Politics makes for strange bedfellows. And house guests

William Saunderson-Meyer says it seems the Ecuadorians have had their fill of Julian Assange


Marry in haste, repent at leisure. Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.

The first saying is from The Old Batchelour, a William Congreve comedy of manners dating to 1693. The second is by Benjamin Franklin, one of the American founding fathers, from the mid-1700s.

Ancient idioms like these weather the centuries because they contain that gritty grain of truth.

After all, everyone knows that a successful marriage is a challenging undertaking, not to be entered into lightly. So, too, is being an exemplary guest, especially when the stay is protracted and one’s bad habits become more difficult to hide.

Now combine the two scenarios. Play it out on a modern stage against a mind-stiflingly tedious backdrop, one where the parties cannot escape one another for a moment.

Make the protagonist a preening egotist, with some nasty traits and poor personal hygiene. Make the other party convention-bound and pedantic, with an entirely foreign culture and language.

Voila! We have an implosion with great moments of comedy. Or more precisely, we have the tale of Wikileaks editor Julian Assange’s six-years of living in the Ecuador embassy in London.

In 2010, Sweden issued an international arrest warrant for Australian-born Assange when he failed to appear to answer accusations sexually assaulting and raping two of his supporters. Assange claimed that it was all a conspiracy to extradite him to the United States, to bring him to book over his leaking of classified American material.

Assange eventually surrendered himself to the British police. When he failed to convince the courts to rule against extradition to Sweden, he broke bail and holed up in the Ecuador embassy, to claim asylum.

Among the incidental casualties of this move — Assange’s life is littered with friends and acquaintances sucked dry and discarded — were his high profile supporters, including socialite Jemima Khan and journalist John Pilger. They had clubbed together to raise the bail money and forfeited close on R40m.

There is a fascinating and appalling aside to this incident. Many vocal supporters of today’s #MeToo movement — comfortable with trial by social media — are the same people who were then quite content that their political hero, Assange, be allowed to trash the rights of two young women to have their abuse claims tested in court. 

The obstacle for Assange, then, was British bloody-mindedness. The police refused to let Assange leave his Knightsbridge haven of immunity and traverse UK soil to fly to Ecuador, without being arrested for skipping bail.

Nevertheless, initially, everything went swimmingly. The Ecuadorians declaimed eternal socialist solidarity with their unexpected celebrity visitor, while Assange thumbed his nose with glee at his enemies: the United Kingdom, the US, Sweden — in fact, the entire reactionary West.

Like most hurried marriages, the rosy glow didn’t last. Last week, Ecuador renounced any further responsibility for Assange, saying that he should resolve his problems directly with the British government.

It was a dramatic development, but like most divorces, a long time coming. And like most break-ups, it was precipitated by both important differences and incredibly petty ones.

In a nine-page memo, Ecuador’s foreign minister warned Assange that they would cut his internet if he did not refrain from political activities that “could prejudice Ecuador’s good relations with other states”. They also told him to stop leaving the bathroom dirty and to care properly for the “wellbeing, food and hygiene” of his cat, failing which it would be put in an animal shelter. Assange must also start paying for his food, laundry, and medical expenses. 

It’s all a bit like Mum and Dad trying to convince their loutish freeloading sprog, now in his late-40s, to vacate the basement and get a job.

It’s also not the kind of stuff that bolsters his supporters' portrayal of him as the noble crusader for freedom of information. Not that it matters, since the superhero sheen is long tarnished.

Despite the simpering propaganda from an initially overwhelmingly sympathetic media, Assange was never an evenhanded journalist. He always acted calculatedly to advance the cause of his ideological allies and to damage those he despises.

He has been careful always not to provoke the Russian bear with information dumps, with his leaks orchestrated to do maximum damage to US interests. 

Assange said choosing between Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump was like “choosing between cholera or gonorrhoea”. However, Wikileaks then went ahead to drip-feed a steady flow of information, evidently provided by Russia’s intelligence services, which hurt the prospects of Hilary Clinton and the Democratic Party. 

Nothing was released that damaged Trump's prospects. To believe that this omission was because Wikileaks could not find anything that was toxic to Trump, is to strain credulity.

When the marriage ends, or the friendship collapses, the normal course of events is for one to pick up the pieces and move along. Assange’s situation is different, though.

If he is booted out of the embassy by the Ecuadoreans, the Brits will arrest him for skipping bail. And although he no longer faces an investigation in Sweden, unless he can elicit an undertaking from the US not to extradite and prosecute him — and execute him, as he claims to fear — he will still be on the run.

He doesn’t seem to want to go back to Australia or forward to Russia, where his mate Edward Snowden ekes an unhappy existence. The French have declined his request for refuge.

Maybe his new best friend, Mr Trump, will show some appreciation with a presidential pardon?

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