Friday, April 5, 2013

Calling the Critics Crazy: South Africa, Berkeley, and Bradley Manning

On Thursday in the South African history course for which I teach discussion sections, I showed Walter Cronkite’s 1987 documentary, Children of Apartheid, a deeply moving set of interviews with children and young people across various sectors of South Africa’s highly fractured society. 

There was no shortage of jarring or memorable moments captured on camera in the course of interviews with black, white and coloured youth ranging in age from ten to twenty-seven, but one of the moments that stood out most to me was the juxtaposition of two prominent daughters of apartheid.  Cronkite spoke with the daughters of Nelson Mandela (then imprisoned on Robben Island) and P W Botha (the State President of South Africa).  Both were twenty-seven years of age. 

The former was an eloquent, thoughtful young woman who provided clear-eyed analysis of the moral contradictions of the apartheid system, and moving testimony about her own upbringing—thanks to first the activism of her parents, and then her own—had been shaped by its social engineering.  The latter came across as a ditsy socialite, utterly uncurious and unfathomably unaware, claiming that any South African, black or white, could come up to her father and speak their mind to him.  That might have been the most laughable of Botha’s utterances, but the one that left me thinking the most came when Cronkite asked her about the activism of black students on the streets.  “You don’t need to shout slogans and wave banners and carry on line a madman”, she said, exasperatedly.

There are plenty of problems with that sentence, but it was the “madman” that caught my ear...the idea that those protesting a system which transformed them into second-class non-citizens were somehow addled.

I was reminded of a different version of the same rhetoric.  It came a few years ago on Berkeley’s campus, at a time when students were facing regular 10-20% tuition increases.  A group of students got onto the balcony of Wheeler Hall one evening and chained themselves to the railings in protest, also occupying a classroom on an upper floor.  That night, probably upwards of a thousand students gathered to show our support outside the building which was surrounded by hundreds of police.  UC Berkeley’s administration (which in the course of a different protest had referred to demonstrators as “a health and safety issue”...I treasure these rhetorical gems from our outgoing Chancellor who combines the eloquence of George W Bush with the competence of, well, George W Bush) called up a university psychologist to reason with the students.

Now call me crazy, but that was a move both insulting and telling.  Insulting because it suggests that the students were somehow irrational in their actions, and that they were not speaking out against concrete social and economic policies with which they disagreed strongly.  And telling because it is a move which plays into the perception that good citizens toe the line and don’t ask questions, whereas those who rock the boat are dangerous outliers.

I don’t know whether in this case the decision to delegitimize the protestors by calling their rationality into question was a deliberate strategy of campus administrators.  On the one hand they seem too disorganised to have developed a comprehensive strategy, and I believe that some of them labour under the delusion that they genuinely know students’ interests better than those students do themselves.  On the other hand, they have spent massive sums of money hiring dozens of six-figure consultants over the past several years, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of those were charged with working out how to contain student discontent.


But there is little doubt that there was a deliberately orchestrated campaign to call into question the sanity of another of our society’s victims—Bradley Manning, the soldier responsible for leaking documents exposing the inner workings of our national security apparatus to the public.  Once it became known that Manning was responsible for the leak, the government set about defaming the young soldier.  President Obama permitted his administration to use Manning’s sexuality as a way of undermining the soldier.  The administration and the military also went after Manning’s sanity.

By all accounts, Manning struggled in the military, exhibiting signs of breakdown, something probably very common amongst men and women serving an institution known for creating conditions ripe for abuse, humiliation, and violence.  By questioning Manning’s sanity before he had even been charged with anything, the administration and the military not only prejudiced any justice Manning might ever receive at the hands of the self-serving U.S. military, but created a kangaroo court in the public sphere designed to distract attention from the substance of the wikileaks revelations and the character of Manning’s actions. 

And then, as though bent on re-writing reality, these authorities proceeded to do everything in their power to drive him crazy.  They treated this young man—who exposed immorality, incompetence, hypocrisy, criminality, and the treacherous activities of our government—in the same way they would someone plotting to bomb an American city.  Our government detained him, isolated him, humiliated him, drugged him, interrogated him, and, by its own sometime standards, tortured him.

Manning, whose sin was to help the Obama administration fulfil its since-abandoned hollow pledge to become the most open and transparent administration in history, was turned into a public enemy number-one.  He and Wikileaks became the subject of extraordinary vitriol emanating from Hillary Clinton’s State Department, Congress, and the Pentagon.  He was called a traitor.  Manning has not attempted to duck responsibility for his actions, and accepted guilt for, among other things, “having possessed and wilfully communicated to an unauthorised person all the main elements of the Wikileaks disclosure”.  But he contends that he is not guilty of “aiding the enemy”. 

In his recent testimony, Manning expressed his hope that “detailed analysis of the [leaked] data over a long period of time by different sectors of society might cause society to re-evaluate the need or even the desire to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the effected environment everyday”.  As he examined the intelligence cables, he became “fascinated with the way that we dealt with other nations and organizations.  I also began to think the documented backdoor deals and seemingly criminal activity that didn’t seem characteristic of the de facto leader of the free world”.  Those do not sound like the machinations of a sinister traitor plotting to bring our country down.  In fact, they sound more thoughtful and logical than the slack-jawed, idle-minded approach to international affairs taken by our President or his predecessor.

Now there was a time in our history when whistleblowers were heroes.  Journalists who documented the abuse of power by a president were feted, and tobacco industry employees who exposed the appalling machinations of their companies were praised.   

In truth, Manning did exactly what we ostensibly expect of good citizens.  An idealistic young man, he joined the military to serve his country and further his studies.  In a harrowing place in harrowing conditions, he identified a problem, he witnessed moral wrongs.  And instead of emulating most of those around him who buried their heads in the sand, or who looked without seeing, or laughed and played along, he acted.  He took the initiative to right what in his view was a wrong.  He decided that the public interest transcended the narrow interest of our national security and foreign policy elite.  He took the apparently very novel view that people have a right to know what their government does in their name, and that an informed public is a good thing.

Is that crazy?

No comments:

Post a Comment