WikiLeaks, Assange & Feminism: Base and Superstructure

Let me get this out of the way first (a strategy I am starting to employ frequently when discussing WikiLeaks-related issues): I accept as a fact that the handing of the Assange case by Swedish authorities was embarrassing and unprofessional, and that a number of Assange’s rights have been violated; I accept as a fact that the media portrayal of Assange was unfair (in large part as a result of the Swedish authorities’ handling), and any presumption of innocence on his part dramatically decreased in the court of popular opinion; I accept as a fact that there has been a great deal of schadenfreude surrounding this case by those who would wish to see Assange and WikiLeaks silenced (including journalists who feel that WikiLeaks stepped on their turf); I accept as a fact that domestic politics in Sweden has played into the case (though the extent of this is unclear); and, I accept as a possibility that the US has exerted influence over the proposed questioning of Assange.

As a supporter of WikiLeaks, however, I have tweeted that I felt the “radical feminist” line in the Assange case promoted by, for example, de Noli and Burke was damaging, and that WikiLeaks should refrain from re-tweets to the articles so as to avoid undermining the important organizational goals of WikiLeaks.  Before I could finish, however, de Noli published an intellectually embarrassing (for him, not me) presentation of me and my work, to which I responded. Thus, I wanted to clarify my intellectual and personal positions in relation to WikiLeaks before writing this post, since I was misrepresented by de Noli. I don’t feel the need to justify my ideological credentials again. For those who want to know about me and where I stand, read my response.

So, what is my problem? What I feel is “nonsense” in many of the articles and essays on the feminism-Assange issue is this: that the discussion of feminism (and so-called “radical feminism”) has expanded beyond a discussion of any concrete relationship between these issues and the Assange case, and into a broader presentation of feminism in Sweden which serves to misrepresent, and undermine, what I consider to be TWO important social movements: transparency (the WikiLeaks agenda) and feminism itself.

Let me give a concrete example of what I am talking about. Helene Bergman, who is widely cited by de Noli and Burke in their analyses of Swedish feminism, wrote a piece entitled, “Assange is Right: Sweden’s the Saudi Arabia of Feminism”. To make clear that the title was not a catchy headline to attract readers, the following is a passage from the piece:

He (Assange) calls Sweden the Saudi Arabia of feminism. He was the only one who dared call it for what it is and I as a real feminist agree with him. Despite the fact that it’s enormously politically incorrect to criticise feminism in Sweden.

If Bergman is willing to accept and defend the assertion that Sweden is the “Saudi Arabia of feminism,” then I am afraid, to me, she loses all credibility as a commentator or expert on feminism in Sweden. To use my word: nonsense. And, thus, those who cite her (such as Burke and de Noli) as an authority also lose credibility. Women in Saudi Arabia are whipped, stoned and executed for the slightest “moral” or religious infractions; and, women in Saudi Arabia are denied even the most fundamental human rights in a brutal misogynist system. I must confess, as I go through my daily life in Stockholm – where I see newspapers obsessed with women’s bodies, vans driving by my apartment advertising strip clubs with huge pictures of nude women, university departments (at Uppsala, de Noli’s haven of “radical feminism”) where there is not one single female professor, and young girls sexualized in the most quasi-pedophilic manner in Swedish advertising – that this assertion is an insult not only to the women of Saudi Arabia, but to feminism. Sweden is the Saudi Arabia of feminism? Really? I can tell Bergman that, as a man living in Sweden, I don’t know any men who are veiled, can’t drive, or have been buried up to their necks and had their heads crushed by a hail of rocks thrown by women. But, maybe I just live in a nice part of town.

Supporters of Assange and WikiLeaks who cite this type of commentary cannot have their cake and eat it too. Any academic or journalist should know that the basis of intellectual thought is the building of one solid idea upon another. If one builds upon sand, however, the superstructure will fall. If they really believe that Sweden is like Saudi Arabia, then they are divorced from reality and abdicate their right to be “experts”. If they do not believe it, but still spread the comments anyway, then they are guilty of something worse: the use of what they know to be hyped-up, misleading opinion which could unfairly tar an entire group engaged in a just struggle (gender equality). Bergman is more than entitled to her opinion that Sweden is just like Saudi Arabia; but, as a WikiLeaks supporter, I also have the right to say that this opinion undermines both  WikiLeaks and feminist causes. To me, the ends simply do not justify the means.

Supporters need more than frenzied claims about Saudi Arabia; they need more than an interview with Helene Bergman (p. 49) where she says that she is, “fairly certain”  that other feminists agree with her, but that “so far none of them has dared to speak out”; and, supporters also need more than one retired judge who, upon cross-examination, admits that she: “had no personal knowledge of the conduct of the prosecutor in the case, basing her views instead on what she had been told”. In order to influence the court of popular opinion, WikiLeaks and Assange need better than this. Thus my disappointment. I am also tired of the juvenile and intellectually backward arguments that I get in response to these issues, which re-position me as some type of apologist for “radical feminism” without the slightest shred of evidence, simply because I dare to question some of the assumptions made.

