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?

Heloise and Abelard

Justice, Media, The Life of the Mind, War and Politics

Partly because he was a good sport in the comments, but mostly because I can’t turn down an opportunity to take potshots at psychology, I want to say a few things about Joseph Isenberg’s comment on my recent Bradley Manning post. Post here. Comment here.

1. Trans. Ishun?

I never did drag, but one year I went to the Oberlin College Drag Ball as Hegemonica Preshun. Get it? Anyway, what? Oh. I’m going to use the masculine pronoun to refer to Manning. That’s probably wrong, but I want this to be easy to read. Apologies in advance.

It does indeed seem clear enough that Manning was troubled when he began to believe that he was transgender. A lot of his interlocutors, both supporters and oppressors, read into this some sort of grievous psychic trauma and mental break. “Troubled” is the euphemism either way.

But if we’re honest with ourselves in our own personal recollections, we recall that we experienced all sorts of developments in our persons and personalities as agonizing and troubling and traumatic, especially in our adolescence, which Manning was barely out of, if out of at all. Adolescence and young adulthood are a ceaseless, battering storm of psychic catastrophe . . . to adolescencents and young adults.

In fact, what’s remarkable about Manning is how swiftly he moved from the sense of world-ending dread in his realization to mature acceptance, from gloom to planning the surgeries and picking a new name. This occurred over a period of months while deployed in a war zone, while engaging, allegedly, in a massive act of heroic disobedience. What this suggests is not a “troubled,” depressed, immature, confused, ravaged young man, but rather a young man of extraordinary poise and self-possession–a person who over the course of just a few months in the most trying of conditions could come to a reasoned conclusion about altering one of the two or three characteristics that the broader society considers the most fundamental and unchangeable of your character and your being.

None of this is to say that Manning didn’t experience doubt, anxiety, fear, frustration, depression, and dread. He did, and he says so candidly. But we all experience doubt, anxiety, fear, frustration, depression, and dread. We experience them all in much less trying circumstances. We’re just worried that the boss might check up on our progress on that sales report, or whatever, or that our boyfriends are spending a little too much time on grindr “just to laugh at the profiles.”

What distinguishes Manning is not his self-doubt, but his self-possession.

2. ASL? Into?; or, The Anonymizing Influence of the Barcelona Chair

Because I grew up in the great flowering era of the chatroom and cut my fag teeth on mIRC back when AOL M4M was as distant as Skynet, I can’t understand the astonished commentary that springs up around the fact that Manning made a “tortured confession” to some dude on AIM, or whatever. I am sure I made many tortured confessions to any number of fat weirdos and priests and pic collectors posing as cuteboi81. If Manning had made his confession to some shrink he’d never met before, would that be so weird? Why? What about the transactional nature of that relationship makes the act of confession less absurd? They’re based on the same principle: it’s often easier to talk to a stranger, to confess through the lattice to the robed and hooded man.

And anyway, Lamo wasn’t a stranger. You’re buying into a pretense! You’re falling for the same con that ultimately snagged Bradley Manning. Forget your anachronistic feelings that These Kids Today and Their Instragrams do not have real friendships. Online relationships are real. They’re just epistolary. Manning considered Lamo a friend. Forget all that “I can’t believe I’m telling this to a stranger” shit. You just don’t understand how young gay dudes flirt and interact online. They’d chatted, flirted, got acquainted, talked about all sorts of things. It wasn’t anonymous at all.

Except that Lamo was a liar and a con man. If Manning were just some dude and a talented con man had insinuated himself into his life in order to rip him off, would you blame Manning for trusting someone anonymous? Of course you wouldn’t. You might suggest that he’d have to learn some hard lessons about trust, but you’d blame Lamo, the perpetrator of the deception, and you certainly wouldn’t read some kind of psychopathology into the nice, trusting young kid who got taken in by the scammer.

3. Yeah, But His History of Depression, Dude

When I hear the word depression, I reach for the nearest beverage in order to do a spit take. Was Manning depressed? Probably. But the DSM is next to the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the US Code in its titanic indifference to that which is actually human.

If every human behavior is the end outcome of some diagnosable disorder, then we are automatons. Do depressed people lack moral agency? Does “gender dysporhia” attack conscience along with cock and cunt?

As soon as some supposed mental illness enters the picture, sentience gives way to subroutine, and suddenly the great mystery of the human mind becomes a flawed decision tree diagram. People’s straightforward actions are imbued with a weird moral laxness; their convictions are suddenly “complicated”; their simple story suddenly not the “whole story,” and their motives suddenly in question.

Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon

Media, War and Politics

Some shitty blogger once said:

Whenever and wherever a human does something of which the Times is not certain it approves, the grey lady turns to psychology, like an eleventh-grader with a collection of Capote stories and a looming term paper deadline . . . Gay computer-nerd loser is the pathology, and revealed government secrets is how it presents clinically.

It was unfair of him to single out the Grey Lady. The old girl isn’t the only one. All media must now report that Manning suffered from crippling gender dysmorphia and GAY SEX CONFUSION, the two leading causes of Opposing US Military Action Abroad, a confusing syndrome for which there is currently no known cure nor effective prophylaxis.

So you find documentary filmmaker (I submit to you, BTW, this is the single most insufferable noun phrase modifier in the Queen’s tongue) Alex Gibney, in the course of discussing his new Wikileaks documentary, proposing:

The initial presentation of the story was that Bradley Manning was a pure political figure, like a Daniel Ellsberg. I don’t think that’s a sufficient explanation of why he did what he did. I think he was alienated; he was in agony personally over a number of issues. He was lonely and very needy. And I think he had an identity crisis. He had this idea that he was in the wrong body and wanted to become a woman, and these issues are not just prurient. I think it raises big issues about who whistleblowers are, because they are alienated people who don’t get along with people around them, which motivates them to do what they do. To understand Bradley and all his humanity seemed terribly important in this film.

“To understand Bradley and all his humanity,” you need to grok that he was a fucking weirdo who wanted to cut off his own johnson.

It’s only lately occurred to me that straights must experience their own sexuality as an absolutely crippling psychic nightmare, a torturous, imprisoning dream from which the dreamer cannot awake. Nothing else explains their readiness, their eagerness, to discover in gays or trans people or whomever a dark well of self-hatred and disgust which can only be overcome by the eventual transformation-via-habituation of their families into models of tolerance and understanding and the cheerful evolution of the President Himself into an oratorical Stonewall namechecker.

In the Manning/Lamo chat logs, Manning says matter-of-factly that it was “easy” to figure out that he was gay, although he took a lot of shit for it in school and from his family. And though he agonizes about gender transition, his agony is practical. “I wish it were as simple as ‘hey, go transition’,” he says. His problem, such as it is, is that he revealed that he was trans to his military employers, and he is stranded in “limbo,” awaiting “outprocessing.”

Manning’s own self-accounting of his dissent, what we know of it, is “pure[ly] political . . . like Daniel Ellsberg,” and unrelated to his desire to transition. Conflating his sex and gender with his dissenting acts is pure projection on the part of a condescending hetero who can’t imagine a queer person as anything other than a protean, inchoate shitpile of doubt and contradiction whose only outlet is adolescent acting-out.

Gibney’s “terribly important” desire to “understand Bradley and all his humanity” reduces Manning to the crudest gay caricature: young, confused, weak-willed, emotional . . . my god, practically a woman.