2011-07-04 The Homophobic Smear of Bradley Manning

ImageA recent article by Steve Fishman in New York Magazine trots out more salacious gossip about Bradley Manning's sexuality, in what is now a sustained media campaign to discredit the military whistleblower. On foot of the Fishman article, WL Central examines the more insidious aspects of this trend.

Bradley Manning's sexuality is irrelevant. For anyone who has read the logs purporting to document his confession, his professed motives were plain. If he is guilty of blowing the whistle, he clearly blew the whistle on conscientious grounds. His sexual identity is irrelevant to this. If he did not blow the whistle, his sexuality is equally irrelevant.

His sexuality is irrelevant, but what is becoming relevant is how assiduously the press have focused on it. The issue has become seperate from the story of Manning's alleged involvement with Wikileaks. Since Ginger Thomson's Bradley Manning piece in August last year, mainstream media coverage of the issue has created and reinforced an alternative history of the Manning case, wherein his actions were the pathological outcome of a deeply psychologically troubled individual, recklessly breaking protocol in a fit of indulgent self-realization.

The cornerstone of this effort to discredit Manning has been a relentless appeal to homophobia and prejudice. Over and over again, details of Bradley Manning's sexuality have been sequenced into purportedly neutral accounts of his case, as if they spoke for themselves. They do not speak for themselves. They are not clearly newsworthy. Their presence in these reports would be inexplicable, except that they are clearly intended to supply a narrative, stringing together otherwise factual content to create a story where Manning's higher motivations are completely eclipsed.

There is nothing sordid about homosexuality. This needn't be clarified. But what is interesting about the coverage given to Bradley Manning's sexuality is we are plainly intended to find the details sordid. So, for instance, in support of the idea that Bradley Manning is unusual and weird we are treated, in The Guardian, to anecdotes graphically describing him slow-dancing with a boyfriend:

When I first saw Brad he was at a school dance dancing with his then boyfriend. I had not met either of them in person but I knew who they were from the internet. And they were in the middle of the dancefloor... just right in front of everyone... not off to the side or anything... they were dancing extremely... close. It was... uh... I wouldn't say ostentatious, but it was... kind of exaggerated dancing. And very... hot.
The Guardian - "The Madness of Bradley Manning"

It is not unusual for people to perform such activities with their sexual partners. The opposite, in fact. This is normal and healthy. But the only possible reason for including this piece here is to draw attention to itself, to signal to the "normal" readers that Manning is deviant and odd. Readers are expected to feel a sense of revulsion which makes it more difficult to identify with Manning, thereby sewing up the story, and precluding further investigation. The anecdote simply doesn't have a place here except as a signal that this innocuous display of public affection between two lovers is not innocuous at all, but is abnormal and deviant.

Likewise with the reference, in the recent Steve Fishman New York Magazine piece, to how Manning was considering a sex-change. It is surely consistent with any proper construal of personal liberty that what a person wants to do with their body is their own business. A fair minded individual would realize that there is no valid inference from a fact like this to the idea that there is something wrong with a person. This piece of information was included, however, in order to trade on a widely shared - but utterly unfair - perception of transgendered individuals as deeply troubled people. The comment itself was sourced from a gender counselor, apparently flouting the gravest confidence a counselor is ever given, and making him or herself signally complicit in the tacit marginalization of LGBT people. Together with other illegitimate disclosures by this anonymous health practitioner, Fishman uses Manning's alleged gender identity to carefully insinuate that the whistleblower was psychologically unstable.

Another popular insinuation is that Manning's alleged actions were carried out as a symbolic revenge for the injustices of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the wider injustices of a cruel world that just didn't want Bradley Manning in it. Ginger Thomson's notorious piece from last August led the way with this, dutifully deploying references to the DADT policy as she profiled the soldier as a troubled gay loner, and omitting entirely any reference to his higher level motivations, so that his background and alleged infirmity of character were implied as causative of his actions. More recently, PBS Frontline reinforced this narrative, by publishing Manning's facebook page in annotated format. The facebook page is unexceptional as a facebook page, documenting the soldier's personal life and interests. For want of something to call news, PBS chose to draw attention to indications of Manning's homosexuality, as if gays were a mystifying alien species, with esoteric tastes and motivations. The private breakup of a gay relationship is highlighted and timelined as if it had keen public interest value, and Manning's understandable (and by no means exclusive to gay people) interest in Proposition 8 and DADT news is treated as if it were some obscure clue as to why he had chosen to leak evidence that, among other things, the US military was complicit in the torture and murder of Iraqi civilians. PBS Frontline's subsequent documentary "The Private Life of Bradley Manning" compounds this mistake.

