Manning, Empire, and the Politics of Pathologization

By Brandon Kemp

Chelsea-Manning-She2.jpgDuring the recent sentencing hearing of Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning), U.S. military prosecutor Joe Morrow referred to her role in leaking classified military documents to the public as “crimes that undermine the entire system.” In a sense, Morrow was not too far from the mark. Of course, acts of conscience directed against illegal wars, human atrocities, and official cover-ups are “crimes” only in a deeply criminal capitalist system. But he is right insofar as it’s true that the entire bloodbath that is the imperial spectacle, to say nothing of its gendered underpinnings, has in a sense been put on trial since WikiLeaks and Private Manning’s subsequent decision to out herself as a trans woman, an act of bravery of a different but arguably related kind.

Many of us remember, for instance, when in 2010, the pro-government-transparency group released video footage, along with supporting documents, highlighting a particularly disconcerting case of U.S. military abuse and its subsequent cover up in Iraq. Provocatively — though not hyperbolically — entitled “Collateral Murder,” it has since garnered over 14 million views on YouTube. In it, a 2007 U.S. Apache helicopter team spots a group of people in a public square in Eastern Baghdad and, rashly and mistakenly presuming them to be armed insurgents, rains fire down upon innocent civilians. Nearby individuals rush to their aid, only to be fired upon as well. Among the dead and wounded are young children and reporters (“It’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle,” one team member remarks, forgetting that there was no “battle” prior to his unit’s engagement). Official U.S. reports at the time had listed the adults killed in this massacre as insurgents and denied any knowledge of the circumstances leading to their deaths.

But, of course, this was not all. Other suppressed incidents involving innocent Iraqis gunned down at checkpoints also emerged. Cables from the war in Afghanistan detailed coalition forces’ alleged role in killing at least 195 civilians in other unreported (or misreported) cases. The U.S. was revealed to be supporting a dictatorial government in Tunisia about whose internal corruption it harbored no illusions; former Yemeni President Saleh Ali reportedly told General Petraeus, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,”  concerning a secretive (because otherwise deeply unpopular) series of counterterrorism bombings in his home country. American spying on allies and top U.N. officials earned the U.S. government round condemnation from even its most ardent supporters. The list goes on, demonstrating that when it comes to neo-colonialism, indiscriminate bloodshed and government-sanctioned misinformation are frequently more the rule than the exception.

Despite widespread discontent over this status quo in which crucial social services can be cut to pay for criminal wars that profit arms developers, big oil companies, and military contractors at the expense of the vast majority of working people both at home and abroad, the corporate media have consistently shown that they are more interested in psychoanalyzing Manning than in critically discussing the human tolls of militarism and the forms of state secrecy upon which it depends. This is nothing new. Radicals — those who get down to the root of social and political ills — have always been subject to smear campaigns, and queer people are no strangers to accusations of psychological, libidinal, and emotional “imbalance.” While the controversial Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973, and the fifth and most recent edition eliminates the odious phrase “gender identity disorder” from its lexicon, in mainstream society heterosexual desire and identification with assigned gender and sexual binaries — social categories that divide people into masculine/feminine and male/female pairings, respectively — remain the “neutral” or default positions. The rest of us are marked as “abnormal,” anomalous, or even dangerous.

Sadly, Manning’s treatment by the mainstream press illustrates these trends all too well. Even before her disclosure of her status as a trans woman, the press was honing in on Manning as a well-intentioned but “naïve” whistleblower with “gender identification issues” (“issues,” of course, being a perennial euphemism for psychological troubles). Attention was drawn to the severe stress inflicted upon Manning by the hyper-masculine environment of the military and the crushing burden of secrecy — both very real concerns, but ones which often do more to conceal than elucidate the more salient linkages between Manning’s queerness/trans status and her involvement in disclosing the worst excesses of the capitalist war machine.

After all, by painting Manning as a psychologically delicate figure incapable of understanding the full significance of her actions, the mainstream media and, to an extent, her own defense team largely succeeded in driving home the message that only someone who is “not well” could possibly undermine the military-industrial complex, and its attendant culture of secrecy, in so radical a way. For, once it can be safely assumed that Manning represents a truly pathological subject incapable of speaking on her own behalf, her actions can be construed as no more than the excessive acting out of an ill or troubled individual. They can be, in other words, depoliticized. It’s in these terms that we ought to read the reactions of “respectable” journals of opinion to her latest revelation about her gender identity.

One New York Times article, for instance, consistently misgenders Manning even as it discloses her express wishes to be referred to by feminine pronouns, patiently explaining to its readers the meaning of “gender identity disorder” or “gender dysphoria” as a state of psychological discomfiture with one’s sex — in short, as a sort of inexplicable rejection of the commonsense. Never mind the impressive strides made by scholars like Judith Butler, Thomas Laqueur, and Anne Fausto-Sterling in demonstrating that sex, far from being a natural “given,” is largely a social and cultural construction. Even the Washington Post’s article on the pronoun controversy refuses to honor Manning’s request that “you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun” and thus implicitly denies Manning the minimal interpretative agency accorded to mentally balanced — that is, non-queer, politically docile — individuals.

We on the Left must be on guard against this sort of deployment of psychiatric and anti-queer language as part of a larger strategy to undermine the moral, intellectual, and political integrity of dissidents by writing off their actions as mere expressions of a disturbed personality. Such accusations never occur in a vacuum. Systems of sexual and gender oppression have long kept a diverse international working class from effectively uniting to challenge the power of the capitalist state and win reforms that empower the 99 percent (wherever its members reside). If we are to do just that, we must first be able to recognize and challenge the logic of class, racial, gender, and sexual domination at work in our society and communities. In this case, it means recognizing that these latest attempts to discredit, silence, and pathologize Manning, far from just being isolated cases of editorial insensitivity, effectively represent nothing less than the mobilization of the worst forces of transphobia and anti-queer bigotry in the service of empire.

Brandon_Kemp_copy.jpgBrandon Kemp is a founder of the YDS chapter at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.