Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Dave Winer's Third Rail And Rape Culture

Who would not want to live in a world without rape culture?

Judging by his post on the rape allegations against Julian Assange, Dave Winer does, or at least thinks he does. His piece is an honest attempt at something relatively non-incendiary which - to be fair - manages to avoid many of the squares on the Assange Rape Apology Bingo card, though it does hit one or two them pretty squarely. Winer also makes it clear that he is open to discussion: at the end, he writes: "I look for charged issues like this one to explore, because these are the places where the greatest growth is available."

His writing has a utopian sheen to it, as if all the battles of feminism had finally been won and true equality in all things across genders had been achieved. Underlying the text is the idea that sexism is genuinely now a symmetrical two way street - that we live in a world where women were just as capable of discriminating against men as men are against women. And most importantly, he writes as if he has never heard of the idea of rape culture.

It is hard for men to accept the existence of rape culture. As a man it has been hard for me. It's not something men like to think about. We tend to see it as an attack on ourselves and we brush it away as such. But we are wrong to do so.

Men don't like to think about the fact that around one in four women will at some point get raped, or that the overwhelming majority of rapes go unreported, or that when a woman does report a rape she is always - 100% of the time - accused of lying, and must endure the kind of close examination of every detail of her life that makes it seem as if it is her, the victim - not the attacker - who is on trial, while study after study shows that false rape accusations are actually incredibly rare, or that the vast majority of rape cases do not end in a guilty verdict, or that the vast majority of rapists get away with it without being prosecuted, or that the vast majority of convicted rapists have committed the crime of rape multiple times before they are finally found guilty by a court, or that penalties for rape are often bizarrely weak, or that a large proportion of women who are raped know their attacker very well and are often in a relationship with them, or any of the other horrible facts about rape widely available online and backed up by study after study into the astonishing - to men and not to women - prevalence of rape among human beings.

Being human, since men don't like to think about those things, we tend not to think about these things. We forget about rape culture, because it is not something that we need to think about every day when we are just popping down the shops or meeting someone for a drink. We forget about rape culture because we can.

When Winer accuses some of 'condemning men in the cause of feminism', talks of 'simply flipping the genders', and says 'it's never as simple as one gender doing it to the other', he is going one step beyond forgetting about rape culture:
he is showing either that he has not heard of it or, if he has, that he does not believe it exists.

I have outlined my views on the Assange rape allegations before - once in this cartoon, and once in this longer post on the subject. I agree that Winer is quite right that it should be kept separate from Wikileaks, and that the timing of the whole thing stinks. But he is dead wrong about the context, and - which is key - he is also dead wrong about the presumption of innocence.

The presumption of innocence is incredibly important and should be maintained in rape cases just as with any other. But if there is to be a presumption of innocence for the accused, how much the more so should there be a presumption of innocence for the accuser.

In rape cases, the accuser is always presumed to be guilty of lying until proven otherwise. That's what makes them so difficult. That's also the reason that most rapists get away with it. Any woman accusing anyone of rape is always and immediately counter-accused of making a false claim. This idea is so deeply embedded in English speaking world that there is even a phrase for it: 'crying rape' - the assumption is - always - that the claim is false. In order to prove her case, the victim has to prove that she is innocent of 'crying rape'. This is why many rape victims never bother reporting the crimes against them in the first place.

This lack of presumption of innocence - for the victim - is the central plank of rape culture.

And this is why people are getting so exercised over the Assange affair. As with every other rape case ever in history, people - mainly men - are lining up to say that the women involved are liars and waving their bullshit detectors around proudly. That's exactly the problem.

In the case of rape, it really is as simple as "one gender doing it to the other". If there is one good thing that comes out of the Assange affair, it is that it has caused many people - including myself - who have previously either dismissed, ignored, or not been aware of rape culture - to really sit down and think about it a bit. Or even a lot.

If Dave Winer really is looking for the place where "the greatest growth is available", here it is. To eradicate rape culture, or at least start, is something that goes way beyond feminism. It is something which is only connected to feminism in the sense that it was feminists who first raised it and it is largely women who write about it; these women still find themselves not being listened to or dismissed - bizarrely and ridiculously - as 'sexist' themselves. But if we ever are to eradicate rape and rape culture, it will require men first to become aware of it and to work in some small way towards stopping it.

