Chelsea Man­ning’s story high­lights the key is­sues of our time

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Eu­gene Jarecki

For any­one liv­ing in the dig­i­tal age who isn’t a lud­dite, mod­ern news con­sump­tion has fun­da­men­tally changed. We have all to vary­ing de­grees be­come ad­dicts – whether in pill form (on­line jour­nal­ism) or in the more eas­ily di­gested liq­uid form of late-night satire. Ei­ther way, our bio­rhythms seem in­creas­ingly shaped by the rise and fall of brief, of­ten mad­den­ing news items that sweep across the dig­i­tal com­mons.

“Now this will get Trump im­peached!” “With this lat­est move, Theresa May’s Tories have ef­fec­tively dis­solved Par­lia­ment!” “How to pre­pare for a Nu­clear At­tack” Our click­bait-driven dig­i­tal uni­verse pro­duces a race to the bot­tom among in­for­ma­tion providers, a con­stant bom­bard­ment of the psy­che by head­lines and coverage that spi­ral to­ward ex­trem­ism and mo­men­tary shock ef­fect, de­sen­si­tiz­ing us and puz­zling our col­lec­tive will. Which is not to sug­gest that there aren’t things – grave things – to be con­cerned about. This presents a com­pli­cat­ing fea­ture for any­one seek­ing to plot a path through a world spi­ralling into un­cer­tainty. For how can one pos­si­bly find the com­po­sure to build an ef­fec­tive fire sta­tion when con­stantly on the run putting out brush fires? The ef­fect of such end­less and frag­men­tary stim­uli is to pique and then paral­yse the con­science, never pro­vid­ing the big pic­ture nec­es­sary for real change. “En­ter­prises of great pith and mo­ment,” Ham­let fa­mously noted, “with this re­gard/ their cur­rents turn awry/ And lose the name of ac­tion.”

It was with this in mind that I ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion to speak with former US army sol­dier Chelsea Man­ning at the Nan­tucket Project, a “fes­ti­val of ideas” held on a hol­i­day play­ground off the Mas­sachusetts coast. In this same set­ting a few years ago, I in­ter­viewed Ju­lian As­sange as a holo­gram, speak­ing about the hid­den dan­gers of the dig­i­tal age. But to­day, Man­ning will ap­pear in the flesh, her first ap­pear­ance be­fore a live au­di­ence since declar­ing her trans sta­tus to the world and hav­ing her 35-year sen­tence com­muted by Pres­i­dent Obama.

De­spite the retro glam­our of her Vogue cover last month, Man­ning is, above all, a quin­tes­sen­tial con­tem­po­rary woman and a danger­ous one at that. Revered and re­viled de­pend­ing on who you talk to, she crosses sev­eral live wires in con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety, an in­her­ent at­tack on to­day’s frag­men­ta­tion. She’s like an ob­scure LP that strad­dles jazz, gospel, con­tem­po­rary and heavy metal and doesn’t quite fit in any of the ex­ist­ing sec­tions of the record store.

“I’m just me,” she laughs, toss­ing her fash­ion­able bob. But she knows bet­ter. There are few peo­ple walk­ing the planet who cross as flammably and im­prob­a­bly the live wires of se­crecy, na­tional se­cu­rity and, most re­cently, trans rights. Man­ning sees con­nec­tions in the duty of the sol­dier who un­cov­ers high crimes, to the death of se­crecy in the dig­i­tal age, to the role of the in­di­vid­ual in a so­ci­ety where pri­vacy is as be­sieged as sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion.

Just this week, Har­vard Univer­sity em­bar­rassed it­self when it an­nounced and then clum­sily re­tracted an in­vi­ta­tion it had made to Ms. Man­ning to be a vis­it­ing fel­low and speak at a fo­rum. The Dean of the Kennedy School of Gov­ern­ment, which made the in­vite, fell on his sword over the af­fair, meekly of­fer­ing that Ms. Man­ning’s con­tro­ver­sial public per­sona was in­com­pat­i­ble with the “hon­o­rofic” na­ture of such an in­vite.

The truth was that the Univer­sity caved to pres­sure from the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion when CIA Di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo wrote a let­ter can­cel­ing his own speak­ing en­gage­ment at the Univer­sity, stat­ing that his “con­science and duty” pro­hib­ited him from speak­ing at an in­sti­tu­tion that would honor an “Amer­i­can

traitor.” Af­ter mak­ing the sweep­ing dec­la­ra­tion that “Ms. Man­ning stands against ev­ery­thing the brave men and women I serve along­side stand for,” Mr. Pom­peo scram­bled to po­lit­i­cally cor­rect him­self. “Let me be clear,” he protested (a bit too much),“this has noth­ing to do with Ms. Man­ning’s iden­tity as a trans­gen­der per­son.” No one had asked for this re­veal­ing stam­mer, but it’s no sur­prise. So do the mighty – and any pre­tense of aca­demic rigor or free­dom of thought -- quiver when the 29-year old Ms. Man­ning en­ters the halls of power. No stranger to such con­tro­versy, she took it in stride, tweet­ing know­ingly that she was “hon­ored to be 1st dis­in­vited trans woman vis­it­ing Har­vard fel­low. They chill marginal­ized voices un­der CIA pres­sure.”What Man­ning wants to ex­press above all is that she wasn’t one per­son who be­came an­other. She didn’t blindly fol­low her sol­dier fa­ther into uni­form and then sud­denly turn against the sys­tem. She wasn’t a man who one day de­cided to be a woman. It’s a con­tin­uum, she says. When she leaked ev­i­dence of US mil­i­tary and gov­ern­ment crim­i­nal­ity to Wik­ileaks, she was seek­ing to ad­vance hu­man dig­nity against those who would un­der­mine it. Like­wise, when, be­hind the bars of a mil­i­tary brig, she de­clared her own gen­der sta­tus, she was do­ing the same.

What­ever the events of re­cent weeks tell us about the pace and sever­ity of global warm­ing, they seem a haunt­ing commentary on the tur­bu­lence of to­day’s world. As un­prece­dented fires, earth­quakes and winds took lives, de­stroyed com­mu­ni­ties and sent mil­lions flee­ing, the events at least for a mo­ment in­ter­rupted the steady stream of man­made mad­ness that typ­i­cally dom­i­nates news. Even the an­niver­sary of 9/11, usu­ally a field day for the ma­jor news out­lets, passed with less no­tice than ever.

To a guy with a ham­mer, ev­ery­thing looks like a nail. So in a week in which na­ture’s fu­ries com­bined with my re­al­i­sa­tions about the frag­men­ta­tion of on­line news, Man­ning seemed to pro­vide a kind of an­ti­dote: in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity. “My cause is not the same as Daca [De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals, the pro­gramme that gives tem­po­rary pro­tec­tion to un­doc­u­mented mi­grants who ar­rived in the US as chil­dren] or Black Lives Mat­ter or women’s rights, or any­thing else, but I sup­port those causes be­cause it’s all con­nected.”

In her eyes, those fight­ing th­ese and oth­ers bat­tles across mod­ern so­ci­ety must recog­nise that their com­mon en­emy is frag­men­ta­tion, not just of in­for­ma­tion and news but of groups and causes which, divided one from an­other, can­not ad­vance.

Eu­gene Jarecki’s lat­est film isPromised Land

Chelsea Man­ning, who was re­leased from a US mil­i­tary prison af­ter re­ceiv­ing a pres­i­den­tial par­don from Barack Obama. Pho­to­graph: AFP

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.