requiem for certainty

Assange’s Secrets and Ours

with 50 comments

The British courts are holding WikiLeaks maestro Julian Assange on charges related to sexual misconduct, or sexual molestation, or sexual something-or-other.  The confusion over just what Assange did wrong when he had sex with two Swedish women is, or perhaps should be, an object of concern.  The charges in Sweden were filed, dropped, then filed again.

The WikiLeaks example is growing richer every minute.  It is a perfect little capsule of contemporary culture, in its obsessions with truthfulness, both at the political level of international diplomacy (where we have for so long demanded state secrecy) and at the personal level of the sexual confessional (where we so fervently demand of ourselves, and especially of those ‘in power’ in some form, that they give up all their secrets).

Assange told our secrets and now we are forcing him to tell his.

Our secrets reveal acts of violence, hatred, intrigue, and all the other harsh realities one might expect from the diplomacy of the hegemon.  Assange’s secrets, for which he is now being held in a jail cell in Britain without bail, have it that, at least according to the charges, he would not consent to using a condom when he had sex.  Interestingly the coverage of just what the charges of ‘sexual misconduct’ amount to is all over the map.  The coverage on NPR this morning made no mention of the nature of the charges and only used vague terms that suggested, to me, nonconcensual sex, perhaps sexual assault or rape (definitely gaspable material, that).  The coverage in the Times buries the nature of the charge, saying that the sexual acts “became nonconsensual after he was no longer using a condom” (this sounds problematic but is very unclear to my untrained non-lawyer ears).  The coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald is fuller.  But things are all over the map.

All this suggests that it is, once again, these mega-states that are dirty, not Assange.  (Correction: it just may be that Assange is dirty, too, at least in one way.) It is one of the oldest plays in the book to make life a living hell for those who challenge the state by trotting out charges of sexual misconduct.  There is a sad and long history of this in the United States.  Martin Luther King, Jr. is just one of the favorite examples.  Assange is no King.  King was a hero.  Assange is a humble technician of a new way of ideas.  Both challenged prevailing wisdom.  And both were sent to the sexual slammer.

Update (756pm PST): Thanks to Jeremy for the comments.  You are right that the language above is too brash and vague. It is not my aim to trivialize the content of the allegations, but only to encourage reflectiveness about the procedure.


Written by Colin Koopman

December 7, 2010 at 5:08 pm

50 Responses

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  1. I can tell you the details of at least two of the charges. You clearly haven’t dug too deeply to find them. One woman alleges that she consented to sex with Assange with the express condition that he wear a condom; the condom broke, she insisted that he stop, and he did not. Another woman alleges that he had sex with her while she was asleep. Both of these, if they are true, constitute rape. (I’m having a hard time finding details on two other charges, but they’re both being made by the first of the two women mentioned.)

    Now, the supporters of Assange ASSUME the allegations aren’t true. But on what basis? It’s just speculation. I find it EXTREMELY distasteful when someone assumes a rape allegation must be false, or must be a ploy to discredit the accused. It’s really insulting to rape victims to say that, because a guy is a hero for freedom, he can do no wrong and any allegation of wrongdoing must be a politically motivated smear. You know what people say to rape survivors when they come forward? They say, “How could you say something like this about him? You’re ruining his life!” Suppose for a moment the allegations were true — then what? You’ve just trivialized what happened to them.

    We should presume Assange is innocent until proven guilty (even if he is known to be a misogynist douchebag), but we can’t just dismiss the allegations as fabrications, either. Whether the allegations are true or false has nothing to do with the credibility of Wikileaks, which means both that critics can’t dismiss Wikileaks just because of these charges, but also supporters of Wikileaks can’t disregard the charges just because Wikileaks is credible. He can have his day to defend himself in court against the charges, after the victims have their chance to make their statements in court about what he’s alleged to have done.

    Also: Humble? Julian Assange? Seriously? There’s nothing humble about him.


    December 7, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    • Thanks! Both for the fact-finding. And for the cautions. That’s very helpful.

      Just to clarify: I don’t assume the allegations are false. I only assume that he’s innocent (legally) until proven so (legally). That’s noncontroversial.

