Empire Burlesque
Dissent, Disappointment and Draconian Rule: Bradley Manning's Plea and the Fight to Be Human
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Thursday, 15 August 2013 23:01

(UPDATED BELOW)

Two points about Bradley Manning's mitigation plea, which, the Guardian tells us, "will disappoint Manning's thousands of supporters around the world, who believe he undertook a courageous act of whistleblowing because his conscience demanded it."

First point: as Arthur Silber has noted, the importance of these 'whistleblower' cases has nothing to do with the personalities involved. Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden: it doesn't matter what kind of people they are, if you think they are 'heroes' or 'bad people,' if you'd 'like to have a beer with them' or would run a mile if you saw them coming. What matters is what they have done; what matters are the fragments of truth they have made available. If the sexual charges against Assange turned out to be true, it would have no bearing whatsoever on the importance of what Wikileaks has accomplished, the fissures it has made in the bristling walls of deceit that our brutal, stupid and venal elites around the world have erected to hide their misdeeds. The same goes for Snowden, Manning, or anyone else whose actions have made similar fissures.

It's always a great temptation to succumb to the cult of celebrity, of course, to live vicariously through the snippets we happen to read here and there about some famous person, to see them as "heroes" who live out the courage or accomplishments or glamor that we can only dream of, and so on. And that's fine for a flip-through of People magazine in the check-out line. But this is serious business. The actions of these whistleblowers involve taking on the power of corrupt and murderous state structures that can and will destroy individual lives and entire nations -- structures that are wildly out of control and are devouring the very substance of human society. Actions that put a spoke of truth in the wheels of this monstrous machine are of incalculable importance. The 'character' of those who put in the spokes is of vastly minor importance.

Second point: I invite any critic of Bradley Manning's mitigation plea to stand in his shoes for two seconds and show us how 'tough' they would be. Manning is facing a lifetime of penal servitude in a system that has already tortured him, battered him, humiliated him, abused him. He is facing the prospect of spending decades -- decades -- in a system run by people who demonstrably despise him. He will be housed with people -- and more importantly, guarded by people -- who hate 'traitors' and 'queers' and 'weirdos' and 'sissies' with a violent, virulent hatred. This is what he faces: years and years and years of it. What are you facing? If I were Bradley Manning and facing a life like that, I'm sure I’d proclaim my 'repentance' too. I'd apologize, I'd weep, I'd throw myself on the mercy of the court, if it meant I had the chance to cut some time from my sentence in hell. Does anyone really believe, even for a moment, that a blazing statement of political principle would have somehow moved the judge – the same judge who has made a relentless series of rulings cramping Manning’s defense at every turn, and ensuring that the trial was a ludicrous, sinister sham which never addressed – and was designed not to address – the substance of Manning’s action and the crimes that he revealed? What good, then, would be an empty effusion whose only purpose would be to make all of us sitting safely behind our keyboards feel all wiggly for a moment or two?

In his statement, Manning didn't name any names, sell anyone out, implicate anyone else. He tried to mitigate his own further torture -- but he didn't betray anyone. A plea for mercy, an apology -- however sincere or feigned -- is an entirely different thing from betrayal. I'm sure that at almost any point in his long, torturous captivity, Manning could have turned 'state's evidence' against Julian Assange and cut the sweetest of deals, perhaps even get a pardon or total immunity. He didn't do that. He took the entire burden on himself, went through the entire ordeal by himself -- and now he is standing there, by himself, waiting to feel the full draconian force of military law. No one else is there but him. No one else is at risk but him.

As far as I'm concerned, he can say whatever he has to say in that situation to try to mitigate the horror that is about to descend upon him. If the apologies and regrets and explanations that he is offering the court "disappoint" you, then that's just too bad. Again I say: go stand in his shoes, face what he's facing, and see what you'd do. Manning brought these truths to light; he has endured torture and captivity without betraying another living soul. If that's not 'heroic' enough for some people, if he is now to be abandoned because he's "let us down" -- like a pop star who's put out a bad record after a string of hits -- then their “dissent” must be shallow indeed.

