Few figures can be considered quite as polarising as Michael Moore, a man who manages to divide those on the left nearly as much as he unites the right in ire; a result of the manipulative tactics he is willing to utilise in his construction of arguments. Such a tendency was bound to result in his emergence as a 21st Floor Bad Argument champion, and it seems that this inevitable day has arrived.
The subject of Moore’s qualifying piece concerns news which has barely been off our screens as of late, the curious case of Julian Assange, published in that repository of wisdom, the Huffington Post . Moore treats us to a faux-letter to the Swedish Government as it seeks to have Assange extradited for questioning.
Dear Swedish Government:
Hi there — or as you all say, Hallå! You know, all of us here in the U.S. love your country. Your Volvos, your meatballs, your hard-to-put-together furniture — we can’t get enough!
Ho ho! Semi-ironic xenophobia, tee-hee! Unfortunately, this kind of ironic stereotyping usually only works as a means of critiquing xenophobia itself. If your aim is wholly unrelated, then it’s not so much of an ironic jest as it is a mere cheap shot.
Moore’s article goes on to note Sweden’s poor record in convictions for rape cases, referring primarily to this Amnesty International report, and the consequent effect this has in dissuading possible rape victims from coming forward. This, however, soon culminates in a rather insidious sweeping statement: “Message to rapists? Sweden loves you!”, in yet another misjudged effort at something supposedly approximating ‘humour’.
To what end is this report being recounted? To throw suspicion on the fact that Assange is being sought for questioning over rape allegations when many others have not been.
So imagine our surprise when all of a sudden you decided to go after one Julian Assange on sexual assault charges. Well, sort of: first you charged him. Then after investigating it, you dropped the most serious charges and rescinded the arrest warrant.
Then a conservative MP put pressure on you and, lo and behold, you did a 180 and reopened the Assange investigation. Except you still didn’t charge him with anything. You just wanted him for “questioning.” So you — you who have sat by and let thousands of Swedish women be raped while letting their rapists go scott-free — you decided it was now time to crack down on one man — the one man the American government wants arrested, jailed or (depending on which politician or pundit you listen to) executed. You just happened to go after him, on one possible “count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one count of rape (third degree).”
There are certain rhetorical tricks here that need to be pointed out. First of all, the ‘conservative MP’ referred to is Claes Borgström, who, in addition to being an MP, is also the lawyer of the two women who made the allegations, so that he would apply pressure is not suspicious. Moore then treats as similarly suspect the fact that Assange has yet to be charged, while acknowledging that he is wanted for questioning– which he puts in scare-quotes to imply much more sinister intent.
Nonetheless, what is the significance of this line of argument? It seems to amount to no more than a case of “what-aboutery”: pointing out instances whereby rape allegations were not sufficiently investigated is not itself a reason to drop an already existing investigation. If anything, it would in fact suggest that those other rape allegations should’ve been investigated more thoroughly, rather than having any direct implication for Assange’s own predicament. Is Moore really saying that perceived consistency is more important than due process? Somehow, I doubt this. As the article progresses, it becomes somewhat more obvious that Moore is using this incongruity to infer conspiratorial motivations at work.
What anti-rape crusaders you’ve become, Swedish government! Women in Sweden must suddenly feel safer?
Well, not really. Actually, many see right through you. They know what these “non-charge charges” are really about. And they know that you are cynically and disgustingly using the real and everyday threat that exists against women everywhere to help further the American government’s interest in silencing the work of WikiLeaks.
Even more scare-quotes: “non-charge charges” gives the impression of an Orwellian Ministry of Truth operating behind the scenes. Assange simply hasn’t been charged with anything thus far. And what is Michael Moore himself doing with this article, if not cynically capitalising on rape conviction figures in contrast with Assange’s own case to infer the existence of a conspiracy?
I don’t pretend to know what happened between Mr. Assange and the two women complainants (all I know is what I’ve heard in the media, so I’m as confused as the next person). And I’m sorry if I’ve jumped to any unnecessary or wrong-headed conclusions in my efforts to state a very core American value: All people are absolutely innocent until proven otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
If Moore doesn’t ‘pretend to know’ what the allegations involving Assange and these two women are, then he really has no basis to assert that they’ve been specifically brought about to silence Wikileaks. The wrong-headed conclusion Michael Moore has come to is that he eagerly denounces the proceedings as the machinations of conspirators without having any basis to do so, while simultaneously pointing out that leaping to conclusions without evidence is poor form. For an article the bulk of which criticises a double standard, this seems a bit rich. While Assange is (rightly) given the benefit of the doubt, the Swedish authorities are deemed guilty of conspiracy, also without any corroborating evidence. That Moore is only willing to reserve judgement for those who share his political outlook is hardly a sign of integrity.
Moreover, I can’t help but feel that the principle of the presumption of innocence has been somewhat misunderstood here. The presumption of innocence serves the purpose of ensuring that allegations against one’s person are not taken as evidence in and of themselves of wrongdoing, as with the old canard of there being ‘no smoke without fire’. It does not extend to a presumption of being inherently inculpable to the point whereby all accusations can be dismissed outright. Requesting that Assange be questioned is not in any way at odds with the presumption of innocence before guilt; it is a necessary step in trying to ascertain the case details.
I strongly believe every accusation of sexual assault must be investigated vigorously. There is nothing wrong with your police wanting to question Mr. Assange about these allegations, and while I understand why he seemed to go into hiding (people tend to do that when threatened with assassination), he nonetheless should answer the police’s questions.
Ah, nonetheless, Michael Moore does think Assange should be questioned. So why refer to this prospect of questioning in scare-quotes? Why imply that this runs counter to the presumption of innocence? If he has no issue with Assange being questioned over the allegations, then what exactly is his complaint? As for the ‘threat of assassination’, it’s worth pointing out that such threats have been made by the likes of Sarah Palin, not the kind of people whose word should be taken with utmost seriousness. As far as I know, there is no reason to assume that Assange actually has a price on his head. Readers can feel free to correct me on this if otherwise.
But that [questioning Assange in London] really wouldn’t be like you would it, to go all the way to another country to pursue a suspect for sexual assault when you can’t even bring yourselves to make it down to the street to your own courthouse to go after the scores of reported rapists in your country. That you, Sweden, have chosen to rarely do that in the past, is why this whole thing stinks to the high heavens.
The argument from incredulity meets the lesser-known argument from sheer belligerence. This is Moore’s position in its entirety: that, since there are instances where the Swedish authorities haven’t done enough to investigate rape claims, an instance where it is being pursued must be seen as proof of shady goings-on.
In his concluding remarks, Moore refers to a ‘tweet’ posted by Naomi Klein, proclaiming that “Rape is being used in the Assange prosecution in the same way that ‘women’s freedom’ was used to invade Afghanistan. Wake up!”, thus managing to link those who expressed dismay at the misogynistic attitudes which some among Assange’s supporters have indulged in with the arch-nemesisof Moore, the U.S. military-industrial complex. This is a tactic favoured also by John Pilger, another individual who seems to think that an over-reliance on manipulative sensationalist oversimplifications are indicators of quality journalism. Pilger’s article, which makes reference to the same post, goes one further, having the audacity to rant at feminists who justifiably levelled criticism against those who thought it appropriate to dredge up the two accusers’ personal details, undermining their right to anonymity (a breakdown of some of the faults in Pilger’s article can be found here, courtesy of David Allen Green). Moore and Pilger seem to be under the impression that being able to quote a feminist who agrees with them cancels out the disagreements expressed by others; a bizarre notion, to say the least.
Betraying his ignorance of the situation, Michael Moore finally insinuates that there can be no evidence against Assange for the Swedish authorities to investigate as “if you did you would have issued an arrest warrant by now”, despite that a European arrest warrant was indeed issued.
It is terribly depressing that discussion of Assange and Wikileaks has deteriorated to such a substandard level of argumentation– not least of all due to a failure to distinguish between Wikileaks, the organisation, and Assange, the individual, on all sides. This confusion has meant that some figures have conflated defending Wikileaks for its bringing information to light with brashly dismissing any idea that Assange could possibly do wrong, with smearing the women at the centre of the investigation, and with yelling ‘conspiracy’ at any given opportunity. There is no reason why one cannot defend Wikileaks without resorting to this kind of hyperbole, as Johann Hari pointed out in The Independent. Sadly, the outraged ravings of those both on the right and the left have rendered any reasonable debate on the role of Wikileaks ever more difficult, as the focus shifts away entirely from its practical aims toward obsessive speculation on the character of its founder.
What Assange supporters like Michael Moore must realise is that, if the presumption before innocence before guilt really means as much to them as they claim, then the principle runs both ways. Just as people should not leap to conclusions over the guilt or innocence of Julian Assange in the absence of adequate evidence, so too must they refrain from accusing governments of conspiracy when the rationale is based solely around suspicions over the timing of the case’s re-emergence. As Libby Brooks noted (in the piece which Pilger took exceptional umbrage to), there are other possible explanations for the seeming peculiarity of these recent events:
In fact what is significant about the Swedish system is not that it employs a broader definition of rape than in other countries – it doesn’t – but that prosecutions are based not on consent but whether a complainant’s “sexual integrity” has been violated. In addition, alleged victims can instruct their own lawyers, who often seek second opinions after an initial dismissal, which may offer a rather more pedestrian explanation for why the cases have been re-opened now.
That the proceedings thus far have been confusing in the extreme, and perhaps should’ve been handled more carefully, is not in question, but those who wish that fairness prevails above all in these proceedings should be careful to abide by Hanlon’s Razor, and not attribute to malice that which can be easily explained by incompetence.
Michael Moore’s prize, should he wish to accept it, is the instruction book “The Art Of Perspective”, which he can pass onto John Pilger once it sinks in, and he learns to ground his arguments rather than relying on emotional manipulation in future.