      The allegations are definitely serious. So too are the procedural issues at play here: extradition, filing charges, dropping charges, re-filing, &c.. I definitely wish I knew more about standard practice for extradition for sex crimes. I also wish some of us could see statements by those making the allegations. But I suppose those are being kept until such time as there is a trial. At the very least, it would be useful to see the Swedish code he is being charged for and what comparable statutes are on the books in other states.

      I should dig deeper. You are right. But part of my point is that New York Times and NPR should dig deeper. It’s sad that they haven’t. It’s their job. Vague accusations of “sexual misconduct” while serious for everyone involved, remain vague, and hence lose the value of the seriousness they might otherwise assume. It just pays to remember that the sexual police are everywhere. It’s a category of our ethical lives that too many people just unreflectively moralize about.


      December 7, 2010 at 7:03 pm

  2. I may be wrong about whether three of the allegations are being made by the same women. I can only find references to a “Ms. A”, so I’m not sure if there is more than one Ms. A in this case.

    But the nature of one of the other charges seems to be that he and Ms. A began consensual sex, but he then removed the condom at some point, and at that point she did not give consent to continue, but he continued anyway. It’s not the lack of condom that’s at issue, it’s the ending of the consent.


    December 7, 2010 at 6:24 pm

  3. Seriously, I’m REALLY troubled about the line you’re taking here.


    December 7, 2010 at 6:25 pm

    • A meta-note. Please don’t be too disturbed by my rantings. I am not stating a position. I am just working out an idea. Blogs are not a forum for theses. They are a forum for experiments in thought. I don’t have a settled view. Can we at least agree that things here are extraordinarily fraught and demand the careful work of reflection? In a society where sexual crimes are some of the most scandalizing events we know of, I think it pays to reflexively consider who we might be, and who we might be becoming.


      December 7, 2010 at 7:06 pm

      • I’m afraid what we’re becoming is a society of rape apologists. The internet is full of rape apology today. Trivializing rape as “surprise sex”, trivializing it as “the crime of unprotected sex”, “rape is when she regrets it later”, and so on. And at base there is the assumption that he couldn’t have committed rape, or probably didn’t, BECAUSE he’s an important public figure engaged in civil disobedience.

        Who are these sex police you’re talking about? The ones who say that someone shouldn’t have sex with an unconscious person? The ones who say that someone should stop when their partner wants them to stop?

        I draw the line at reflection that’s unmotivated by the case, and at the same time implicitly insulting to people who have suffered sexual violence.


        December 7, 2010 at 7:30 pm

        • I am not sure that line-drawing is ever in order here. Sex is way too central to our cultural and individual self-understanding to be willing to ‘just leave it at that’. If by line-drawing you mean to suggest that there are points beyond which reflection is not called for, then I suspect we would locate that line in different places with respect to questions of sex and sexuality.

          I do, of course, agree with you that these matters should not be taken lightly and that it is a tremendous insult, and multiple steps backwards, when people are dismissive about, or apologetic about, rape.

          But I guess my thinking is that this is obviously the sort of case which, in your language, “motivates” reflection. The charges were pressed by interpol almost immediately following on a courageous act of civil disobedience (which courage does not mean that the guy could not be a slimeball and perhaps a sexual criminal too). The charges themselves have a history of procedural incoherence (filed, dropped, filed again). Lastly, I think it is better to be discriminating rather than abstracting here. There are, to be clear, different kinds of sexual violence. All of them are violent. But some less so than others. Those forms that are less violent perhaps up the ante on our reflectiveness. Some people think that it’s violent, or at least obviously illicit, whenever a 23yo engages in consensual sex with a 17yo. Many people think that. Many people (not as many) unreflectively endorse that. I think we, as a culture, need to be more reflective about such cases. That’s just an example. I think Assange’s case is obviously more problematic than that, by virtue of the accusations, but also obviously not as problematic as accusations of predatory stalking and rape.

          Obviously people should stop when someone says stop. Obviously people should not take advantage of unconscious bodies. I am worried that you are distracting the real problems I am attempting (perhaps problematically, maybe wrongly?) to feature by accusing me of positions that no reasonable person would take. Isn’t this itself an instance of what I am worried about? Maybe not. I don’t know.

          Thanks for the opportunities at self-reflection.

          colin koopman

          December 8, 2010 at 3:15 am

          • The notion that the timing of the charges is suspicious presupposes there are more or less appropriate times for victims to come forward, or for police to act on what they have.

            When is a more appropriate time for police to act on sexual assault allegations?

            When is a more appropriate time for a victim to come forward?

            The only conscionable answers are “as soon as they have information and evidence on the basis of which they can convict”, and “whenever she’s ready”.

            The timing isn’t even circumstantial evidence of any set-up. At this point all of the set-up talk is idle and baseless speculation. It’s predicated on the idea that shadowy conspiracies are real and ubiquitous, but rape is only hypothetical. It’s upside-down world and it makes a mockery of everyone who has ever come forward as a victim and been told, “How could you say something like that? He’s just a good ol’ boy, why are you telling lies and ruining his life?”

            I’m not imputing positions to you. I’m pointing out the possible entailments of very vague statements you’re making, entailments I’m drawing in light of the evidence currently available to the public. If you’re not talking about the “sex police” who say it’s wrong not to stop when your partner tells you to stop, then who are the sex police you’re talking about? What are the things you think are being said, and who’s saying them? Because I assure you, today the internet is full of people promoting variations of the ideas you admit are obviously wrong. It means a lot to make more of an effort to say the things that are obviously right.


            December 8, 2010 at 3:33 am

            • “The notion that the timing of the charges is suspicious presupposes there are more or less appropriate times for victims to come forward…”


              “or for police to act on what they have…”

              YES. Duh. Procedural norms are invaluable. The timing is suspicious. Am I urging the charges be thrown out? No. Am I urging that it is time to be reflectively cautious about the norms in play here? Yes.

              Colin Koopman

              December 8, 2010 at 3:47 am

              • So if the police have evidence and information they believe establishes a suspect’s guilt, they should not make an arrest until it’s politically expedient? Why is the burden on police to make it look like it’s not a set-up, instead of on the public to refrain from crying set-up without any evidence of one?

                What you’ve pointed to as indicating a procedural irregularity looks to me like the procedural norms were being followed. Charges were laid when police thought they might have enough to convict, then withdrawn when they came to believe they didn’t, and reinstated when they got new information. There’s nothing obviously irregular or incoherent about that.


                December 8, 2010 at 4:33 am

          • What I mean is, there is certainly a time to talk about moral hysteria. But not with reference to this particular case. Because the seriousness of the charges against him are not a function of moral hysteria. The things he’s alleged to have done are genuinely serious crimes.


            December 8, 2010 at 3:35 am

            • My initial point, fwiw, was more of an attempt to draw attention to the analogy of the logics operating in the two cases: in Assange’s against the U.S. and in the Swedish/Interpol/British authorities against Assange. Both are pressing norms of transparency against secrecy, or publicity against privacy. Do I think these norms are good or bad? It doesn’t matter: my opinion is irrelevant here. What matters are the cultural conditions we find ourselves in. I think our world is fraught with respect to these questions. We are in the midst of an intensely fragile cultural moment where our norms are criss-crossing one another in a frenzy.

              This case excellently exemplifies that criss-crossing. The Police scream: “Keep diplomacy a secret but bring his sex out into the bright light!” Assange is busy screaming too: “Make diplomacy open so that we can show their shadow secrets but leave my sex life alone in its dark little corner.” I think both are confused. But it makes sense that they are confused. Because we find ourselves midst a confusing situation.

              I think the situation calls for reflectiveness. But not moralizing! Above all not that. In the present context, I worry that you may be moralizing about my call for reflectiveness. I find that perplexing, since you are one of the most reflective people I know. As you are keeping score, I think that you could be a little more charitable with the entailments that you are holding me as committed to, given the raft of collateral commitments you know that I endorse.

