When people talk about the speed of change, it is worth considering how much can change in only a few years. In six years, for instance. How different things were, back in 2012, when Julian Assange walked into Ecuador’s London embassy and claimed asylum. Since then, much has changed, but two things in particular have had a direct impact on Mr Assange and his support-base – and have also highlighted the tenor of our times.
I met Assange at a public debate in 2011, the year before his self-imprisonment, when he had one broad type of supporter: the anti-West left. It consisted of those portions of the Left who were not merely critical of specific American or British policies, but saw in countries such as the US and Britain the representation of all that was wrong in the world.
From the moment he leaked the video of an American airstrike gone wrong under the title “Collateral murder”1, Assange became a hero to anti-war voices and their wider movement. After releasing inadequately redacted documents detailing precise operational details from the US-led stabilisation effort in Afghanistan2, he widened that support (not least through his collaboration with The Guardian, which gave him some mainstream credibility).
Yet it remained hard to find anyone outside the fringes of the anti-American left who supported him. In fact, allies fell away at an extraordinary rate as they discovered Assange’s harder edges. His Wikileaks colleague, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, grew concerned, parted company and then wrote a lengthy expose3 on his former friend after being shocked by Assange’s lack of concern for the lives he had put at risk through his mass-leaks – all those Afghans, for example, who had cooperated with Allied forces.
In the following years, with Assange cloistered in the Ecuadorian Embassy, the script stayed the same. When Edward Snowden produced the next largest release of American security secrets, in 2013, Assange and his “organisation” boasted of having helped facilitate Snowden’s flight from American justice and move to Moscow. It was clearer than ever that the main aim of Wikileaks was to expose the intelligence secrets of America (and by extension her allies, including Britain) and make them so transparent as to become effectively unworkable. But why had no other global powers been treated in a similar way? How was it, I asked Assange to his face in 2011, that the secrets of the Russian government never seem to be on his agenda.
Answer came there none.
Then, something remarkable happened. In the weeks before the 2016 US election, Wikileaks released a massive data-dump of documents from the Democratic National Committee4 These showed the underhand and nefarious means by which Hillary Clinton’s campaign had undermined her opponents in the party and engineered a smooth run to the nomination.
The leaks caused havoc in the Democratic camp, led to internecine blood-letting, membership cynicism and an understandable lack of eagerness among some Democrats to turn out and vote. While this did not single-handedly deliver Donald Trump into the White House, it certainly didn’t hinder the outcome.
And from the moment the DNC emails dropped, Assange’s body of supporters changed: he was castigated by the American left and instead lauded by the pro-Trump American right. Investigations by all three arms of US intelligence concluded that the source of the DNC leak was Russian intelligence. But Assange and his supporters denied the claims. Just as they had denied that the Russian agencies had been connected to the Snowden leaks or other operations. Whether Assange was acting knowingly or unknowingly as a middle-man for Russian intelligence, the shift in his support-base was striking. The hero of the anti-American left had become the hero of the Trump-ite right. Attitudes to Assange and his data-theft depended on whether the theft and publication suited their own political views or not.
Another major development in these past six years – and specifically in the past 12 months – has been the change in attitudes towards sexual assault. When Assange hurried into the Ecuadorian embassy, he believed that he was on the verge of being taken into custody and questioned over at least two rape accusations in Sweden. He denied the claims, saying that they were fabricated, professed to believe that it would be easier for him to be deported to the US from Sweden than it would be from the UK (nonsensical), and that as a result of trying to avoid extradition to the US he would not cooperate with the Swedish authorities.
Supporters of Assange found themselves defending their hero by saying what he had done was not “rape rape”, or that removing a condom during sex didn’t constitute “rape”, along with a hundred other seminally embarrassing arguments.
The Assange-istas devoted considerable efforts to trying to discredit his accusers. They claimed that they were CIA stooges, liars, fabricators and much more. Assange was wise and long in his tactics. Last year, the Swedish authorities dropped the investigation into his actions. Not simply because they had got bored of them, or because they had found Assange innocent, but because the statute of limitations on the investigation of his alleged crimes had run out. As Assange knew they would. His supporters celebrated.
In 2018, however, almost nowhere in the West is it deemed acceptable to deny or disbelieve someone who says they have been raped or sexually assaulted. Sitting out a charge in order that the statute of limitations on such a case should run out might be regarded as especially abhorrent.
And so Assange’s remaining supporters on the Left – such as Peter Tatchell – now find themselves in a curiously awkward position. Ordinarily, they would automatically support anyone who said they had been raped or sexually assaulted – but not if those people claim to have been raped by Julian Assange.
Earlier this week, Tatchell was reduced to claiming that Assange had effectively served a prison sentence already. As though anybody accused of rape might happily subject themselves to staying in a locale of their choosing for a few years to avoid justice and then reintroduce themselves to society whenever they feel they have served their time. In what other circumstance would this be acceptable? What other accused rapist would be allowed to dictate the length and venue of their own punishment and show such consistent antagonism towards their accusers?
The world has moved on in many ways in six years. But what these two developments illuminate – as they move around the immovable axle in the Ecuadorian embassy – is one of the overwhelming trends of our time. That abstract ideas appear to have become almost impossibly difficult for many people to hold to. And that in the place of fixed beliefs and morally grounded stands, a large number of people have decided to fashion their ethical choices to fit their pre-existing prejudices. This happens to have suited Julian Assange. But it can only damage the health of democratic politics.