Assange’s Assault on Toxic Masculinist Militarism 

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

“The issues of sexual assault are separate in my mind from his extradition to the U.S…. If he has indeed raped somebody he should be punished for that. But that is not the same thing as the WikiLeaks enterprise, and that enterprise concerns us all.”

— Arundhati Roy, on Democracy Now!, May 13, 2019

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange faces U.S. extradition on computer hacking conspiracy and seventeen other Espionage Act charges, and no one knows what’s next except a series of state maneuvers and mind-numbing debates that say more about U.S. anti- imperialism’s stagnation than it does about him. A press freedom hero, a new technologies champion, a bizarre cult leader… you’ve heard it all. Across the political spectrum he’s called a misogynist driven by toxic masculinity. In Donald Trump’s Fortress America, Assange is the toxic one! The U.S. can’t tolerate WikiLeaks’ delivery of the documented cold hard truth: a direct assault on American militarism’s super-toxic hyper-masculinity.

Regardless of which nation-state prison cell houses his body, Assange’s spirit resides in the center of resistance to U.S. Empire. This is why his possible precedent-setting U.S. trial reveals deep political divides. U.S. anti-imperialism’s unique imperial trappings have it big on anti-war appearances, but lacking in substance. To move past this stagnation,  we have WikiLeaks’ dismantling toxic masculinist imperialism (and not just in the matter of Chelsea Manning’s transgender identity, either.)

Assange’s case also helps shine light on the term “toxic masculinity,” which roundly condemns gender-based abuses. At issue here is who deserves the “toxic masculinity” charge. An individual accused of rape? Or an entire government performing routinely sanctioned militarist duties alongside dirty war actions, including rape, against civilian populations?

“Toxic masculinity” rejects all patriarchal violence—from the more innocuously micro-focused “mansplaining” to harassment and rape. It is such an effective term because it communicates intolerance of all abusive behavior. More than describe, it rejectspatriarchal behavior institutionally expressed  as aggressive masculinist militarism. To be sure, the term’s popularity is a refreshing change from a previous era lacking common anti-patriarchal language. This past rhetorical void results in today’s eager application of the new gender terminology, while nonetheless risking oversimplification.

Responses to Assange’s case, like Arundhati Roy’s recent statements on Democracy Now!, indicate the understandable need to simultaneously support press freedom and reject abusive behavior. But she’s mistaken to call for a separation of U.S. and Swedish charges, given Assange’s international context and the realities of inter-governmental collusion.

Today’s gender conscious climate requires fast-paced rejection of all alleged abusive behavior. Some feminist/ gender conscious individuals distance themselves from Assange’s rape charges by arguing for separation of his good and bad behavior. But separation of Assange’s charges is a pipe dream. Charges against any individual directly facing Pentagon power should cast serious suspicion. (Think of FBI Cointelpro attacks on movement leaders.)

An anti-imperialist gender liberationist view, put forward here, links Assange’s charges through affiliated networks working in the community of wealthy nation-states.

Regardless of these connections, public intellectuals, like Roy, mistakenly continue the liberal fantasy that separates Swedish and U.S. charges. In the liberal imagination, nation-states are independent and neutral: legitimate actors providing fairly rendered courts of law.

In the anti-imperialist imagination, wealthy nation-states jointly produce legal outcomes furthering transnational ruling class interests from Sweden, to Virginia, and beyond. The masculinity herein is organized as national interests expressed in media, courtrooms, and battlefields. Sweden is one thing, and the U.S. quite another, but oh what they share in common!

While highly applicable to descriptions of state power, the term “toxic masculinity” is not usually used that way: it favors micro, not macro, applications. It’s also an oddly non-intersectional term given today’s wildly popular “intersectional feminism” championed by everyone from anarchist activists to congressional representatives, media pundits, and even imperialist feminist stalwart Hillary Clinton.

Intersectionality centralizes women of color’s multi-systems group and individual experiences under patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. It rejects general uses of terms like “women” and “femininity” that deny racial and class divisions. As a historic response to previously white, middle class, heterosexual hegemonic U.S. feminism, the intersectional feminism’s inclusive impulseis a big improvement. But the same impulse should apply to other gender-based language as well, like toxic masculinity.

Today, few get away with general statements about “femininity” or “women” without specifics. Strangely, the opposite occurs regarding men’s toxicity. Can a prisoner and his guard emit the same toxicity regardless of the power differential inherent in the relationship? Only when aggressive masculine expression is viewed as biological; and a crass biological view of gender has been rejected as simplistic and inaccurate.

While there is some recognition that men are divided by capitalism and white supremacy, the term “toxic masculinity” wrongly suggests an essential singularity. There’s one source for oppressive masculine behavior, and it’s toxic, goes the logic. So the governments charging Assange share the same toxicity as an alleged individual rapist’s behavior? Think again.

In practice, masculine aggression is intersected. Like it or not, the category, masculine, is just as complex as its femininecounterpart.  While U.S. gender liberation struggles expand, clarify, and diversify experiences, the toxic notion of masculinity remains static. An updated gender liberationism should welcome proliferated masculinities while redirecting focus onto one of the most toxic masculinist social institutions ever: the U.S. military.

The battle should not be deciding who is more toxic (U.S. government or Assange?). Meanwhile, the battle between right wing (anti-Assange) and left wing (pro-Assange) forces continues. It gets more complicated, and even counterproductive, when leftists debate Assange’s merits.