              Colin Koopman

              December 8, 2010 at 3:51 am

            • Also, fwiw, post above has been updated, in case you didn’t get a notice. I think your questions/cautions are good ones, just to be clear. I’m not sure why disagree, or if we do I’m not sure why you doubt that my cautions are good ones, too. I’m not clear why my cautions and yours are incompatible. But maybe you don’t take them to be so.

              Colin Koopman

              December 8, 2010 at 3:59 am

              • I see the updates. I want to be clear that I’m responding to comments exactly like the ones you’re now modifying and downplaying. Because the way you initially framed this discussion was to say that the timing of the charges suggests that Assange is being persecuted. You want to talk about the oldest plays in the book, one of them is discrediting the victim. And now Assange’s legions of libertarian-minded supporters are falling all over themselves to deny that he did what he’s alleged to have done, and denying that what he’s alleged to have done is serious or harmful. And worse.

                So when you say, “Let’s talk about moral hysteria here”, you’re joining a chorus on the internet saying, “If she consented in the first place, he can do whatever he wants.” And “I have sex with my wife all the time when she’s asleep. Are you calling ME a rapist?” That’s what the “moral hysteria” discourse surrounding this issue looks like right now. It’s like a duet, with the other part going something like, “These sluts are CIA plants”. I’m not saying this is the song you want to sing. I’m sure it’s not. What I’m saying is, whether you want to be singing that song or not, you’ve sung the first couple of bars. Please don’t. It would break my heart.


                December 8, 2010 at 4:51 am

                • Fair enough. Point taken. Post updated. Adjustments offered.

                  My only counter-caution at this point is that you are, quite zealously, singing the song on the other side.

                  I don’t think either of us should be singing these songs. That, after all, was my original post.

                  Colin Koopman

                  December 8, 2010 at 7:32 am

              • Let me be absolutely frank, because I know I can be with you. In my opinion, right now “Julian Assange was framed” is exactly as credible as “9/11 was an inside job” (irrespective of whether he’s innocent or guilty), and it deserves exactly as much serious consideration by reasonable people. Which is to say, zero. Because there’s no evidence, only innuendo and rape apology. And “Wikileaks does important work” is exactly as relevant to Assange’s case as “Chinatown is an important film” was to Polanski’s, which is to say, not even a little bit relevant.


                December 8, 2010 at 5:11 am

                • If your point is that WikiLeaks has nothing to do with Assange’s sex life, then my point is that Assange’s sex life has nothing to do with WikiLeaks. Once he has been extradited to Sweden, the charges by Swedish police dropped, and then extradited again to the United States on some dressed-up espionage charge, then you will have a different story to tell about the way in which the women filing the complaints are being used. Right now they are being used by Interpol. I wish it will turn out otherwise, but I doubt that.

                  If all this happens, it won’t make him innocent. It will leave him possibly guilty and possibly innocent. There is another crime here and that’s the one I want to focus on. The crime that you are focused on is a different issue, a broader issue, a social issue, and one that is not appropriately framed as a case about Julian Assange.

                  In my view, he is being persecuted. That is inappropriate. It is a distraction from the kind of clear-headed procedures that should characterize a sexual assault trial. Obviously, I do not object to people being tried for allegations of sexual misconduct of a variety of forms. Nor is this an entailment of my view. What I object to is the hysterization and scandalization of these crimes as if they are somehow more criminal than other crimes, because somehow they tell us more about the supposed ‘identity’ of the perpetrators and victims, as if we not only are, but appropriately should be, trapped forever in the sex that tells us who we are.

                  My moral is a simple one: it is one that you’ve heard before: it is this: it is time to stop dreaming that sex is everything.

                  Colin Koopman

                  December 8, 2010 at 7:33 am

                  • This comment thread identifies one particular weakness with “the blog” as a medium. There appears to be no real disagreement between what the two of you have been discussing, and the “comment conversation” format seems to encourage misunderstanding in this case rather then remedy it.

                    Jeremy’s initial reaction is certainly reasonable and justified given the legal-sexual/social-sexual landscape at play here and Colin’s first few replies quite clearly separates him from those who might say, “If she consented in the first place, he can do whatever he wants.”

