“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.

Edward Snowden and personal responsibility

Questions of personal morality and responsibility have loomed large in my writing over the past couple of years. This largely came about because circumstances conspired to puncture my previously binary (and naïve) notion that the world was divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people; instead, I realised, almost everyone believes themselves to be ‘good’ and casts others as the ‘bad’. We rationalise and excuse our actions while being swift to judgement when we believe that others have fallen short. We flatter ourselves that we wouldn’t do ‘bad’ things without stopping to ask ourselves not only what drives people to ‘evil’ but even what the term actually means. Both the book Alone in Berlin and the film Good rested on the truth that morality is not the obvious and grand battle which it is commonly presented as but rather a question of quotidian decisions, actions and words. Few of us are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in any sense other than how we exist on a daily basis. Doing good, of course, seems to easier than ever – signing e-petitions, attending marches, making the right noises about poverty and hunger. We think of badness as the converse of this – actively doing unpleasant things on a personal level – but for the most part it’s really not this. It’s instead taking the path of least resistance. Avoiding the awkward confrontations, discussions and perceptions of being ‘too difficult/serious/self-righteous’ which inevitably follow when morality is raised. If conversations stray into territories where people start to espouse views which are sexist or racist or otherwise offensive and/or ignorant, the common response is to regret that we ever allowed the chat to go there rather than to seriously discuss/challenge. After the attacks in Woolwich led to an outpouring of idiocy on social media, for example, many people were broadcasting that they had deleted offenders from their Facebooks etc. An understandable response but one that doesn’t really begin to challenge the attitudes on display (even more difficult of course is to consider your own response and where it comes from).

Keeping quiet when something you disagree with happens at work is another example, telling yourself that you’re only paying the bills or whichever other rationale that allows you to function. It’s only recently that I’ve come to realise that this is almost certainly the mind set of people who do what seem to be unequivocally ‘bad’ jobs such as those who work in the arms trade – they’re making a living, doing a job, hell – maybe even doing a good thing. In big financial organisations involved in activities ranging from tax avoidance to money-laundering to third world exploitation, employees are encouraged to view their activities as morally neutral and instead ‘do good’ through Corporate Social Responsibility programmes which toss a desultory amount at charities and such. Questioning the ‘social responsibility’ of the actual work is beyond the pale. Even in ostensibly ‘good’ organisations like charities and NGOs we unquestioningly (and often ostentatiously) assume that we are doing great things and fixate on the social capital generated for us rather than thinking about what we’re actually achieving. We aren’t confronted by the effects in any real sense and so it’s easy to push them out of mind.

 Perhaps this is why so many people do all they can to avoid thinking about the world in any meaningful sense, instead focussing on popular culture and the immediate social circle. Once you start to think of the world not as something out there but as something which you are a part of and have some power over, it’s difficult not to start thinking about these issues of morality and responsibility – and inevitably find ourselves wanting. That’s a continuing process rather than the end of the world but it can seem so terrifying that we run away from that power for our entire lives. Who knows what the colleagues of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have told themselves – undoubtedly some of the same rhetoric which we’ve heard wheeled out in opposition to them since they took their actions, contrasting their own ‘mature’ silence and complicity with the crazed, irresponsible, dangerous actions of the whistle-blowers. Rationalise, rationalise, don’t rock the boat and be a ‘good person’. In broader terms the urge is to look away. Why think about what is happening to people exposing our government’s wrong-doings when we can talk about Mad Men or Game of Thrones or chastise Chris Brown or squee because Hillary Clinton, one of the most powerful members of the government which is persecuting Manning and was exposed by Snowden, has joined Twitter with a ‘sassy’ bio? There’s little we can do about this stuff, after all – it’s out there rather than being a part of our daily lives. Thus divested of our moral responsibility we sign another petition and congratulate ourselves on not being one of the bad people – the homophobic, religion, ranting people, the ones who kill people, the ones who have power. They are over there and we are here and as long as we can stay as untainted as possible, we’re pretty good people. As I’ve written before, one of the most powerful aspects of Manning’s (and now Snowden’s) actions is that it shames those of us who think of ourselves as good while indulging in equivocation after equivocation. They highlight the Fisher Price morality of the ‘goodies’ who applaud Hillary and Obama internet memes while taking little interest in what they actually do or, worse, slavishly adapting their principles to suit. This illuminating poll reveals that many Democrats who previously thought that NSA surveillance was unacceptable (implicitly because it was associated with Republicans) support it now that their own ‘team’ has been caught up in it. In Britain, meanwhile, so-called ‘libertarians’ who attacked Labour with righteous fury for their ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear’ rhetoric declared themselves at ease with the Tories’ deployment of the exact same line.

This is where the divestment of moral responsibility gets you. You become an amorphous cloud, adjusting to whatever position best enables you to keep believing that you’re ‘a good person’ while avoiding facing the uncomfortable and unpleasant truths which our own power in the world confronts us with. Manning and Snowden, in taking decisive action which put themselves at risk, blow this wide open and confront us with our own agency in the world. An agency which most of us suppress each and every day. There have been many on social media asking that we stand with Snowden just as we should stand with Manning. Looking at our own lives, our own agency, seems just one of the apt ways in which we can do this.