The other form of nonsense which I find unacceptable is the use of vague suggestion, opinion and innuendo that radical feminism has some type of grip on Swedish socio-political life. In his essay, for example, Burke writes:

(…) while elements of the Social Democratic Party have assumed a leading role on such issues, they are hardly alone and are occasionally surpassed. The former leader of the Left Party, for example, famously or infamously declared that the “structures” of male dominance in Swedish society are essentially the same as those of the Taliban fundamentalists in Afghanistan. Given the current level of debate in Sweden, such pronouncements can be taken seriously in some quarters; and it is politically impossible, even for the Conservative Party, to ignore the strain of feminist thought that prosecutor Ny appears to be promoting at the expense of Julian Assange.

“Elements” and “some quarters”? Not very specific. It is interesting that Burke writes that these radicals are also “hardly alone” (equally vague), and offers a grand total of one example of broader acceptance of radical feminism in mainstream Swedish society: the former leader of the Left Party, in this case, is Gudrun Schyman, who went on to co-found the Feminist Initiative, the only feminist party in Sweden. Can I also point out the mind-numbingly obvious fact that Burke is ridiculing Schyman for comparing Sweden to fundamentalist Afghanistan, while at the same time (and along with de Noli) citing Bergman, who compares Sweden to fundamentalist Saudi Arabia. To me, both opinions are bullshit. To de Noli and Burke, however, only one opinion is bullshit. Yet I am the one who is  illogical and blinded by propaganda?

De Noli also used Schyman and the Feminist Initiative in his arguments:

Known right-wing “radical” Swedish feminists have themselves stated, “Julian Assange is a symbol” for their cause, and actively participated in mediatic anti-Assange campaigns or even publicly celebrated its success. Organizations of left-wing “radical” Swedish feminists  – to the best of my knowledge – have never taken distance from such deeds or positions. Moreover, the chairman of the Swedish Party Feminist Initiative, Gudrun Schyman, has publicly associated the case Assange with the need of “a better legislation than the one we have”. 

In brief response to these assertions, I tweeted the fact that the Feminist Initiative received a rather embarrassing 0.68% of the vote in the 2006 national elections, and 0.40% of the vote in 2010 – and that they were roundly beaten in both elections by the neo-fascist Sweden Democrats – and that this suggested that feminism (radical or otherwise) was not playing nearly as central a role in national politics as Burke and de Noli suggest. A simple, factual response, one would think. De Noli, however, in response to my tweet, wrote:

A third item is the confounding Christensen indulges when referring to “Radical feminism” in Sweden as if this – in fact an ideology or an ideological concept – would be simply equated with the political organization “Feminist Initiative” 

So, after de Noli and Burke use Schyman and the Feminist Initiative as evidence of the role of radical feminism in Swedish political life, I am then castigated by de Noli for using the election results for the Feminist Initiative as evidence of the role of radical feminism in Swedish political life. Again, they want their rhetorical cake (to spread suggestions that Sweden is a quasi-radical feminist state) and eat it as well (to simply paint those who provide problematic evidence as narrow-minded).

As I wrote above, it is my position that attacks by some (but not all) WikiLeaks supporters against feminism in the defense of Assange have been conducted in an intellectually slipshod fashion, and that the sloppiness of these attacks only serve to undercut – ironically, given the commitment of WikiLeaks to the exposure and eradication of structural inequalities in society – not only the efforts of feminists worldwide to fight patriarchy, but also the efforts of WikiLeaks volunteers and supporters to maintain the position of the organization as a serious actor in global politics. WikiLeaks and related organizations are much needed in contemporary society, but not, I would argue, at the expense of sacrificing the reputation of entire socio-political movements, many of whose members and supporters are in no way affiliated with the Assange case.

Let me end by saying that today, just a matter of days before the Assange decision comes from London, I read an interesting tweet from @x7o who wrote (in response to critics writing that WikLeaks’ tweets on Syria constituted de facto praise for Assad):

What is it about you people that you are so mind-numbingly stupid as to interpret criticism of one thing as praise of its opposite?

I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. It’s just a shame that this logic is not utilized by some WikiLeaks followers who turn any critique of their position on feminism in Sweden into an accusation of a hatred of WikiLeaks and a pro-US, pro-war position.

Without the will to accept dissenting opinions without condemning the dissenter, any purported commitment to democracy, justice or freedom of speech is just a façade.

About chrchristensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

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