                    Jeremy, your points regarding the problematic social landscape of sexuality and rape are very important ones–I identify with these injustices personally, as several of my close women friends have unfortunately been victims of this nasty trivialization of rape and sexual abuse. However, we should be very careful not to conflate this issue with a political body’s potential to inappropriate leverage the issue for political reasons.

                    Obviously, making this distinction does not at all minimize the potential injustice done to the woman/women involved. As Colin pointed out, if I understand him correctly, to collapse this into a single issue about the social landscape of sexuality distracts us from both “the kind of clear-headed procedures that should characterize a sexual assault trial” and from the kind of discussion Colin would like to have about the political abuse of sexuality.


                    December 8, 2010 at 8:25 am

                    • Sexual assault is ubiquitous. Everyone knows women and men who have been affected by it, whether they know OF it or not. And it’s extremely difficult to get anyone to take it seriously. It’s widely underreported. And it’s hard to get charges to stick or to get a conviction at the best of times, even when it’s reported. False allegation stories get sensationalized to the point where people think they’re common, even though on the most conservative estimates, for every false allegation of rape there are thirty real rapes.

                      I don’t mean to lecture, I’m sure you know all this — the point I want to make is that procedural justice in sexual abuse cases is heavily biased against the victims.

                      Now, I strongly believe in the presumption of innocence. But I flatly refuse to talk about the charges in a way that suggests, or even assumes for the sake of argument, that they’re made-up or trumped-up. We can cross that bridge when there’s any evidence, even so much as circumstantial evidence, that they might be false or exaggerated. Right now, there is not.

                      We can still talk objectively about what is procedurally right or wrong to do with a sexual assault suspect awaiting trial. Right now he’s a suspect, not a convict, and we may not talk about him as if he’s guilty. He is entitled to defend himself against the charges. It may turn out that there is room for reasonable doubt. It would be procedurally wrong for the Swedish police to drop the charges and extradite him to the US. But we can find a way to talk about all of this without saying things like, why are we so hung up on a little bit of rape (if it’s even rape at all, hurr durr) when there’s all this freedom of information to worry about. That’s just unconscionable.


                      December 8, 2010 at 3:19 pm

                  • I don’t deny that Wikileaks is being targeted for persecution, or that the US government would hang him out to dry if they could.

                    My point is, the view that THESE charges are part of a campaign of persecution is, at this point, unsupported by any evidence. It also keys into a whole discourse about rape denial and rape apology that affects people all around you (“it’s just another false rape allegation”/”that doesn’t sound like rape to me”/etc. etc.). The coincidence of those two factors makes it cruel and irresponsible to just chat about idly, as if you weren’t talking about things that also happened to people reading your discussion. (Not just the acts he’s alleged to have committed, but also people who came forward as victims and were told “you’re lying”.)

                    I thought the song of the other side was “He’s guilty, lock him up, shut his shit down”. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, how about we all wait until concrete details start emerging at trial and see what kinds of discussions make sense to have.

                    I just don’t understand why “sex is not everything” is a point you want to make with respect to this particular case. Why are you framing this in terms of his “sex life”? Are you saying, “What happens behind closed doors is none of our business”?


                    December 8, 2010 at 3:08 pm

                    • “My point is, the view that THESE charges are part of a campaign of persecution is, at this point, unsupported by any evidence.”

                      Really? I’m not saying the charges should be dropped. But really? The timing is enormously suspicious. Come on.

                      If you really don’t understand why it would be relevant in this case for me to say that “sex is not everything” then I think we are obviously speaking at cross-purposes (as Nathan points out). I am trying to make a point that has not much to do with all the objections you are raising. You are tarring my points by associating me with whackos (!) who think that ‘yes an hour ago trumps no right now’. You are allowing yourself to be distracted by the charges, to the point where it’s the only thing you want to look at. You are, as it just so happens, performing the very point that I am trying to throw light on. You can’t see through the sex to the other things that are going on here. You keep insisting that “sex is the real issue”.

