More Sinned Against than Manning

Culture, Justice, Religion, War and Politics

We all knew that the conviction of Bradley Manning was a fait accompli before the trial began, and the government’s petty and vindictive rejection of his plea offer only certified that the amoral keepers of order, beginning with the President himself, considered this sinful spectacle of vengeful formality a necessary bit of instruction, pour décourager les autres. I use the word sinful advisedly. The fact that the government went through with the trial indicates how truly despicable the powerful become when they’ve been embarrassed, how small they are, and how distant from what is good.

You know, I joined Twitter because I wrote a novel and it seemed wise to weasel my way into a few more online forums in anticipation of its publication, but I’ve been gratified to make some interesting new friends and acquaintances, several of whom are devout Christians. I’m not religious in any practical sense of the word, but I’ve always been conservative by temperament, however radical my politics, and although I’m no more inclined to believe that Yahweh is real than I ever was, I do find that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become both more austere in my moral judgments and more communitarian in my social thinking, habits I certainly associate with the Judaism of my youth, however wishwashy and Reform it may have been. I don’t know, this Shabbat is my brother’s Yahrtzeit, and I always get sentimental. Nevertheless, even if I don’t believe in God and feel no affinity for the concept of a god, then I do believe, abidingly, that there is such a thing as justice, and that justice is more than some dull codex of laws, fairly and blindly applied. There should be room for forgiveness, tolerance, and exigence, and when we afflict the weak and the powerless with our harshest punishments, we traduce justice and sully ourselves. The desire to punish, the eagerness to see punishment, reveals, I think, a human soul, or being, or whatever you want to call it, that secretly fears this very outcome for itself—trial, judgment, and punishment for its sins.

The government tortured Bradley Manning; they tried, literally, to drive him mad, likely in the belief that he would then give up some other participant in a concocted conspiracy. They later accused him of vanity, but is there anything more vain than powerful, paranoid men imagining their own secret persecution? Still, I want to resist the urge to let my heart break for him, because I think that he’s stronger and braver than me; had I been subjected to what he endured, I would not have endured. I doubt I’d have done what he did to draw the vicious ire of the Executive and the military to begin with, even if I’d had the opportunity. Fear would have stopped me, or malaise, or plain indifference. So it seems indulgent to offer him my pity, and instead I would offer my anger.

Manning is a prisoner of politics and conscience. As I sit on my designer (if dog-stained) couch in my pretty little row house in my lovely city wondering how much more furniture or art my ex will want to take as we dissolve the last eight years of life together, it feels vain to have any opinion, to share any sentiment at all. It feels decadent. But my god, we were twenty-three when we met! We were trawling through Pittsburgh bars and going to museum parties. We were the same age as Manning when they arrested him. And I believe that what is really decadent is to cast him as some speechless other, with whose experience and suffering I can feel no connection. I would have hit on Bradley Manning if I’d met him in a bar when I was twenty-three. I can’t help but feel. Another political little queer. The difference, of course, is that he was in the right place, or the wrong place, and he was more formidable than me.

What does the Manning case say? I won’t say mean, because what does anything mean? It says that our rulers are small and vengeful and afraid. The language of security and peril that’s come to cloak every official announcement is decadent. The hounding pursuit of those who undermine and question the imperatives of security and the reality of the peril is decadent. The hollow liturgy of a show trial is decadent. I’ve never been much of a nationalist, never felt especially inspired by America, always known that we are a nation like any other, built on bones and fairy tales as much as anything else, but I do appreciate the power of myth to model society, and this lousy episode really makes you wonder, what is our national myth? What does America have to offer itself anymore? We’ve become very adept at hurting people for nothing. I wonder: is that all?

19 thoughts on “More Sinned Against than Manning

  1. Also, thanks for writing this. It articulates my own thoughts far better than I could. I only wonder if this evil business is really a change or if, as we age, we simply become more aware of what was always true.

  2. In the past few years I’ve come to appreciate not just the power of myth, but the necessity of it for the human psyche. A great deal of what Joseph Campbell had to say really resonated with me, and I came to realize that we don’t have any myths. The whole of “Western Civilization” lacks myth. We have fairy tales and fables; things that are supposed to teach us, but no myth. Nothing to hang our hopes on.

    1. As my friend Matt observed (on a podcast where we were talking about the latest Hugh Jackman movie, of course), “America presumes to have no debt to history.” The history of America begins with the Bible, skips a few centuries to Plimoth Plantation, then ends at Iwo Jima. Watts, Vietnam, and Panama are epilogue; 9/11 is the sweeps-week cliffhanger.

    2. The centerpiece of our culture is a religion that in its present form demands to be taken literally instead of mythically. Consequently, people in this culture generally don’t know what it means to believe in something without necessarily believing it is an actual concrete entity in our reality.

      So when it comes to higher abstracts like liberty and justice, instead of seeing them as ideals to strive for, to believe in them is to say they are things that must already exist, in their purest form, in our possession. All we’re supposed to worry about are enemies seeking to steal or destroy them. If you perceive a lack of freedom in the status quo, it follows that you “don’t believe in freedom” (because if you did, wouldn’t you acknowledge it’s there?) and must be one of those enemies.