The "disappointment" also bespeaks an historical ignorance of what life is really like in brutal systems bent on crushing all effective opposition to the ruling elite. Anna Akhmatova -- who displayed more moral courage in her lifetime than a whole stadium full of keyboard 'dissidents' -- submitted to the humiliation of writing odes to Stalin in an attempt to save her son from the ravages of the Gulag. Osip Mandelshtam -- another bold truth-teller, an ardent upholder of the "supreme value of a single human life" (Silber again) against the implacable, inhuman brutality of the state -- was forced to do likewise, in an attempt, like Manning, to mitigate a punishment he knew he could not survive. And like Manning, they did this without betraying anyone else, taking the pain and ignominy upon themselves alone. Yet the work of both helped give hope and sustenance and meaning to the lives of multitudes of people, over many decades.

Reality in such systems -- systems that have openly demonstrated their willingness to torture people, lock them up for years without trial or kill them outright at the arbitrary order of the leader and his minions -- is not a TV show, not a movie with well-marked 'character arcs' ending in triumph for the bruised but unbowed hero. It's a dirty, ugly, degrading business, an uneven fight, pitting unarmed truth against vast, implacable, dehumanizing forces of violent domination. It is a war with many bitter defeats, both outwardly and in the souls of those caught up in it. It involves loss, destruction, humiliation, torment, ruin and doubt. There are no "heroes" in it, only human beings: some of them fighting to hang on to their humanity as best they can -- and others who have surrendered their humanity to the forces of domination.

Bradley Manning doesn't have to be a "hero." He doesn't have to make a stirring speech to give people a vicarious thrill for a moment before they click over to check their Facebook page or pop in another box set. He has shown clearly that he stands on the side of humanity -- and now he is paying the price for it. The very fact of his case has revealed the true nature of the system arrayed against him, and against us.

If you can do better, go do it.

***

UPDATE: Arthur Silber has much more to say about Manning's plight and its broader implications in a powerful new essay that, as so often, lifts the analysis of the situation to new levels of insight. You should go there and read the piece in full; mere excerpts would do it, and you, a disservice.

However, I do want to quote one passage from Silber's piece which helps clarify something I wrote in my post above. When taking issue with those who expressed their 'disappointment' in Manning for his mitigation plea, for not being the 'hero' they craved, I noted that despite all of the torture he had endured -- much of it focused on breaking him and getting to denounce others, specifically Julian Assange -- he did not do so. I noted that he faced all the risks of his action, and all the unjust punishment he has received for it, alone, protecting others, taking the burden solely on himself. This, it seemed to me, matched even the most simplistic, romanticized and juvenile notion of a 'hero' that anyone can have. And as I was addressing people who seemed to be thinking in those terms, I used this fact to point that even by their own occluded lights, Manning could be regarded as a hero (if heroes you must have), and therefore their pique was childish, unworthy and wrong.

However, Silber goes further and makes a point about the situation that I fully share: that even if Manning had "rolled," the onus of that act -- and any consequences that followed from it -- would fall entirely on those who had tortured him and put him in that brutal, inhuman position. Silber makes a searing comparison to impossible situation faced by the main character in Sophie's Choice, who was forced by the Nazi guards in Auschwitz to decide which of her two children will be killed (with the proviso that both would be killed immediately if she didn't make the choice). Silber writes:

When a human being is subjected to a living nightmare in this manner, when a person is forced to endure barbaric, monstrous cruelty, when the only choice is between death and death, the concept of "choice" has been destroyed. The Nazis understood very well that the destruction of this capacity to choose in any meaningful manner, the destruction of the capacity to judge, the destruction of any measurable difference between life and death themselves, is critical to the destruction of the human being, of even the possibility of being human; the concentration camps were a laboratory in which they perfected the means of achieving this end, as Hannah Arendt has so powerfully described.

