We should focus on WikiLeaks, not Assange

January 4, 2011

UPON LISTENING to Democracy Now's long overdue debate between two feminists about the sexual assault allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange recently, I was struck by how unsatisfying the debate was. I have been one of those people saying, "Hey, guys, remember these are rape allegations," rather than one of those saying, "This is totally a plot to shut down dissent."

I think most of us on the left, however, agree about 90 percent when it comes to all of this WikiLeaks hullabaloo. We think WikiLeaks is an important organization that has done important things by releasing classified documents showing serious law-breaking at the highest levels: war crimes, subversion of the democratic process, spying, etc. We support its right to air the dirty laundry of the U.S. government so that Americans and all those affected by American policies can more concretely criticize and chastise American imperialism.

We get stuck when we talk about Assange, so we should pull the focus away from him. We give such an out for those who don't want to talk about the content of the cables, and we shouldn't allow our defense of transparency to be muddled by it. According to the Washington Post, a majority of Americans are against the revelation of government secrets, even when they reveal wrongdoing.

If we merely take this as an indication that people aren't sold on WikiLeaks and basic safeguards for whistleblowers, or for the work that investigative journalists do, we should change our approach to address this more important political point.

Our banners shouldn't say "Defend Assange." They should say "Defend Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks" or "WikiLeaks is not a terrorist organization." Bradley Manning, unlike Assange, is already in the clutches of those who will seek to criminalize whistle-blowing, and defending him will be slightly trickier because he is an American. It's also worth mentioning, as Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald has so well reported, that Manning is being held in terrible conditions.

My hope is that we use the way the WikiLeaks story has turned into a story about Julian Assange's personal life to rethink how we approach such defensive campaigns. If we continue to talk about him as a person, we have no choice but to talk about rape and all the pitfalls of a case that hasn't been brought and about events we can't possibly speak about with certainty.

If we talk about the cables and defend WikiLeaks against attempts to criminalize what it does, we will have a much more lasting victory, and the fight is more worth our time to wage. The way the conversation is currently going isn't working, and we should try with all our might to have a more coherent political strategy.
Courtney Smith, Pittsburgh

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