August 28, 2013
The Bradley Manning case is a postmodern crisis to smack our political theories, even as the relentless “masculine” assurance of U.S. foreign policy clutches its sabers and rattles. Is Bradley, (now Chelsea?) unstable, shifting, disloyal to the very genitalia s/he was born with? What’s apparently so scary and unforgiveable about Manning, and, without the obvious gender issues, Edward Snowden, is their refusal to sit still and take what they are given. Court-martialed for revealing “privileged” information to the very people who were supposedly paying for the privilege (we-support-the-troops Americans), Manning slips aside, taking full responsibility and even culpability for the reveal; guilty of collateral damage no one can prove occurred (not all the king’s men nor all the king’s horses). But the threat of what he did, the possibility of its disruptive capability, remains to determine an essentially life-ending prison punishment (in Snowden’s case, banishment at best). Unlike some of the crimes these two (three?) revealed, there are no bodies. Outside of military courts the rule is: no corpse, no case; but not so for military justice. The “corpse” is now the crime of revealing hysterically hoarded information, the release of a secret ruled more antisocial than the real crimes it revealed. Information is indeed power, and in government the old fear rises up that the revolution might begin, that the people, so armed, may themselves rise up.
As a woman now, Bradley has more balls than the people who want him in prison. Manning was a man. He manned up. He did the right thing, something significant, brave, reckless yes but with a callow commitment we will never get from politicians or most “leaders” including, most frustratingly, our President, who should know better than to trust the old guard. A braver man than Obama, someone whose confidence came a bit more securely pedigreed (FDR perhaps) might have triangulated the Manning and Snowden cases to make the larceny, the lies, and the killing in our names more punished then the leaking. Obama still has a chance to do so, via a pardon, but that surely won’t come until the end of his term, if it comes at all. For far too many Americans, Obama himself, not unlike Manning, is unstable. He could slide into blackness, into “representing,” and that must never be allowed to happen.
The Manning problem is that Manning is not the Hero. As we have known, so thoroughly that even 80’s pop announced it, “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” We need human beings who act on ethical grounds, who see the goals of human freedom and dignity as increasingly blocked by the very forces (and it is always force) sent to depose and then re-impose “freedom.” Remember that one of our recent incursions was titled “Operation Enduring Freedom.” How do we respond when someone does lands a punch for actual democracy, something brave and thus reckless as all bravery is, putting into practice what many of us preach? He must be put away, out of sight, politically killed, before he shape-shifts, becomes a she and thus something we will feel even worse about. He can’t really be “killed” because we are sophisticated savages. We will put him in prison, with other militarized misfit men, so that his switchiness, his instability, can be wrecked, mocked, further ruined, and his personhood marooned in the liminal, but with no context to express itself in. That’ll teach ‘em to think out of the box!
Is part of our Manning problem the realization of this significance, the change-causing result of his/her actions? For those of us who rail against the reign of debauched reason, who blog and bloviate and write editors and hope that someone is listening and leaning-in to our commentary, Manning (and Edward Snowden) come as reality checks. Their acts made the lumbering ship of state list and pitch and fire back. It’s perhaps the enormity of the canon with which the mighty ship responded that stuns; we thought Obama and his crew were on our side, the side of “speaking truth to power,” but we were squeaking, and they were stalling. Manning (and Snowden) acted first and spoke later, and for that they shall be punished. We assure ourselves that we are a society that aligns itself with David, but we are now surely the most gigantic Goliath.
Yes, Manning is crazy. How could his human being, so frail yet so fierce, be other than that? One wants to be respectful to this young person’s complexity, but perhaps it is we who have made Manning plural, bifurcated, have forced a complex soul into an unsustainable binary; you are a man, you are a woman. You are either for us or against us. You are an American, you are a traitor. You are a soldier, you are a citizen. These should not be oppositional. We have made it so. In order to survive in post-modern culture with integrity deeper than self-advertisement, you must be crazy, off-center, confused at best. Take your meds, bury yourself in social media (not live society), unload on your therapist(s) if you can pay for them or your job deems you worth keeping sane, load your gun, focus on (your own) family, shut up and shop. Crazy behavior must be rehearsed and displayed on “reality” shows, as it is not for the public forum. Citizens, public forums are not for the public. You don’t properly know how to know, so best to engage in the diversion of elections and leave knotty knowledge to the truly knowing, who know what to do because they have been doing it forever.
If Bradley had taken the appropriate meds, would he have fully become Chelsea, an eager young woman taking up arms in Afghanistan to defend home and country? The focus on Manning’s gender dysphoria seems to suggest this. I don’t buy it, though perhaps this is the essential breach between politics and art, between art and society. One encourages stability and an increasingly illusory civic cohesion. The other, disruption and interference in assumptions. But when that civil society condones uncivilized tactics, such as the murder of unarmed civilians, it’s crazy-making, begging the dramatic act as the only eruption possible to change the culture.
Had Manning taken an AR-15 (or the military equivalent) and gone officially crazy, as did some fellow officers, wiping out entire families in a militarized zone, there might at very least be a template, a narrative we have now been anestheticized to understand; bad apples, you know? But he cracked open in a very different way. Manning is a man and a woman and a lost child who found something and thought the world might be set right if when he saw something, she said something. But both voices, blended or distinct, drown in the backchatter of fear. The rest of us watch and claim sides.