‘Collateral Murder’, Brendan Eich and the refusal of elites

It was on this day in 2010 that Wikileaks released the video, obtained via Chelsea Manning, which brought them both to public attention and made Western war crimes in Iraq unavoidable. Or so you would think. It’s entirely anecdotal but while most folk I know have heard of Wikileaks and Manning, the words ‘Collateral Murder video’ still largely draw a blank. Instead, as has happened with the revelations stemming from Snowden, the issues became focused around whistle-blowing and the treatment of the individuals whose bravery had allegedly enlightened the world. Still, if people generally still don’t seem to focus on the more shadowy actions of their governments (much easier to focus on the shadowy actions of the approved baddies) the actions of Manning and Wikileaks undoubtedly contributed to the broad suspicion which has so far stopped an outright ‘intervention’ in Syria (though our governments have continued to provide financial aid and arms to ‘Syrian rebels’). The cold ‘beauty’ of the ‘Collateral Murder’ video was that it pierced through the usual blather about how foreign policy and war are far too complicated for you or I to understand and simply presented an amoral act. The military voices in the video sound sociopathic, completely divorced from any notions of right and wrong. To paraphrase Ballard, it rubbed our face in our own vomit and forced us to look in the mirror. This is the reality of war, of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Yet if it seemed for a brief moment to offer a utilitarian lucidity in our approach to government, that hope has since faded.

There was, of course, a substantial anti-war movement across the Western world regarding Iraq. Perhaps the perceived failure of that movement has something to do with why so much of our political action has become neutered, ensnared in trite petitions and finger-pointing at others. This was an awful act committed by our governments, in our names even as we marched en masse against it. Where does that leave democracy? Sure, Blair has become a pariah in many circles now but none of our leaders or parties have really paid any price for what they did. Alistair Campbell still regularly pops up as a media commentator. Supposed leftists eagerly await the Presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, who has continually defended her support for the war and repeatedly supported extra-judicial assassination via drone warfare. The Snowden revelations have been met with a collective shrug from the majority of the population. This is politics stripped of all thought, all meaning, all hope. It’s about being seen to support the ‘goodies’ and oppose the ‘baddies’. The brutally simple message of ‘Collateral Murder’ has sank back into the fog of misinformation and ignorance. We once again think that this stuff is just too complicated.

This apathy and aversion to critical thought has, of course, been apparent in the LGBT movement and I’ve written about its abandonment of Chelsea Manning many times (almost entirely prior to her identification as Chelsea, so apologies for the references to Bradley). Our LGBT leaders and media face almost no opprobrium for allying with arms dealers, tax avoiders, the military and companies like Goldman Sachs, PWC or Barclays which have horrendous records on human rights and progressive politics. Yet, in a further example of just how beyond fucked our LGBT politics is, this week the LGBT internet flew into a rage over the fact that the new CEO of some fucking internet browser company had donated in support of Proposition 8. Apparently using Mozilla was fine when he was merely Chief Technical Officer of Mozilla was fine. And there was no question of boycotting Javascript, which he helped to create, cos that would be a bit of a hassle. Let’s also ignore that countless employees of firms like Apple, Google and Microsoft also donated to support Prop 8 or that President Obama was himself opposed to gay marriage in 2008. Hillary Clinton only came out for gay marriage last year. But heck, this is 2014 and YOU WILL LIKE US GODDAMNIT!

Few would defend Eich’s donation but the perversity of a political movement which will happily align itself with companies dealing arms to brutal despots while hounding someone for opposing gay marriage 6 years ago is clear. Do we hound prominent LGBT journalists like Dan Savage, Andrew Sullivan or Johann Hari for their vocal support for the Iraq war (amongst many other sins)? Indeed, can you imagine any CEO being faced with a fire storm like this because they oppose trade unions, strong rights for workers, avoid tax and fleece taxpayers via ineffectual monopolies? Of course not – in fact someone like Richard Branson, who does all of these things, is one of the most prominent and admired businessmen in the world. Similarly Steve Jobs, who built Apple on the back of horrendous labour practices and who sent a solitary smiley face in response to news that he’d gotten a lowly Google employee fired, is near canonised.

Why don’t we care about this stuff? I suspect it’s the same infantilisation which so characterises our approach to government: we think this stuff is just too complicated and best left to the serious white folk in suits who know what they’re talking about. Once you’ve abandoned that critical space, you’re wide open to the absurd, trite marketing which assures you that companies DO LIKE YOU! If Brendan Eich had a history of using child labour or campaigning against welfare, dissemination would have ruled the day and he would still be in his post. His views on gay people, though – those we think we can parse.