  3. I loved this piece. It’s very vivid and heartfelt.

    Interesting question about our national myth. I never paid that stuff much mind except to regard it as the facade on an abattoir. But you’re right: myths do shape society. So it’s interesting to me that so much of the shit being heaped on both Snowden and Manning is less about loyalty to country (and all the wonderful things it ostensibly stands for) as being a loyal colleague and a respectful employee generally. With Snowden, the related aspersing of jumping the line — a la great job/great house/great girlfriend/no degree — also comes into play. As myths go, it seems we’re not aiming much higher than The Shining Cube Farm on A Hill.

  4. I think our national myths are progress and society. Both are commonly held to stand apart from tangible reality as platonic ideals. Anything can be sacrificed on their behalves. Anything can be justified in those terms. The torture and show trial of Bradley Manning is on behalf of offending, imperiling national security and the security state, which is, in turn, a specific way of rendering society in political terms.

    Fuck do I know, nothing makes sense to me really. Where I come from, a bunch of people go learn how to kill, then go off to some distant place to do so. A whole mess of people are getting up every day and spending most of their waking hours collecting, collating, indexing and storing the interpersonal communications and thoughts of everybody else. Can’t make heads nor tails of this. If I come back, I think I’ll come back as a dog or a cat.

  5. Well-conceived and well-articulated, JB. You might want to (re)-read Thomas Wolfe’s (not Tom’s) “Credo” close to the end of “You Can’t Go Home Again”. It’s written in the form of a letter to the protagonist’s fictional editor Foxhall Edwards, who of course is a thinly-disguised Maxwell Perkins.

    Also, if you’re ever down in Asheville visiting the Biltmore, you might enjoy visiting the TW museum, which is housed in his Mom’s actual boarding house – one of the ones he wrote about early on.

    I say the above because I trust that you will be (are) a fine novelist, and as such, should read and respect the Credo’s of his fellows.

  6. There was a big chief, a very large man. Perhaps a monster. An ogre. He’d killed many men who vexed him and eaten not a few of them. The people in the village feared him and obeyed him. He was useful in resolving disputes at least when he himself was not a party. He seemed to keep order and definitely the other villages were afraid of him too.

    A small, queer boy, of all the people, who hated himself and his life, walked up to the man and spat in his face. The ogre crushed the life from him without a second thought.

    Dog bit man. Life in the village went on.

  7. Justice is a weird thing. It doesn’t exist in this sublunar sphere, and never has, but we keep thinking it fucking OUGHT to exist. The origin and persistence of that feeling is a great mystery. And nobody who’s involved in our national justice system believes in that system, except in freakish moments almost-but-not-quite-rare enough to be total coincidence.

    So, as a former federal criminal defense attorney: I’m actually heartened to see that they didn’t convict Manning of the most serious charge. Given all of the structural impediments, and the enormous political pressure to throw this guy into the deepest pit forever, it shows that the judge is, at least, capable of exercising some minimal amount of free thought.

    In light of that, I think it’s at least *possible* that the judge will impose concurrent sentences (meaning he serves his time simultaneously on the twelve counts that carry potentially 10 years in prison each) rather than stringing together twelve 10-year sentences consecutively, which is where the bulk of the “136 year sentence” being tossed around by the media comes from. In a normal federal court, this would be left to the judge’s discretion & bad temper, but the usual assumption is concurrent, rather than consecutive, sentences, unless the government makes a pretty strong showing that Manning deserves another 110 years somehow. (Courts-martial seem to play by different rules, and I can’t find anything directly on-point after 10 minutes of looking.)

    But part of the thing about Manning, and what I think makes him a hero, is that he had to have known this was coming. He was, in a sense, throwing his life away as an act of civil disobedience in the face of great evil. That doesn’t make it any better, and it still hurts just to think about Manning. But he’s an example of what a single, determined man of unflinching idealism can do. Whatever happens to him, he’s revealed our leaders’ character and crimes, and in an allegedly democratic society that’s an enormous achievement on behalf of the people.

  8. Really sorry to hear about your breakup, ioz. No matter what the circumstances, it always sucks.

    And may your brother be remembered for a blessing.

  9. One thing I gotta say. I think you have some very good points on Manning, but the actual, gut-level fear in the defense complex was largely legitimate, and not merely borne out of the selfish motives of the powerful. The fear came from the raw realization that somebody could just grab a whole lot of secrets, even the ones that everybody would agree are entirely legitimate secrets. So part of this fear was legitimate, and even legitimate fears have a way of causing people to lose perspective, balance, and humanity. And certainly the powerful will prey on those legitimate fears to pursue their ugly agendas.

  10. oh.. . jacob b is no longer with .. , i wonder if he is read y to come up here to read his novel aloud to me while i roll/row about on the grass/lake near .. .

  11. The sad thing is, what Manning did is precisely the meaning of justice, at least in the Greek sense – namely restoring balance after an entity has overstepped their boundaries [as with the original moiraie]. It goes to show you how little our ‘justice’ system or our society actually cares about justice. We’re stuck with the retributive crap that’s permeated our cultures for about as long as the written word.

    On a side note, sorry to hear about your relationship ending. 8 years is a long time.

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