“It is not easy to become sane.”

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“You are a slow learner, Winston.”
“How can I help it? How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.”
“Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.” 
 George Orwell, 1984

At the time of my decisions, as you know, I was dealing with a lot of issues, issues that are ongoing and continuing to affect me….The last few years have been a learning experience. I look back at my decisions and wonder how on earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better…I hope that you can give me the opportunity to prove, not through words, but through conduct, that I am a good person and that I can return to productive place in society. Thank you, Your Honor.”
– Chelsea Manning 14-08-2013

Read Manning’s full statement here.

Sure, it’s a trite comparison but I won’t have been the only person to have thought of Winston Smith when reading Bradley Manning’s heart-breaking statement, delivered at the start of her sentencing hearing. I understand entirely that it’s delivered in the hope of contributing towards a lesser sentence and I don’t judge it at all (I’m not fit to judge Manning). Nonetheless, her words do read like the tragic denouement of a dystopian novel, with 1984 being the obvious example. The terrifying thing is that her words are real and our society is actually doing this. A Manning whose spirit is broken is presumably the dream outcome for the US authorities, who want to pathologize idealism and dissent while portraying their opposites as qualities possessed by the ‘good citizen’. It’s a lesson they not only want us to learn – they want it embedded deep within us so that the mass surveillance and show trials aren’t even necessary. We can’t change anything and it’s the mark of a sick, insane person to think that they can. We can trust our leaders and should leave questions of morality, of right and wrong, to them. Instead we should only be concerned with our immediate surroundings – as Manning puts it:

I want to be a better person, to go to college, to get a degree and to have a meaningful relationship with my sister with my sister’s family and my family .

Keep your head down, look after yourself and your family. That’s being ‘better’. Manning’s previous words:

“I can’t separate myself from others, I feel connected to everybody … like they were distant family.”

That is insane, depraved, wrong. Like dull Party apparatchiks, those who fancy themselves as future leaders engage in Realpolitik and coldly rationalise the treatment of people like Manning: “Oh she should have followed proper procedures for this kind of thing! She must be punished!” In a further parallel with 1984, the only healthy and acceptable outlet for criticism and vitriol is when it is aimed at enemies of the West. So we have a revolving door of ‘Two Minute Hates’ directed at Russia, Iran, Venezuela et al. We even have our own “The enemy has always been Eastasia” with figures such as Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin-Laden and Colonel Gaddafi switching practically overnight from being our allies to our sworn nemeses.

The shard of light in this is that people like Snowden show that it’s impossible to fully stamp out the desire and the hope that things can change, that even a single figure can make a difference. Totalitarianism, however soft, cannot eradicate conscience and courage and in demonstrating this we should thank people like Manning and Snowden every day.

21-08-2013 And now, post-sentence, it transpires that Manning isn’t as tragic as Winston Smith at the close of 1984 after all. Taken from here, her statement today:

The decisions that I made in 2010 were made out of a concern for my country and the world that we live in. Since the tragic events of 9/11, our country has been at war.  We’ve been at war with an enemy that chooses not to meet us on any traditional battlefield, and due to this fact we’ve had to alter our methods of combating the risks posed to us and our way of life.

I initially agreed with these methods and chose to volunteer to help defend my country.  It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing.  It was at this time I realized in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity.  We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan.  When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians.  Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.

In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture.  We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government.  And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.

Patriotism is often the cry extolled when morally questionable acts are advocated by those in power.  When these cries of patriotism drown our any logically based intentions [unclear], it is usually an American soldier that is ordered to carry out some ill-conceived mission.

Our nation has had similar dark moments for the virtues of democracy—the Trail of Tears, the Dred Scott decision, McCarthyism, the Japanese-American internment camps—to name a few.  I am confident that many of our actions since 9/11 will one day be viewed in a similar light.

As the late Howard Zinn once said, “There is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

I understand that my actions violated the law, and I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States.  It was never my intention to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people.  When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.