It’s reductive and insulting. Chelsea Manning is someone who exemplifies for us that we can pay attention to the things that matter. We can educate ourselves about what our governments and corporations do. More than that, we must, because it’s largely being done in our names and with our money. We should be wary of rushing to quick judgements or actions (so typical of the clicktivism movement) but we should also never accept that these issues are too difficult for us and best left to the ‘experts’. That path leads to unchecked power and tyranny.  ’Collateral Murder’ did not distort or misinform – it merely demanded that we pay attention. Doing so honours not only Manning’s bravery and those we see murdered in the video but the countless, nameless others who are harmed in our names on a daily basis.

 

“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.

Marking Chelsea Manning’s 1000th day of imprisonment, this is a powerful expansion of the critique of LGBT politics and its response to Manning’s plight which I first wrote about here. This piece is so accurate that I want to send it to the offices of every major LGBT organisation, publication, writer etc but there is something for most of us who identity as LGBT to consider from it. This paragraph:

Any number of fading stars and starlets, and non-entities on the make, from Lady Gaga to Chaz Bono to Ricky Martin, have mined the LGBT community to support their careers. Our community’s eager rush to embrace just about any celebrity who deigns to notice our existence is emblematic of our lack of self-esteem, our internalized homophobia.

is so apposite that I almost punched the air when I read it. Our hysterical gratitude whenever a straight celebrity says something nice about LGBT people or, indeed, when a celebrity comes out, is utterly counter-productive and cements the notion that we are some meek, simpering minority who need assistance in being ushered into the ‘mainstream’. So we end up with the quite absurd elevation of someone like Ben Cohen and have palpitations whenever some nobody from ‘Hollyoaks’ or a sportsman looking to make a name for themselves says that, hey, they quite like the gays actually. Sod that. People don’t get to use being a decent human being as a career choice and no-one should encourage them to do so. As the paragraph states, the swift rapture which greets these utterings doesn’t suggest a community which has a strong sense of self or the certainty that we are indeed as ‘good as you’. It’s embarrassing. It seems to me that any decent human being would both sympathise with Chelsea Manning and be outraged by her treatment. Again, this piece is completely on-point here, particularly with the observation that Gay Inc would be up in arms “If a homophobe had so much as broken Chaz Bono’s finger nail” yet remains largely silent regarding Manning. Despite being in the UK I think the points made regarding the flat-out refusal of dominant LGBT voices to expose/oppose Obama apply here; they can obviously be extended to our own political context and the timid reluctance of groups like Stonewall to seriously challenge power or societal norms. What’s most dominant in the seeming inability of Gay Inc to “take on “difficult” political subjects” is, however, not really touched on in the piece: it’s the preening, narcissistic and neoliberal reduction of LGBT politics to the individual, the deployment of homophobia as part of someone’s identity. “In what way does this issue enable me to appear oppressed?” The hysteria over equal marriage illustrated this perfectly, allowing an overwhelmingly white, male and middle-class constituency to work themselves into a frenzy regarding their own perceived victimisation. This ties in neatly with current writings on social media and its importance in both shaping our personalities and expressing hierarchies. It’s deeply unfashionable to be seen as powerful, as privileged; instead we race to fixate on the ways in which we can perceive ourselves to be oppressed and, most importantly, be seen to be so. The Manning case, then, offers almost nothing in this regard. You’ll see that in this piece the author even tries to articulate a narrow, explicitly LGBT angle which Gay Inc could latch onto:

Besides the Honduran angle – 89 LGBTs murdered over three and a half years in a country of less than 8 million, including leading activists like Walter Trochez and Erick Martinez Avila – there are other LGBT angles that NGLTF and HRC could have highlighted.  The sexually humiliating torture that Manning received, stripped naked in a cell for days on end, ordered by no less than a two-star general – was tinged in homophobia, and yet where were the protests from the gay human rights groups? Not even a token press release.

As undeniably important as these issues are, they would be weak entry-points to Manning’s cause as it’s clearly about so much more than LGBT identity. Any attempts to make it about this would, I suspect, only highlight the narcissism which underlies much of Gay Inc. No, the Manning case requires a focus on common humanity and, crucially, on the nature and use of power. In this respect it is exactly the same as the Israeli ‘Pinkwashing’ or the abhorrent militarism of Western governments: they are ‘difficult’ issues because they cannot be easily reduced to ‘look at how we as LGBT people are being oppressed!’. They do not flatter our victimisation, the same identity which is so well-served by celebrities flattering our ‘cause’ with obsequious words. And so Manning, an undeniably brave individual and possibly as perfect an example of an LGBT ‘hero’ as you are likely to have in the developed world, is left to rot by people and organisations who instead prefer to knock-off the 4000th column or press release about equal marriage or access to the military. It’s a shameful commentary on modern LGBT politics, a movement which is popularly seen to have began with a riot and now finds us actively trying to victimise ourselves rather than challenge power as engaged, informed and compassionate human beings. The Chelsea Manning Support Network can be found here. Chelsea Manning and the Appalling Silence of Gay, Inc.

Note – this was written pre-transition and amended afterwards.