Chelsea Manning’s Bad Luck With The American Polity

In The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind The Wikileaks Whistleblower(Verso Press, New York, 2013) Chase Madar writes:

If any lesson can be drawn from the Manning affair, it’s that leaks can make a great difference if there is organized political muscle to put them to good use. Information on its own is futile; as useless as those other false hopes of the global center-left, international law and its sidekick, the human rights industry, all of which have their uses, but are insufficient to stop wars and end torture. This is not to denigrate the achievements of the person who have us this magnificent gift of knowledge about world affairs. If the disclosures have not changed US statecraft–yet–the fault lies not in the cables, but in the pathetic lack of political organization among those individuals who don’t “have a position” in Halliburton stock–the 99% if you will.

There are two theses presented here by Madar: a) information is sterile unless coupled with political organization and action, and b) international law and the ‘human rights industry’ are ‘insufficient to stop wars and end torture’–they are ‘false hopes.’ (The former claim may be understood as a variant of Marcuse‘s praxis + theory axiom of politics.)

The seeming inefficacy of Chelsea Manning‘s leaks of a veritable treasure trove of revelations about the conduct of US foreign policy and warfare now becomes explicable; those seeds fell on infertile ground. Manning’s leaks were fed to a polity that is at heart conformist and accepting of authority, and whose most suffering faction–the staggering 99%–is disorganized, apathetic in large sectors, and all too easily resigned to a fate characterized by endless wars and a Nietzschean endless recurrence of the same cast of political characters and ideologies ruling the roost. ‘On its own’ information has no political valence; it is only when it serves as the premise of a political argument that it acquires traction.  At the risk of invoking the wrath of those who dislike military metaphors, perhaps we can think of information as ammunition; indispensable, yet insufficient without the right sorts of blunderbusses. (That pair of ‘false hopes of the global center-left, international law and its sidekick, the human rights industry’ are similarly indicted: both, on their own, decoupled from the capacity to enforce and from organized political muscle, are reduced to platitudes, mouthed in predictable time and fashion by the usual suspects. No enforcement authority backs them up; and the political realism of the postivisitic conception of both law and rights appears ever plausible.)

America got lucky with Chelsea Manning; but the luck only went in one direction. Manning didn’t get lucky with her nation; she was feeding information to a polity that didn’t know what to do with it (and which instead, called her a ‘traitor’ and imprisoned and tortured her.) The reception to the Panama Papers, which despite the initial furore, and even the odd resignation or two, is best described as equal parts yawn and shrug, provides further confirmation for this claim. Artful dodging of local jurisdictions to enable ‘fraud, kleptocracy, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions’ is old hat; and there is nothing we can do about it anyway.

Back to rearranging chairs on deck.

Chase Madar On American ‘Anti-Authority Posturing’

In The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind The Wikileaks Whistleblower (Verso Press, New York, 2013) Chase Madar quotes Ray McGovern, ‘a retired CIA analyst’ and admirer of Chelsea Manning, as saying that “he who isn’t angry [in the face of injustice and evil] has an ‘unreasoned patience [and] sows the seed of vice….Bradley Manning had the strength to be angry….But in America today we have far too much passive acceptance of injustice. We need more righteous anger.” Madar then goes on to make note of a curious feature of the American ‘character:’

We Americans can pride ourselves all we want on our anti-authority posturing, but a 2006 poll from the International Social Survey Programme of national attitudes towards individualism and authority tells a very different story.

In 2006, the ISSP asked the question “In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?” At 45 percent, Americans were the least likely out of nine nationalities to say that people should at least on occasion follow their consciences — far fewer than, for example, the Swedes (70 percent) and the French (78 percent). Similarly, in 2003, Americans turned out to be the most likely to embrace the statement “People should support their country even if the country is in the wrong.” [from: Claude Fischer, “Sweet Land of…Conformity? Americans Aren’t the Individuals We Think We Are,” Boston Globe, June 6 2010.)

This ‘curious feature’ is worth revisiting now as America hurtles toward its electoral encounter with Trumpism–and perhaps Clintonism–this November. One candidate promises to be authoritarian, to ride roughshod over the rights and civil liberties of fellow Americans, to eviscerate the US Constitution, to commit war crimes (like killing the noncombatant families of ‘terrorists’), all to ‘make America great again’–and he is cheered on by a squad that only grows louder. Another bids us be complacent, to reckon that America is already great and only needs tinkering around the edges, some incrementalist change perhaps–not the kind promised by raving old white-haired men who threaten to make college free and deliver universal single-payer health insurance. The former seems to have shut down the consciences of those who would support him, even if he is patently in the wrong; indeed, for him to be wrong is the new right. The latter appeals to the ‘unreasoned patience’ that induces ‘passive acceptance of injustice.’

Bizarrely enough then, even though Trump and Clinton appear radically dissimilar candidates, their successes in the primaries of the 2016 election season seems to find their groundings in their common resonance with the attitudes Madar points out above.  Both candidates seemingly rely and thrive on a keen understanding of this acceptance of authority by Americans (it is the authority of Clinton’s technocratic credentials and ‘experience’ after all that most effectively shushes the passion and energy of Sanders supporters, describing it as ‘unrealistic’ and ‘destructive.)

Chelsea Manning was perhaps trying to save a country that isn’t angry enough, or angry at the right things, to be saved by him.