I refuse to try to "explain" Manning's statement, just as I refuse to judge it. Anything and everything Manning says, anything and everything he has said or will ever say as long as he remains in custody and in prison, constitute statements obtained through torture. As such, they are not to be credited in any manner, and they are beyond judgment. His torturers have placed Manning's actions and statements beyond judgment.

I do not want to be misunderstood on this point. Thus far, Manning has said nothing to implicate even one other person; he has certainly not cooperated with the government in the sense of turning "State's witness," to build a case against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, for example. But even if he did that, I would still refuse to judge Manning in terms of his personal character. I would view it as a terrible tragedy, especially terrible if it led to serious danger for anyone else. But I would not blame Manning himself for such an outcome. I would blame his torturers. My view would be as simple as this: Manning is being tortured, and he is trying to survive. Whatever he does is understandable, and there is nothing further to be said about it. Just as we cannot judge Sophie, we cannot judge Manning or anyone else in a similar situation.

There is much more in Silber's piece. Do go read it as soon as you can.

 
United We Fall: Our Egregious E Pluribus Unum
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Friday, 09 August 2013 14:36

Below is a version of my most recent column for the print version of Counterpunch.

***

It is a commonplace of our commentariat to say that American society is deeply divided -- indeed, perhaps more polarized than it's ever been before. Of course, this leaves out any number of emblematic events that might possibly undermine their blazing insight -- like, say, the Civil War, Haymarket, Selma, Little Rock, Watts or Kent State, to name but a very few historical instances of “polarization." But then, willful ignorance has always been the coin of our realm, the golden ticket to the circles of power -- or, for the commentariat, the fearful, bootlicking fringes of power. For these sages, history begins and ends with whatever is gurgling in the unflushed toilet of Beltway politics right here and now.

So it should come as no surprise to find that the truth about American society today is the opposite of what these cud-dripping masticators of conventional wisdom are wont to opine. Far from being a house divided, America is actually in the midst of an era characterized by remarkable unanimity. In fact, I would go so far as to say that American society has never been so united and uniform than it is today.

Yes, "hot button" issues -- centered, as always, around genital activity and gender roles -- remain heatedly contentious. Yes, the chronic, virulent racism on which our society was (literally) built continues to sicken the body politic. And yes, Tea Party trogs and NetRootsy progs still hurl insults across an ever-widening cultural abyss, each side increasingly regarding the other more as separate species than political opponents. Who can deny that our public discourse grows ever more harsh, frenzied, aggressive and stupid?

And yet, the fact remains that on those issues which truly concern our elites -- the issues on which their continued (and expanding) dominance and privilege depend -- here we find remarkable (not to say alarming) agreement across a depressingly broad swath of American society.

The Obama years have given us an America that looks something like a bad Kurt Russell movie from the 80s: a weird, garish dystopia, where the president runs a death squad out of the White House, wages robot wars in foreign lands, operates a techno-panopticon sucking up every message, musing and secret desire of the populace, and lets tens of millions of citizens sink into poverty and despair in their gutted communities and crumbling infrastructure while he doles out trillions of dollars to rapacious elites gleefully bleeding the country dry. Actually, if you tried to run this scenario past a few coked-up studio execs in those halcyon years, they would have rejected it out of hand as too unrealistic, even for a bad Kurt Russell movie. Yet this is our reality.

Add to this such things as the corporate-backed ALEC movement stifling the ability of the people’s elected representatives to pass measures on matters of vital importance to their communities, such as gun violence, pollution, collective bargaining, etc; the return of Jim Crow laws openly designed to rob the dusky races (and poor white trash) of access to the ballot box; the incarceration of a greater percentage of its own population than any regime in human history; the reckless sell-off of public services, public lands and the environment itself to frackers, venture cap vultures and other corporate profiteers; and the relentless persecution of any government employee who dares to inform the people of even a few of the sickening crimes being done in their name.

