chelsea manning

Liberals And Conservatives Are Lying About Chelsea Manning, And We’re Not Here For It

On Tuesday this week, The New York Times published an error-ridden and transphobic op-ed castigating former whistle-blower and trans activist Chelsea Manning and her popularity in the progressive movement.

The thesis of the piece is that Manning committed a treasonous act that “not only jeopardized continuing missions and disrupted American diplomacy” but “also put an untold number of innocent people’s lives in danger.” Not only does author James Kirchick feel that this act of treachery means we must shun and admonish Chelsea Manning (he has previously written about how she deserves the death penalty — asking for the state sanctioned murder of trans folk, as if it didn’t happen enough already), but he also suspects that the main reason Manning is receiving progressive attention and sympathy at all is because she is a trans woman — “transgender being the liberal cause du jour.”

Kirchick’s entire piece is written in bad faith. It makes no attempt to humanize, understand or contextualize Chelsea Manning, or her actions. Manning discovered classified information that exposed flagrant U.S. violation of war crimes. She was responsible for making public the famous ‘collateral murder’ video, which depicted the slaughter of civilians by U.S. military forces in Baghdad, including two Reuters journalists, and two children. (The video also depicted the attacking flight pilots saying, impatiently, “Come on, let us shoot,” before verifying the presence of civilians, and later shrugging off the injured children with: “Well it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”) Manning’s leaks also revealed the possible mass murder of over 60,000 civilians in Iraq, including “people with mental illnesses, pregnant women, and people rushing sick relatives to a hospital,” as well as U.S. orders to not investigate torture. All of these acts constituted “war crimes under the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Field Manual.” Manning’s actions came only after she had already tried to go through authorized channels, going up her chain of command and asking them to investigate, but was refused.

What is stunning about Kirchick’s piece is that his claim — that Manning’s actions endangered lives — is blatantly, and provably, false. Brigadier general Robert Carr, who was a witness for the prosecution in Manning’s trial and the head of the Information Review Task Force that investigated the impact of WikiLeaks, testified under oath that “no instances were ever found of any individual killed by enemy forces as a result of having been named in the releases.” In the three years since, various sources have further clarified that not a single civilian, soldier or spy have been harmed as a result of her actions. In fact, not only did Manning not endanger lives, but she may have actually saved them — as Majorie Cohn, a law school professor, writes for Huffington Post, “After WikiLeaks published her documentation of Iraqi torture centers established by the United States, the Iraqi government refused Obama’s request to extend immunity to U.S. soldiers who commit criminal and civil offenses there. As a result, Obama had to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.” To add to this, not a single document declassified by Chelsea Manning even had “top secret” status. The idea that Chelsea Manning endangered lives is not only rooted in fantasy, but also in a framework where only white lives matter and the exposure and halting of American torture and slaughter of brown bodies has no value at all.

Even the fact that Manning was convicted offers slim proof of actual wrongdoing. Manning was, firstly, acquitted of ‘aiding the enemy.’ Even though it sounds serious to say that Manning violated the Espionage Act, the reality is that Manning’s conviction came under a law that has been attacked by international human rights organizations, both for the low bar under which the laws allow prosecution and the fact that Manning was afforded no “public interest defense.” As Human Rights Watch argued, “under the Espionage Act, the prosecution is not required to prove that a leak actually harmed national security, nor are those accused allowed to argue in their defense that their actions were in the public interest. The result violates both the right to free expression and the public’s right to access to information; it also places those who would publicly expose wrongdoing on national security issues in fear that they will have no defense if criminally charged.” At the time, domestic and international civil liberties organizations widely condemned her sentence.

All of this is only scratching the surface of Kirchick’s false and dehumanizing narrative. Kirchick displays astonishment at Manning’s popularity as the “moral conscience of our time,” citing her Twitter as filled with “blithe, emoji-laden missives” that “read like the doodles of a freshman peace studies major.” This popularity, Kirchick concludes, must be because she is trans — completely ignoring Manning’s history as a trans activist from prison, or her prolific, thoughtful and politically astute writing as a Guardian columnist. His column completely discredits her suffering, her intelligence, her eloquence, her perseverance and her humanity as possible reasons that progressives admire her. He uncharitably pans her ability to oppose the ban on transgender people in the military and oppose the military and police state at the same time — despite the fact that scores of progressives have written about how it is possible to reconcile an opposition to the transgender military ban and to American military imperialism at the same time. To Kirchick, Manning is simply a naive, inconsistent, inarticulate traitor — an astonishingly blind and bigoted view to anyone who has even been exposed to a sliver of Chelsea Manning’s political work and accomplishments.

Not only is Chelsea’s popularity not some kind of uncritical trans worship, but she has also been a victim of persistent transphobia. Even leaving aside the hateful and blatant bigotry she gets from Twitter trolls misgendering and deadnaming her on a daily basis, Chelsea’s actions faced far graver consequences than any other whistleblower in American history — including Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, who in fact did leak documents classified as ‘top secret.’ (It is worth noting here that trans people face disproportionately high incarceration rates relative to the general population, and face unique challenges within the criminal justice system).  Chelsea’s trans status also led to hyper scrutiny of her actions as motivated by sexual perversion instead of political activism during her trial. While Edward Snowden and Julian Assange got multiple films made about them, Chelsea suffered from relative lack of coverage or sympathy until her commutation exploded her in the public light — and this had a lot to do with anti-trans bigotry.

The problem with Kirchick’s articles are many. But the worse problem of them all might be the way in which his falsehood-riddled piece is fodder for both conservatives and liberals to unite in decrying Manning. Last week, when Manning criticized centrist darling Kamala Harris (who opposed her pardon) on Twitter, many liberals turned on her, using the same narrative of treachery Kirchick is seeking to sow. One liberal Twitter user claimed she ‘regretted supporting Obama letting [Chelsea] go now,” while another user — under the handle “JustAnotherResister” and a bio claiming to “never submit to White Supremacy” (except the kind perpetrated by American troops against brown bodies in the Middle East, presumably) — reminded Chelsea it wasn’t about her, but about America. Others — with similar #Resistance hashtags in their bios — reminded her she had “committed a serious crime” (and therefore wasn’t, as an ex-incarcerated trans woman, allowed public commentary on political issues) and was a “traitor who should still be in prison” (because we need more trans folk in jail). Liberal favorite MSNBC commentator Joy Ann Reid jumped on the bandwagon too, and went on a “bizarre transphobic tirade” against Manning the other week, using “trans people aren’t mentally sound” rhetoric as an explanation for Manning’s  actions.

Indeed, it is a matter of staggering hypocrisy when it seems that the same liberals who would claim any criticism of Harris or Hillary Clinton has to be rooted in sexism will choose to ignore how much their criticism of Manning could be rooted in transphobia and parochialism. There is a dangerous Democrat and Republican — far-right and liberal — collusion to demonize Chelsea Manning, and it comes from a toxic mixture of jingoism, American imperialism and transphobia. In the wake of Trump’s disgusting misgendering of Manning, it is worth remembering how much liberal collusion bolsters Trump’s rhetoric.

Chelsea Manning is an activist and a hero. It is critically important to fight back against the mythology, falsehoods and bipartisan, imperialist warmongering machine that would claim otherwise.

Header image via Inez and Vinoodh for The New York Times.


Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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