                      But sometimes sex is not the issue. Other times sex is at issue but it’s not the only thing at issue. Other times sex is an issue and yet there are other issues that are more serious at play or at least serious enough to deserve scrutiny in their own right. In some of these cases it would be well enough if we would not allow ourselves to be distracted by the sex. Let the bureaucrats handle that.

                      And just to perfectly clear, I am not saying that the charges should be dropped, and I am not saying that he is innocent, and all of what I have said is perfectly consistent with thinking the alleged acts are wrong. The fact that they are wrong, and that he is charged with committing a crime in this context, and that the charges should rightly be pursued (assuming stable international procedures for extradition for crimes of this sort, which remains a question) should not distract us from the other things going on here.

                      I think that’s my final word on it. For now. Thanks for the thoughts.

                      Colin Koopman

                      December 8, 2010 at 5:12 pm

      • The point put more bluntly than I ever could put it:


        December 7, 2010 at 10:44 pm

  4. By the bye, here is some much needed clarity on the charges.


    December 8, 2010 at 4:40 pm

  5. The charges aren’t the only thing I want to look at. But a point about the bigger picture should not come at the cost of minimizing them. You said the sex crime charges show he isn’t dirty, and you said they are “trotting out” the charges to punish him for his Wikileaks activity. You continue to say it looks suspicious, as if all suspicions were reasonable and ought to be entertained (again, I point out that 9/11 seemed suspicious to some people, but which people). And you disavow any responsibility for any resemblance your mode of expression might have to any rape apologetic discourse that might be going on — meaning not only that you insist you’re not making a rape apologetic point, but you also don’t see the need to go much out of your way to distinguish your point from rape apology discourse.

    Gimme a break dude. My internet is full of garbage today, from the normal detritus of news story comments and forum posts to unusually strident op eds and blogs. Is it so much to ask that you change “These fabricated charges are distracting us from the real issue, which is X” to something more like “Notwithstanding the seriousness of these charges, they do not touch the other issue, which is X”.


    December 8, 2010 at 5:29 pm

  6. with all due respect to peoples various, and legitimate, concerns this conversation is all too familiar and may as such point to the ways in which this is not a paradigm shifting technology/event (tho I agree with an earlier comment about the limits of blogs/comments).
    On a broader note I’m not sure that transparency is an unadulterated good for US politics, largely b/c so many people have so little understanding about the basics of how our govt works and also b/c these issues tend to be very complex and so not easily available for general/lay scrutiny.


    December 9, 2010 at 3:45 pm

  7. Colin & Jeremy —

    I so wish that I had been aware of this conversation unfolding here over the break. What I found most disturbing about the entire media episode was the dearth of critical reflection and complex dialogue as all prominent voices deployed kneejerk judgments, cliches, and offensive perpetuations of rape/abuse apology. If sexual scandal for those who challenge the state status quo is part of American history, so too is the practice of throwing women under the bus whenever most convenient (cf. healthcare reform and abortion, e.g.).

    The Assange case, the Assange person, all of this clearly makes for a highly complex issue. It requires a lot of effort, perhaps, to parse out and make sense of the layers and threads of related and unrelated problems and motives at hand. It was clearly jarring for the public to have to handle the wikileaks controversy and rape allegations near-simultaneously. These are different things, different categories of behavior and consequence, though they both profoundly blur public and private realms. What upset me was that the public/media was given this high demand for reflection and careful thought *about* sexual assault charges, with the seemingly inevitable upshot of callousness at best and downright idiotic misogyny at worst.