Then we'll finally have the world without rape culture that Winer believes he already lives in.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Assange and Wikileaks: The Best Way To Frame Someone Is For Something They Actually Did

Do you believe that more or less most women have been or will at some point be raped or sexually assaulted?

Do you believe that most men tend to underestimate the ubiquitous reality of rape and immediately question any allegation of rape outside of the stranger-attack jump-in-the-alley context? That victims of rape must expect to undergo such a humiliating and debilitating process from police and lawyers in order to get justice for the crime committed against them that many simply do not bother? That rape and victims of rape are routinely joked about and trivialised both in mainstream media and popular perception to the extent that there appears to be such a thing as 'rape culture' - a culture where all but the worst and most violent rape offences are effectively condoned and, where possible, brushed under the carpet for the sake of protecting the offender at the expense of the victim?

If you believe these things, it will be clear to you that the allegations against Julian Assange - like all rape allegations - must be taken very seriously and that he must go to Sweden to answer them in court.

Do you believe that there is something deeply rotten at the heart of most, if not all Western democracies?

Do you believe that the secret services of Western democracies effectively operate outside the jurisdiction of the law and are quite prepared to do absolutely anything - including murders, smear campaigns and honeytraps - to further their own ends? That even democratic states such as the US and the UK will do whatever they believe they can get away with behind the scenes - regardless of international or domestic law - in order to further their own interests? Do you believe that the culture of secrecy in government is the key factor protecting this kind of behaviour, and that Wikileaks is the first organisation to truly strike a blow against this culture of secrecy, something that has genuinely scared the living daylights out of powerful individuals, governments and institutions across the world, and that has caused them to react accordingly.

If you believe these things, it will be clear to you that the rape allegations against Julian Assange are nothing but a particularly blatant honeytrap smear campaign designed to stop his active participation in Wikileaks, and hold him in place, either in the UK or Sweden, until grounds can be found to extradite him to the US, where the life expectancy of his activity in Wikileaks, if not his actual life expectancy in general, will be pretty short.

It will be clear to you, that is, unless you also believe in the first set of things, in which case, like me, you've probably spent the last little while with your head on fire, trying to balance the two sets of ideas.

The circle has been squared by several writers: Johann Hari, Cath Elliott, Amanda Marcotte, Laurie Penny and Kate Harding have all written excellent essays attempting to explain why - given the existence of rape culture - there are serious problems with all attempts to pre-emptively defend Assange against the rape allegations even in the face of the explicit, public, US-led threat to 'get him' at all costs.

Other writers - people that you might perhaps have thought would have known better - such as Craig Murray, Michael Moore, John Perry Barlow and Naomi Wolf, have written defences of Assange that all have one thing in common - they trivialise these specific rape allegations in order to defend Assange.

The problem has perhaps best been summed up by Katrin Axelsson of Women Against Rape, whose letter to the Guardian on the subject is here. The key phrase is this: there is a long tradition of the use of rape and sexual assault for political agendas that have nothing to do with women's safety.

If you support Wikileaks but don't accept the existence of rape culture, of course, sorting out the Assange case is easy - it's all a honeytrap smear campaign straight out of the CIA Dirty Tricks textbook. If you do accept the existence of rape culture, however, you'll realise that misguided ideas about what is and is not acceptable behaviour and what is and is not rape are so widespread - even among those ostensibly committed to social justice - that it is not in any way reasonable to rule out the possibility that Assange actually might have done it. After all, the best way to frame someone you want to frame is for something they actually did. The full power of the State will - not wrongly - get behind you in seeing the person you want eliminated put away.

That's the chilling answer to Craig Murray's litany of political whistleblowers who mysteriously have subsequently faced allegations of sex crimes - such things are so widespread that it's perfectly possible that all those allegations are actually true: in a world where most sex offenders get away with it, only those who also act against the interests of the State are in trouble.

If you're paranoid about what organisations like MI6 or the CIA might do to people who they see as enemies, don't think for a single moment that they would bother wasting time setting up a brand new honeytrap for a guy they already knew to be a little bit off when it came to the boundaries of consensuality in sex. They'll just use that knowledge instead - even if - purely hypothetically - both women involved were actually big supporters both of Wikileaks in general and Assange in particular.