This hardly exhausts the litany of abuses, punishments and humiliations to which Americans are subjected daily. They live in a pestilent swelter of authoritarianism and militarism, of fear and insecurity, of ugliness and hopelessness that few if any generations of Americans before them have ever known. And yet …

Where are our Selmas, our Haymarkets, our Marches on Washington? Where is the anger, the outrage, the action? True, the Occupy movement blossomed for a season, and the seeds it sowed may yet bear good fruit. But for the most part, most sectors of American society have remained notably quiescent, when they have not been downright supportive. (This includes the African-American community, which today, as always, is bearing the brunt of our elites’ depredations. For more on this tragic development, see Glen Ford and his indispensible Black Agenda Report.) Congressional and media ‘liberals’ take to the airwaves to defend Obama’s Stasi-like spy ops, his death squads, his drone wars, his force-feeding torture of Guantanamo prisoners long cleared for release. They hotly condemn the ‘narcissistic’ Edward Snowden for revealing state crimes – yet happily revel in leaks that depict our noble, thoughtful president consulting Thomas Aquinas before ordering American citizens (and countless, nameless others) to be murdered without charge, trial or defense.

Every day, all across the world – and in the holy-moley Homeland itself – Obama commits and countenances crimes beyond the wildest dreams of LBJ and Richard Nixon. Every day he helps tighten the stranglehold of rampant militarism and corporate power on the lives of the people. Yet there are no riots, no uprisings, no public or institutional dissent that might trouble the complacency of our overlords.

A “divided society?” Would to god we had one. For beneath the gaudy spectacle of hot button-pushing and the scattering of a few crumbs of cultural change, a drab, grim conformity to the overarching agenda of elite power reigns supreme.

 
Hard Rain: The Progressive Principle of Collective Punishment
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Tuesday, 30 July 2013 01:32

This week, super-compassionate, deeply caring progressive David Atkins (of Hullabaloo) read a story in the New York Times about farmers in the "Deep South" suffering from ruined crops after weeks of unusually heavy rains. The farmers face economic disaster not only from the loss of this summer's crops, but also from the effects that the swampy weather is likely to have on fall crops as well. This follows last year's ravaging droughts, which also left many farmers with ruinous losses.

But super-compassionate, deeply caring progressive David Atkins doesn't give a damn about these farmers, or their families, or their communities. Why? Because he doesn't believe they are fully human. He thinks that all the people in the "Deep South" are a single undifferentiated monolithic mass -- not individual human beings with their own particular thoughts, feelings, beliefs, concerns, interests and allegiances. And he believes that this blank, subhuman entity that he calls "the Deep South" deserves to suffer.

Why? Apparently because not enough of the individuals in these states vote the way David Atkins thinks they should vote. These states -- or rather, a subset of individuals in these states which sometimes accounts for a majority of those who bother to vote, but not the actual majority of the population -- keep electing cranks who deny the existence of global climate change. (As do subsets of populations in, say, the Southwest, the West, and the Midwest.) And because of these subsets and politicians in the "Deep South," it is not only fitting that the region's farmers should suffer, but, in Atkins' weighty thought, we are also intellectually justified in condemning the entire region, collectively, without the slightest nuance or differentiation.

Atkins reads the NYT story and writes: "I wish I could make myself feel more sympathy for the plight of farmers in the Deep South, but it's difficult." He then quotes 11 paragraphs from the story detailing said plight. He finishes with this biting rhetorical flourish:

One would hope that even the Deep South wakes up and realizes that whatever ideological reasons they might have to protect the oil industry, they're not worth the cost.

The entire NYT story has 24 paragraphs. In not a single one of them is there the slightest mention allusion to the issue of global climate change one way or another. Nor a single mention of the farmers' political beliefs or ideological inclinations or scientific knowledge. Nor how they voted in any election, local, state or national. Unless Atkins has carried out some hitherto undisclosed survey of all the farmers in the "Deep South," he has absolutely no way of knowing what the farmers quoted in the story -- or any single individual farmer in the entire region -- thinks about global climate change. He has no information on this. Zero. Yet to him, they are all either vicious Tea Party types or ignorant dupes of the oil industry.