    To try to find some worthwhile discourse on this (again, not knowing about the very interesting conversation unfolding here), I found these two feminist perspectives:

    Shortly thereafter, there was the surprising debate between Naomi Wolf and Jaclyn Friedman, one of the authors of the above blog posts:

    I’ve only watched the first part of the debate so far, but I think it captures some important points: In her opening statement, Jaclyn clearly articulates the concern that important voices in ‘the left’ walk a dangerous line to rape apology because they focus more on the timing and the target of the allegations, and in putting forward their arguments on behalf of Assange, they dismiss the practices in question. Secondly, Naomi Wolf gives a rather disappointing analysis in which she seems to be working with a narrow ‘stranger rape’ or ‘extreme violent rape’ rape definition, and perhaps more disappointingly, seems to be arguing that because we (as an international legal community) do not normally prosecute for ‘ambiguous’ sex crimes, we should certainly not start now with the golden child of internet anarchy. This kind of analysis, particularly coming from a recognized liberal feminist, highlights all the more the need to keep our ethical commitments in mind in all conversations. I don’t see why it’s ever necessary to toss aside issues of gender rights and human rights in order to comment intelligently on what may be a politically motivated situation.

    elena cuffari

    January 9, 2011 at 8:30 pm

  8. Also, apologies for restarting/beating what is perhaps a dead thread/horse. My contributions are intended to agree with both parties in this local debate, namely, to say that sex is not the only issue, but that we as a global discourse community are not yet sophisticated enough nor post-rape-culture enough to ever brush off allegations, blame the victim, etc. (This lack of sophistication is I think demonstrated by Naomi Wolf – NAOMI WOLF – using the fact that one of the women in question later threw a party for Assange as a reason to deny her claim of non-consensual sex. Maybe we shouldn’t only be questioning the motives of international governments.)

    So, thanks for letting me add my two cents, a month late.

    elena cuffari

    January 9, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    • Yeah, Naomi Wolf really crapped the bed on this issue. My gf was listening to a radio interview she gave with the BBC’s Ros Atkins regarding the positions she has taken of late on the anonymity of victims making rape allegations, wherein she came off as completely ignorant, irresponsible, and nuts. The gf said she was partly apalled but also partly relieved, because Naomi Wolf didn’t have even prima facie plausible arguments that anyone would ever have to take seriously.


      January 9, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    • wait where did your original comment go? wtf?

      colin koopman

      January 11, 2011 at 7:00 am

      • oh gee it was in the stupid hopper awaiting moderation approval. sorry! it’s up there now. sorry sorry.

        Colin Koopman

        January 11, 2011 at 7:03 am

    • “…the problem is that Michael Moore, Keith Olbermann, and Naomi Wolf made it harder to imagine how a woman could legitimately say no to sex, thereby making it easier for rape not to scan as rape at all in the first place.”

      A great piece. Also a nice Foucauldian point. Thanks.

      I think the poster’s final Rorty quote is somewhat off the mark — the debate between Wolf and Friedman is not indicative of shortcomings of liberal moral sentiment education, I think, but actually seems to me anyway precisely gloss-able as a case where Wolf lets go of the rational (or at least partially rational, certainly highly linguistic and inferential) work of (re)articulating structures of intelligibility in favor of supporting a pre-judgment to support Assange. The issue at least is one of conflicting sentiments bolstered by rationality… but anyway… a good read!

      elena cuffari

      January 11, 2011 at 6:21 am

      • thanks for rejuvenating the thread, ecc.

        on after-reflection my thinking now is that the core difficulty here is pluralism of norms, in the very problematic sense of a plurality of conflicting norms. norms around information flow are being brought into conflict with norms about sexual activity, partly by way of a set of procedural norms concerning both basic legal procedure as well as internationalization of law.

        i don’t think there are any easy answers in cases like this. we should probably do what we can to resist the sense that there is, because an easy answer can be purchased only at the expense of some norms that we should all find important.

        i tend to prioritize procedural norms over substantive norms in my own thinking, this being rooted in basic arguments about democracy and equality with which we are all familiar. that said, i don’t think it’s obvious that we should always do this, nor is it obvious that we should do this in all cases.

        colin koopman

        January 11, 2011 at 6:58 am

        • You know, in a weird way, this is procedural norms all the way down. I think it reflects a lot of mixed-up attitudes we have about procedural norms. Sex, too, is governed by procedural norms, and what makes a given act (eg. penetration without a condom) an assault or not is whether the procedure (procuring informed, uncoerced consent) has been followed. One of the rape apologist strategies is to deny that sex has or should have this procedure, as if “consent” were some kind of arcane or unsexy intrusion on a man’s sexual enjoyment. As for the enforcement side, his arrest follows procedural norms for making arrests, but what’s unusual in this case was exactly that the Swedish police pursued this case with the fervor we expect them to bring to all cases, but know they don’t. So, aside from the procedural norms of investigation and arrest, there are also norms and expectations concerning the conditions for the procedures to even come into play — what is so galling is that, in this case, the procedures ARE being followed for reasons completely external to the alleged crime, when in dozens of otherwise similar cases, the procedures aren’t invoked at all. I think all of this suggests an overall discomfort with procedural norms in general.