If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.  I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.

I’ve written about Chelsea Manning a couple of times, chiefly in relation to how writers and activists who obsess over any hint of slight against gay people take little-to-zero interest in her because her situation involves actual power and politics as opposed to narcissistic posturing. This week someone managed to sneak out an audio recording of Manning’s one-hour statement wherein she explains what she did and why. It should be listened to widely.

It should be listened to widely because it’s a compelling and surprisingly moving testament to real courage. Manning had nothing to gain from her actions and everything to lose yet, as she makes clear, she had learned of shocking things and “no one wanted to do anything about it”. So she wanted to alert the public to what was being done in their name and, hopefully, affect change:

In attempting to conduct counter-terrorism or CT and counter-insurgency COIN operations we became obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists and not being suspicious of and avoiding cooperation with our Host Nation partners, and ignoring the second and third order effects of accomplishing short-term goals and missions. I believe that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A tables this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as [missed word] as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I also believed the detailed analysis of the data over a long period of time by different sectors of society might cause society to reevaluate the need or even the desire to even to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the effected environment everyday.

It should be listened to because this kind of bravery, motivated by a deep and engaged sense of social responsibility, should shame us in this individualistic culture where we all rush to shove our inconsequential opinions at each other and seem incapable of taking any time to reflect, to think, to examine what’s going on around us. Why think about how our ‘liberalism’ manifests itself, both in our daily lives and in government, when we can send out more pithy dismissals of religion or remind each other how superior we are to conservatives? A friend commented on Twitter yesterday that “the social justice challenge of (thinking about your own relationship to the world and others) is very upsetting to one’s sense of self when you’re faced with it”. Because how can you not find yourself wanting? How can you not feel inadequate and ashamed? Manning clearly struggled with these things herself and bravely made the leap. How many of us would have the courage and character to do even 1/100th of what she has done? Almost none of us will have jobs similar to hers but in our jobs and in our daily lives we will encounter things which we think are wrong. How we respond to them is everything. Manning’s own act has led to unquantifiable change, from exposing war crimes to igniting some of the sparks which led to the Arab Spring.

It should be listened to because it humanises Manning and should shame us that we have turned a blind eye to his persecution while sanctifying those responsible. Thinking about Manning and what her plight says about our societies is difficult and uncomfortable – there is little opportunity for self-aggrandisement there. Believing that President Obama is a left-wing archetype of liberalism, stymied by evil Republicans, requires zero reflection and allows us to continue the delusion that we are the ‘good guys’. And so a single photo of Obama pulling a face will be seen more widely than anything Manning has done (or that is being done to Manning).

I had a little disagreement last night with someone who advanced the usual line about Pope Ratzinger being a ‘former Nazi’ and saying that he should have allowed himself to be gassed rather than be complicit in Nazi Germany. That’s what they would have done, they said, sitting at a keyboard 70 years later. How brave we like to think we are; how exceptional and how good. Yet as the book ‘Alone in Berlin’ made me realise, our morality is not independent of the social circumstances around us and, more, it is not typically manifested in grand and obvious stands of good versus evil. Instead it is found in the tiny choices we make and actions we take in everyday life. That is how a creed like Nazism comes to dominate – by tiny degrees of ignorance, inaction and acquiescence. It’s how we allow workers in awful sweatshops to continue making most of our clothes or gadgets, why we countenance acts we normally like to think we’d loudly oppose if they come from quarters which we have vested our own identity in, why we equate being ‘good’ with being quiet and disengaged. Manning’s actions explode these myths wide open. She did a ‘good’ thing and is paying a terrible price for it; we do nothing and get drunk on our own righteousness.

I listened to Manning’s statement in bed last night and felt wretchedly ashamed. I do not have an ounce of her courage. We all owe her a debt of gratitude and she should be celebrated from the rooftops as a hero.

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