Reactions to Assange’s rape charges conjure up political divisions between U.S. radical and anti-imperialist feminists in the 1960’s and 70’s. These divisions, enacted in today’s social media “woke and weaponized” climate, reveal an ongoing conflict. The old division was between radical feminism and anti-imperialist feminism, as Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz enumerates so well in her Outlaw Womanmemoir. Radical feminists, or radfems, believe gender is social, but that gender oppression is a universal root cause of other oppressive systems– like white supremacy and capitalism. Anti-imperialist feminists agree gender is social, but view it as more determined by capitalism than transhistorical, transcultural male domination.

Radical feminists, and other U.S. military critics like Roy, hesitate to defend Assange because of rape charges. Here, pro-Assange/ anti-imperialist “politicos” appear callous towards rape and sexual violence. As politicos, they stay focused on capitalist exploitation, including its war machinery.

New gender activism resents having to choose between anti-patriarchal principles that foreground interpersonal violence and an old school politico anti-imperialism that foregrounds violent acts of war. This movement dynamic has many criticizing Assange’s rape charges from one side of their mouth, while praising WikiLeaks’ transparency journalism from the other side. This confusion hinders any militant groundswell of support for Assange’s freedom and ongoing anti-imperialist struggles.

Welcome to the good ol’ U.S.A., Julian.

There can be no justice for separate alleged rape charges given WikiLeaks’ activity: it’s as simple as that. If ever there was such a thing as a fair trial, Assange won’t be getting one. An anti-imperialist gender liberationist position affirms Assange’s status as a state target, even enemy number one, and denies he can receive a just and fair trial for any charges—including rape— especially in today’s military court climate. Assange’s crime is that WikiLeaks challenges tools of state-sanctioned systemic surveillance, harassment, neglect, deprivation, torture, and mass murder. As terrifying as it is, we must acknowledge and prioritize how these tools will be used against Assange himself.

Considering that WikiLeaks’ whole purpose is to expose U.S. military and governmental violences, imagine what it can mean for the U.S. government to hold captive one of its greatest threats. Guantanamo Bay is a possibility, and Guantanamo-style treatment is likely wherever Assange is held.

Are you prepared to suggest that it doesn’t matter what the U.S. does to Assange in captivity because he just might be a rapist?

All gossip aside– I heard he loves to do coke lines while hanging nude from chandeliers– we can imagine false charges brought against serious anti-imperialist journalists, can’t we? Our focus should remain squarely on delegitimizing the governmental apparatus: its armies, its courts, its media, and its non-spectacular off the record raping and murdering, too.

When arguing for separate responses to WikiLeaks’ charges and rape charges, Roy, and others, acquiesce to status quo logic. This logic presumes courts conduct neutrally administered justice, as opposed to deeply entrenched social, political, and ideological engineering. Roy’s caving to the punishment paradigm reveals she does not want to appear callous towards rape. To be fair, as such a prominent critic of U.S. militarism, she knows how far governments go to suppress dissent. That’s what governments do, in fact: contain opposition.

Any deep comprehension of state power will refuse separation between Assange’s Europe and stateside cases. Assange’s rape charges are made in the context of his ongoing fight against the most powerful military on the planet.

To avoid acquiescence, anti-imperialists should reject any nation-state allegations against WikiLeaks journalists and whistleblowers. In addition to reminding Americans, again, that press freedom is a privilege here and not a right, WikiLeaks ups the U.S. anti-imperialist ante when less confrontational approaches have been historically preferred for stopping the Pentagon– like levitation.

It’s difficult to avoid caving into social media’s punitive “call out” culture with its pre-packaged/ Twitter-ready hashtags and handles for all your political identification needs. This climate of self-evident identities and their clear articulation via multiple social media outlets results in peer pressure to immediately distance ourselves from anything negative– like rape charges.  Peer pressure requires leftists to denounce all hints of past, present, and future sex crime improprieties, and their trivialization. That’s today’s media climate, like it or not.

Enter Julian Assange, a native Australian threatening U.S. Empire– using readily available computers, no less. In the U.S. it’s never good timing for Assange, as many complacent citizens enjoy the spoils of the  military machine he aimed his computer keyboard at many years ago.

There is no conflict between anti-rape politics and anti-imperialism’s priority fighting war machinery deployment. Rape is connected to war through its ongoing use as a military tactic. Aggression, via rape or drone strikes, is the common enemy here. Assange’s case is a unique reminder of the common enemy of state aggression forcefully/judicially used against the people and their media.

If you like WikiLeaks’ classified information leaks, you are not alone. When WikiLeaks first emerged as a political phenomenon in 2006, no one had any idea how the War on Terror would develop over the next thirteen years.

News flash: it hasn’t ended.

Military and national security document exposure and whistleblower threats, made palatable by Chelsea Manning, Eric Snowden, and Reality Winner’s courageous actions, encourage the global anti-imperialist struggle onward. WikiLeaks helps us feel information is on our side, backed by an established and legitimate publisher willing to confront state power and open more space for dissent.

At this writing, no one knows what the U.S. government has in store for Assange except seventeen espionage charges that can warrant him a 170 year sentence. We can contribute to toppling U.S. Empire by supporting Assange as he confronts the U.S. government’s toxic masculinity with his commitment to ending the atrocious democratic crisis at the heart of U.S. militarism.

That enterprise surely concerns us all.

Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. can be reached at