          January 11, 2011 at 4:00 pm

          • Well said — our norms of when norms are and aren’t enforced and with what level of vigor were themselves transgressed in this case.

            elena cuffari

            January 11, 2011 at 5:49 pm

            • not sure that “norms” can do the work that you folks hope for, where/how do they exist?


              January 11, 2011 at 11:06 pm

              • Not sure what you mean by “exist”, if the existence of norms is problematic….

                Alternately, not sure what work you think we hope for, if they need to “exist” to do it.

                If you can play a game, you can recognize norms; and if you can follow a recipe, you can recognize norms. I’m pretty convinced by the arguments claiming that if you can engage in rational debate and fact-finding, you can recognize norms. That’s not troublesome, is it?


                January 12, 2011 at 2:33 am

                • I’m not sure if you’re joshing me here but if you really don’t see how complex and evolving/contested issues like sexual relationships,politics,and law aren’t different from say playing games or following a recipe I can suggest some reading materials but probably better to take some related seminars on the developments in social theory after structuralism.


                  January 12, 2011 at 2:01 pm

                  • sorry should have read “see how …ARE different”


                    January 12, 2011 at 2:05 pm

                  • Of course they’re different. But there are norms at work in all of those things. I was responding specifically to the question regarding the ontological status of norms, which you framed in general terms. I don’t take the ontological status of norms in general to be a problem.

                    If the issue is, what are the specific norms at work in politics, sex, etc. then that’s another matter. But it seems obvious to me that there are norms involved in those. Laws are norms, and procedures are norms. “Don’t do something to someone’s body if you don’t have their informed, uncoerced consent” is a norm. Etc.


                    January 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm

                    • why is it “obvious” that there are norms at work in these practices? when people actually go and do ethnographic studies (or just work/live in) these settings they find that matters are never settled, never just the same, always open to interpretation. Back to the rough ground of my earlier question by what means are “norms” established/transmitted let alone maintained? I’ll leave it for Colin or others to get into questions of context/complexity, difference and repetition, except to say beware of subliming grammar/misplaced concreteness.


                      January 12, 2011 at 4:05 pm

                  • Are you asking how people come to know, or come to believe, that you should ask for consent before you have sex with someone?


                    January 12, 2011 at 4:23 pm

  9. I’m not sure how far I want to wade into these waters, or how comfortable I am with the entire conversation being converted to norms. I do think it’s an interesting lens, and it seems we could go a little ways in describing sex, consent, and prosecution in terms of procedural norms; and we can describe the cognitive dissonance many apparently felt when asked to separate out Assange’s wikileaks actions, his sexual actions, and authorities’ conflating responses to these, in terms of conflicting norms (which I’m taking to mean ‘conflicting general senses about how things like this are supposed to go most of the time in prototypical cases’).

    However, this move also feels very abstract to me, by which I mean, we can describe things in terms of norms (or maybe non-conscious transmissions of power-knowledge through nodes on a great surface network?) but only from a flattening birds-eye (or ant maze) view. Or at least that’s how it feels for these issues.

    But I did want to ask: isn’t it reasonable to see norms as flexible, open-ended, or at least contested, without diminishing their status as norms? Is this what Colin is suggesting when talking about conflict, complexity, and the impossibility of solution? (Again, here, on this local matter, I think there is a solution that can be pushed for without too much damage to integrity or pluralism.)

    elena cuffari

    January 12, 2011 at 5:18 pm

  10. dmf

    July 19, 2011 at 12:50 am

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