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Laurie Penny: tell me what a rapist looks like

When talking about Julian Assange, remember: if global justice movements had to rely solely on people of impeccable character to further their cause, we would probably still be trying to end slavery.

If global justice movements had to rely solely on people of impeccable character to further their cause, we would probably still be trying to end slavery. And yet, now that the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has been arrested over rape allegations - just as his organisation happens to be spearheading the biggest revelation of military secrets in history - this has led many on the left to assume his innocence is beyond question.

The substance of the allegations is for the courts to decide. So why does the left-wing logic run that Assange is one of the good guys - and everyone knows that good guys don't rape, particularly not good guys who are the public face of crusading international whistle-blowing organisations?

I have no idea whether Assange, who firmly denies the accusations, did or did not commit sex attacks in Sweden last August. But just as we would condemn anyone who pronounced him guilty at this early stage, should we also not be concerned that many liberals, some of whom would count themselves feminists, have leapt to the conclusion that Assange must be the innocent victim of a smear campaign? Some have gone further, actively attacking the women in question and accusing them of colluding in a conspiracy to destroy Assange. This plays easily into the narrative that most women who accuse men of rape are liars, and most men who attract such accusations are just saucy scamps with, as the commentator John Band put it, "poor bedroom etiquette".

Ordinary outrage

Whatever the merits of the Assange case, the uncomfortable truth is that sometimes good guys rape. Rape, after all, is hardly a freak occurrence. Across the world, in every city and town, tens of thousands of times a day, 170 times a day in Britain alone, in war zones and bedrooms and boardrooms, people - usually women and children - are raped.

Rape is an ordinary outrage, and most of the people who rape are ordinary men who happen to believe, especially when drunk or angry, that their right to sex trumps any given woman's right to bodily autonomy.

These men are brothers, fathers and husbands. They have jobs, friends and roles to play in their communities; they are doctors, plumbers, politicians, judges and journalists.

When we feminists talk about "rape culture", we don't actually believe that there are strange men lurking around every corner waiting to assault us in the name of patriarchy. On the contrary: it is the very banality of the fact that women are largely raped by their friends, husbands and boyfriends that makes rape culture so damaging.

Evidently, one of the few things that makes powerful men more uncomfortable than forcing them to acknowledge rape culture is forcing them to acknowledge the subterfuge and dirty dealing that sustains western military imperialism.

It would be wonderful to believe that the decision to take Assange to court was motivated by a new-found, miraculous interest in seeking justice for rape victims. But the reason this case is being investigated so vigorously is surely that, on this occasion, and on this occasion alone, it serves the interests of certain governments to pursue a man who, entirely incidentally, happens to have embarrassed several imperialist powers hugely.

That Julian Assange stands accused of rape should not make any difference to the important work that WikiLeaks, of which he is by no means the only member, is doing - but the important work that WikiLeaks is doing should not stop us from acknowledging that Assange stands accused of rape. We should welcome the news that the allegations will most likely be tested in court; if we truly believe that the age of secrecy and shame is over, we should be honest enough to question rape culture as well as military imperialism.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 13 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The radical Jesus

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser