Saints, Guilty and Otherwise

Julian Assange supporter. Ecuadorian embassy, London.

Julian Assange, the man who single-handedly exposed more US crimes than any other person on the planet, is now facing the full violent force of the empire’s revenge. He’s being made an example of.

Yet for loads of liberals, this is the occasion to remind themselves why they just don’t like the guy. According to the British judge who condemned him for skipping bail by seeking asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy, Assange is a “narcissist”.

According to journalists and even some activists on the left, the Wikileaks founder is a misogynist. According to mainstream media, he’s a spoiled tech-bro egotist, heedless of the fates and concerns of fellow human beings, especially when they’re female (he’s “a bit pre-Incel”).

To believe various reports, Assange has consorted with dubious characters like the Holocaust denier Israel Shamir and assorted right libertarians; he even promoted Australian far-right micro-parties in local elections. He harbours shady right-libertarian political commitments of his own and has sought dubious bargains with some famously seedy characters (the Don Jr. emails!).

Most damnably, Assange has violated the privacy of hundreds of innocents and exposed some of them to possible shame, ostracism, or worse. And lest I forget: He’s got a “suspicious” soft spot for Putin! I haven’t even mentioned the allegations of rape.

Unfortunately for them and us, the things Assange’s liberal critics are worried about aren’t so much as tangentially related to the reasons the man has had a target on his back since before the US election of 2016 or the Swedish extradition scandal of 2010.

Rarely have I seen so many red herrings deflecting so much valuable attention from something as grave as what’s happening now to Assange and WikiLeaks, not to mention the implications for political dissent, basic journalistic freedom and the free flow of information in the digital age.

I won’t comment here on the veracity of the charges levelled against Assange’s character: some of them may be true, others exaggerations or fabrications. But whether you worship Julian Assange or you revile him, whether your reasons are sound or specious: just none of that matters right now.

Let’s consider some of history’s most famous martyrs and their equally irrelevant imperfections. When George Orwell wrote, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” he was referring to Mahatma Gandhi. Although it wasn’t Orwell’s main preoccupation, go ahead and Google, “Gandhi and women’s rights.”

Brace yourself for some rather unpleasant discoveries. Not only did Gandhi see women as unclean seductresses responsible for their own rapes, but his views on the matter influenced hundreds of millions of his countrymen right down to the present day. If you turn your attention to questions of race and caste, it doesn’t do much for Gandhi’s posthumous reputation.

The patron saint of non-violent resistance looked disparagingly on black Africans, whom he regarded as “indolent” and “useless”; and he used his own considerable prestige to help maintain the Hindu caste system both during and after Indian independence from Britain.

Julian Assange’s reputed transphobia and condescension toward women might be “a bit pre-incel,” but they hardly hold a candle to Mahatma Gandhi’s antediluvian views on race, caste and sex. So do you now think Gandhi deserved his seven years in a British prison for “sedition”? Will you teach yourself to smirk about the assassin’s bullet that killed him?

Among the last century’s political holy men, few reached such Gandhian heights in the liberal heavens as Nelson Mandela. Yet during his tenure as South African President in the 1990s, Mandela presided over what some have called a “foreign policy for sale” on behalf of his ruling party, the ANC.

Partly in exchange for donations to the party, Mandela wheeled and dealed with, coddled and heaped honorifics on figures as unsavoury as the dictatorial General Sani Abachi of Nigeria, the mercurial Col. Ghaddafi of Libya, and Indonesia’s blood-soaked President Suharto.

Julian Assange’s “associate” Israel Shamir may be a raving anti-Semite and an all-around lying louse, but unlike Suharto, he didn’t murder a quarter of a million Timorese or slaughter another two million Communists in his own country. In 1993 Mandela bestowed South Africa’s highest honour, the Order of Good Hope, on the mass-murdering Suharto. Yet what liberal would so much as crack an ironic smile at the mention of Mandela’s name? Who would dare suggest Mandela had earned, even retroactively, a single week of his 27 years in a white South African jail cell?

Finally, take the example of Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was reviled, persecuted and ultimately eliminated by Joseph Stalin in ways that bear some disturbing resemblances to what’s happened to Julian Assange since 2010. Of course, your overall view of Trotsky depends on far-reaching questions of ideology and historical interpretation. But whether he was a revolutionary hero or a ruthless politician, he was undeniably the enemy and the victim of one of history’s worst oppressors.

Julian Assange may have outed a number of gay men in Saudi Arabia or endangered Afghans who collaborated with the endless American occupation of their country, but Trotsky had the deaths of the soldiers at Kronstadt on his conscience. He wrote a whole book justifying the Red Terror during the Russian Civil War, of which he was a leading participant. So in 1940, when Stalin’s assassin drove an ice pick into the back of his head, was it because Trotsky—as Hillary Clinton said recently of Assange—had “to answer for what he has done”?

At the time of Trotsky’s persecution, progressives everywhere tended to give Stalin the benefit of the doubt. Many believed the propaganda that Trotsky was a traitor who had it coming. When it comes to Julian Assange today, far too many liberals have lined up behind the Stalinist henchmen of our time, the American national security state and its foreign enablers.

In the 1930s only a handful of dissenting voices beyond Trotsky’s own political faction stood up for Stalin’s nemesis. A tiny group of left-liberals and Social Democrats, including Bertrand Russel, Sidney Hook and John Dewey, bucked the Stalinist consensus to defend Trotsky, with whom they otherwise shared little political common ground.

These men and women of conscience on the non-Communist left rejected Trotsky’s brand of Bolshevism and even denounced what they saw as blood on his hands; but they nevertheless understood who the real enemy was. They hadn’t surrendered their sense of moral and political proportion.

It’s instructive to read John Dewey’s statement before the Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials in 1937. Substitute words like “democracy” or “transparency” for “socialism;” make a few other transpositions and adjustments, and it could be read as a defence of the founder of Wikileaks today:

“Either Leon Trotsky is guilty of plotting wholesale assassination, systematic wreckage with destruction of life and property; of treason of the basest sort in conspiring with political and economic enemies of the USSR in order to destroy Socialism; or he is innocent. If he is guilty, no condemnation can be too severe. If he is innocent, there is no way in which the existing regime in Soviet Russia can be acquitted of deliberate, systematic persecution and falsification..”

Gandhi, Mandela, Trotsky, Assange: flawed figures who nonetheless suffered injustices that stood in no relation to what they “had to answer for.” In each case, to confuse their personal and political failings with the violence brought down on them by their enemies is at best to muddle the moral accounting and at worst to apologise for whole systems of lies and brutality.

Any right-thinking person today should think again about whether Julian Assange’s personality, his political idiosyncrasies or even his worst transgressions at the helm of WikiLeaks have any bearing on his present martyrdom. And they should ask themselves whether, with stakes as high as these, a martyr shouldn’t still be defended even if he isn’t a saint.

Photograph courtesy of Canilleria del Ecuador. Published under a Creative Commons license.