Two final points. Firstly, the underlying mechanism and philosophical underpinning of Wikileaks has now effectively been open-sourced. There already exist other organisations based on the same principle: in order to force so-called democracies to operate with just governance, it is necessary to provide whistle-blowers a method for safely and anonymously leaking secret and damaging documents which can then be sent to the press and publicised. To that extent, while it is clear that Wikileaks specifically has yet to release every document in its possession, its major mission has been accomplished. Kill Assange tonight, and you will still have a constant stream of no-longer secret documents being released from now until the heat-death of the internet.

Secondly, those who are aware of the existence of rape culture have an enormously long way to go in order to persuade people - even on the progressive wing of politics - that such a thing even exists. There's an awful lot of eye-rolling going on on feminist blogs at the moment; an awful lot of 'I really can't be bothered to explain any more.' And that is understandable. But there's an awful lot of explaining left to do.

Because most guys - even on the left - don't yet get it.

Most guys don't yet know that more or less most women have been or will at some point be raped or sexually assaulted.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Did You Read That Really Annoying Column This Weekend

Well did you?

I don't mean Charlotte Metcalf's piece in the Mail about how hard it is to afford Christmas when your income has dropped to £26,000 a year. That was not annoying at all: I found it hilarious. What annoyed me was Christina Patterson's attack on Wikileaks and Julian Assange in the Independent, to which the rest of this post is my response, also posted on the Independent website as a hideously over-long comment. I've edited it a bit to remove the parts that don't fit with it being a blog post rather than a comment. You might want to read Patterson's piece first, if the below is to make sense.

The claim that Wikileaks has put the lives of Afghani (and other) informants in danger by releasing their names has been widely repeated. I have repeatedly looked for and failed to find evidence for this claim. All I can find is articles like Patterson's, which repeat the claim but provide no evidence.

Meanwhile, the US and its allies continue to pursue their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in which thousands of entirely innocent men, woman and children have been and continue to be maimed or killed. No further evidence need be released for this to be an unarguable statement of fact, whether you support the wars, and believe these deaths to be acceptable collateral damage, or whether you oppose the wars, and believe such deaths not to be acceptable.

These wars, moreover, which some claim to be illegal, have been entered into or continued by politicians who, according to Patterson, are 'accountable to the people who elect them'. One would expect, in that case, given that the wars continue, that the wars have widespread support. Yet they manifestly do not: polls differ but all show that while there is a good deal of support, there is also a good deal of opposition; some show that there is more opposition than support.

Some might conclude from this that perhaps our politicians aren't quite as accountable as Patterson suggests.

Given that Assange and Wikileaks have acted and continue to act in a way that the Pentagon and the CIA do not like, it is no surprise that there have been many clear statements of intent from members of the US government to have him stopped, and the site shut down. As such, Patterson's response to Assange blaming "the Pentagon, and the CIA" for the rape charges seems highly disingenuous.

"I thought that that was the kind of thing that someone would say if they had something wrong with their head," she writes, as if, rather than threatening his life and his project, both the Pentagon and the CIA had in fact released statements to the effect that if they ever met Julian Assange they would clap him heartily on the back, shake his hand and buy him a drink.

Some might think that Patterson's response is the kind of thing that someone would say if they were being highly selective with their facts in order to construct an argument.

Finally, Wikileaks being a project involving at root a general infrastructure for supporting the release of information that various Powers That Be would prefer not be released, it seems both churlish and ignorant to call it 'just a website'. I don't know about Christina Patterson's, but my website does not do that. Even the Independent's website is only capable of doing such things up to a certain degree: one of the points made by many people examining Wikileaks is that it and other projects like it fill a necessary journalistic gap left by the often over-cosy relationship between press, politicians and business leaders.

That makes the conclusion of Patterson's article on Wikileaks somewhat tenuous, given that several if not most of the points in the argument leading up to it turn out not to hold. "Freedom of information," Patterson concludes, somewhat out of the blue, "is quite likely to make people less free."

Power without accountability is indeed dangerous, which is why politicians abusing that power and avoiding that accountability are currently being attacked by men and women with websites who would like to make people more free and to remove power without accountability. Those men and women are naturally quite secretive, since they are taking direct aim at very powerful organisations that want to keep us less free.

It is true that 'what some people called "freedom of information"' is 'quite likely to make people more paranoid', but only some people, specifically, those people in government who are engaging in behaviour that needs to be kept secret in order to continue. That sounds a lot like 'power without accountability' to me, and if there is one thing that Christina Patterson and I can agree on, it is that power without accountability is dangerous.

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