Atkins' collective denigration rests on the entirely George Zimmerman-like assumption that certain kinds of people -- kinds of people "we" don't like -- must all think and act in the same way. "They" are all "like that." A black teenager in a hoodie is always a dangerous thug; a peach farmer in Georgia (of whatever race, creed, color, political affiliation, personal history, psychological makeup or national origin) is always a reactionary ignoramus.

But wait -- that's not an entirely accurate portrayal of Atkins' stance. He doesn't just believe that farmers in the "Deep South" are dangerous cretins who are killing the planet; he clearly believes that every single person in the "Deep South" is a dangerous cretin who is killing the planet. "They" are all "like that." That is the import of what he actually says.

Consider again that stirring flourish: "One would hope that ... the Deep South wakes up and realizes, etc., etc." Not "politicians in the Deep South." Not "the vested corporate interests who buy and sell politicians in the Deep South just like they do all over the country." Not even "the majority of voters in the Deep South who keep backing politicians who won't take action on climate change." No, there is not the slightest differentiation in Atkins' thought here: it is the "Deep South" as a whole, a single entity, that needs to wake up -- and is scorned for not doing so.

Perhaps we're being unfair here. After all, as Atkins never stops reminding us, he is himself an honest-to-God working politician, a middling muckety-muck in California's Democratic Party apparatus. And no one expects a politician to be accurate, or nuanced, or even humane when they are pouring out partisan bile. So in that sense, we are wrong to hold Atkins to any kind of journalistic -- or moral -- standard. He's a party hack; subsets of the various state populations in the South support his political enemies; therefore that whole region is "bad," and everyone who lives there must pay for their sins by suffering Biblical plagues of drought and rain. In this, he is no different than the partisan hacks on the other side who glory in the ruin of Detroit or New Orleans because they don't like the politics -- and the certain kind of people -- who live there.

Global climate change is a real threat. Many millions of people in the "Deep South" -- including some farmers! -- know this. Many of them are actively working to understand and address this threat. I have personally worked with many of these people, on the issue of climate change, right there in the "Deep South," as long as 25 years ago (when I doubt climate change was even a gleam in Atkins' eyes). But Atkins doesn't know or care about these many millions of people. Even though he has made himself an ardent champion of global climate change, and preaches often about how this universal threat transcends all borders and political ideologies, he still can't refrain from using it to score partisan points against his own ideological enemies, while denigrating entire populations who happen to live within the "wrong" borders.

This is modern "progressivism" in action: compassionate, caring, open, embracing -- unless you're the wrong kind of person, living in the wrong place. Then you are ripe for collective punishment. In Atkins' case, of course, this blind, blanket "signature strike" is merely rhetorical. But in the hands of the national leader of Atkins' party, the Peace Laureate himself, the modern "progressive" principle of undifferentiated dehumanization takes on a more literal -- and far more sinister -- cast.

 
In Memoriam
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Friday, 02 August 2013 00:09

Margie Irene Atwood Floyd, November 25, 1930 – August 1, 2013

 

Mother is gone, Lord,
Just like the dawn, Lord,
Of a day that is done.
The frost of this sorrow
Won't burn off tomorrow
No matter how bright the sun

 
J'Accuse: Standing in the Ruins on the Trail of Tears
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Sunday, 28 July 2013 00:33

Here's one for all those who look on horrors and desperate needs, yet still stand paralyzed, distracted, bowing to the world; for all of us who've let someone else call the tune and tell the story -- and fight the fight.

To My Face by Chris Floyd

Everything I see condemns me for the years I've thrown away
Everything I see condemns me for the waste
Everything I see condemns me for the evil I've let stand
Everything I see condemns me to my face.....

 
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