accusations against Assange again, but one major point needs to be made. There are some people who want to defend Assange, and his right to go on the run, as it were, while denying that they are making any sort of assessment as to the character of the things he’s accused of. That does not withstand scrutiny. For a moment’s examination would show that, if a major dissident figure had been accused of violent, predatory, aggravated rape, then no one could or ought defend him against facing the accusations and charges.

In determining that Assange has a right to run, people are making an assessment that the things that he is accused of — even if true — do not in some sense constitute r-pe, as we understand the term, morally speaking. Both the major accusations — one of using body-weight (while in the missionary position — yes, ew, ew, but bear with me) to prevent the applying of a condom (which was then applied, upon request), and the other, of beginning unprotected sex while the partner was sleeping, but that was rapidly consented to — constitute a moral, s-xual and personal-political grey area, better handled in the context of personal relations, rather than through the law.

My intent is not to argue this point here — it is to point out that Assange’s defenders on the left already accept this, even if force of habit means they cannot admit it. It is because the things that Assange is accused of simply do not strike many as rape, that one can then start to think clearly about whether he has the legitimate right to flee the jurisdiction. “Rape is rape,” Jones says, trotting out the student-union line. But the point is that no one really believes that any more — not least the Swedish government, which has about eight degrees of sexual violent crimes on the books.

What has happened is that sex crime laws in the UK, Australia and Sweden, among others, have been so greatly expanded in the past decade, that they have effectively fused together every form of behaviour from rape of unspeakable violence to difficult and perhaps uncreditworthy negotiations within a consensual encounter. Most of these latter cases fail, because they come down to word against word, one reason no one thought of including them in law until the past decade or so. More importantly, they separate legal notions of sex crime from everyday ones — which is why a whole class of people now say that Assange has no moral obligation to face these accusations. This is the unspoken assumption at the heart of the Assange case, and cause.

Now of course, in inimitable fashion, the cause has become international. Assange’s genius, from WikiLeaks to here, has been to use small interruptions in power processes to create major conflicts, which expose power relations, and alter them. Given that he set all this out in a couple of short papers at the beginning of the WikiLeaks project — that by releasing secret information in large amounts, one causes states and suprastates to lose their advantage and unity as conspiracies — it is surprising that people are surprised at every new twist.

His response to the extradition request has seen the European Arrest Warrant — the linchpin of a post-democratic EU, more so than the euro — subject to its most fundamental challenge in the UK courts to date, the case itself has shattered the easy “cultural left” refusal to examine the politics of sex, and sexual coercion. Now, his asylum request has done the same thing. It was inevitable that the UK would make secret threats to a smaller, “Third World” nation, and that Ecuador, in the WikiLeaks spirit, would release the memo, thus exposing implicit power relations and assumptions.

Now, that process is in play. Ecuador has appealed to leftist South America — through the OAS, and the smaller UNASUR (a South American nations group, which thus excludes Canada and the US) — to condemn the UK’s implicitly colonialist mindset.

The OAS will be meeting on August 24, in DC of all places, to consider a motion to censure the UK’s blatant disregard of diplomatic principles, and UNASUR agreed one today, with the foreign ministers of the continent linking hands as the resolution was met with cheers. In a sense, Assange’s initiative and British blundering has put the facade of international political equality right up front.

Whether that helps Assange get out of 3 Hans Crescent, remains to be seen. We await the next move. To add to my previous suggestions, the balcony speech gave me another idea. Helicopters can fly to 152 metres (500 feet) in London, with a general authorisation. Diplomatic vehicles are exempt under the Vienna Convention, and nothing in it says they can’t fly. So — a helicopter, a winch, and then a flight outside the 12-mile coastal waters limit. By the time it had happened, Assange would be on a yacht in the Channel.

No, no, don’t thank me, this was only half-mine — outside the embassy, when the huge, multicoloured clump of helium balloons were brought in, someone said “ah, that’s his plan!”. Assange as Poppins meets HR Pufnstuff flying away — would have made my Sunday. But we roll on.

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