Chelsea Manning’s story highlights the key issues of our time
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.
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Chelsea Manning, who was released from a US military prison after receiving a presidential pardon from Barack Obama. Photograph: AFP