That to be homosexual is to be congenitally weak and helpless is another falsehood to which appeal has been made in Manning coverage. As has been described elsewhere there is a towering irony in the fact that Manning's alleged decision to risk his life and liberty to expose systematic wrongdoing is portrayed as a failure of courage on his part. "Manning... wasn't built for this war," observes Fishman. Apparently, we are expected to share in the valorization of those whose "courage" stretches to putting aside morality, while Manning's alleged sacrifice is evidence of squeamishness. Fishman clearly considers Manning's sexuality as fodder for the easy and hackneyed narrative of the effeminate outcast, and moves freely back and forth between discussion of Manning's queerness, how physically slight he is, and how his alleged conscientious whistleblowing was instead a sort of compensation for how powerless he was 'in the real world.' Various psychological episodes Manning had are presented as the consequence of his frailty. We should instead consider whether we ought not to expect that someone who has chosen to face capital penalties, and struggled against extraordinary peer pressure, institutional conformity and intimidation in order to do the right thing, might, at some point, succumb to stress and anxiety. And in fact, these symptoms are well documented amongst whistleblowers.

Low flying planes could have seen that kid wasn't suitable. I do not understand the justification or what excuses they had to keep him around. I mean, he was a rat, a complete rat. And this is for a boy who's pissing his pants and curled up in a foetal position on his bunk, and constantly......... you know....... screaming.
The Guardian - "The Madness of Bradley Manning"

The Guardian, too, in its documentary, happily conflates fragility and homosexuality. The quote above is from an anonymous military colleague of Manning, whose face has been digitally blacked out. His is but one of a series of anecdotes which invites the viewer to identify with the military view that Manning was an anomaly. Viewers should instead be wary of who they find at their shoulders when they settle comfortably into the moral majority here, on the invitation of the 'liberal media'. Militaries - and the US military is no exception - systematize and institutionalize hierarchical violence and abuse, misogyny and homophobia in order to ensure unconditional obedience. We now find on the back of this undeniable evidence for what we already knew - that the US military is also responsible for the commission and cover-up of criminal activity. The anonymous comments are so spiteful and given such pride of place here that it is difficult not to get the impression that we are being asked by the Guardian filmmakers to believe that Manning was so wretchedly weak that he in fact deserved to be brutalized.

An environment like this is not an environment in which an individual is to be commended for 'fitting in.' It is not moral weakness that debilitates a person in such an environment. Moral weakness is a prerequisite for complicity in systematic wrongdoing. Moral weakness is the perfect way to fit in. Those who are not morally weak in a setting like this are far more likely to be targeted for brutal institutional suppression, as we find Manning was. But coverage of the bullying Manning received in the army assumes - as in fact all bullies do - that Manning was victimized because he must have been weak. As if to confirm this - and it can be intended to do nothing else - details of how exceptionally and notably gay Manning is are carefully inserted by the Guardian. It is clearly intended that viewers freely conflate homosexuality and moral, physical and intellectual cowardice. But this is just bigotry, plain and simple, and we all have a duty, when presented with disguised hate speech like this, to examine it closely and to refuse to make the lazy inferences we are being asked to make.

It is lamentable, but not surprising, that civil society at large still harbours ugly prejudices about sexuality. While political correctness ensures that most people will profess tolerance and open-mindedness, this is often the product of the tabooization of blatantly prejudiced expression on the subject of sexuality. Most people understand that open expression of hatred for gay people will earn them opprobrium. But this does not mean that everyone has outgrown these primitive and seedy habits of thinking. By and large, so long as the situation affords everyone better liberty in their personal lives, it is to be preferred to the former situation, where bigotry was socially acceptable. But even suppressed prejudices can be manipulated, and where this has negative real world consequences, as it does here, it is odious. Analysis of the virulence of Birther conspiracies correctly identified how subliminal racism can still be harnassed, though it dare not speak its name. That latent homophobia similarly persists even beneath the facade of political correctness is - again - lamentable, but it is not surprising.

What is surprising is that we find the 'liberal media' transparently and relentlessly appealing to these same prejudices, effectively conducting a coordinated smear campaign. Why, while masquerading as a moderate news outlet, is the 'liberal, left-leaning' Guardian engaging in crypto-hate speech, thereby marginalizing and discrediting an alleged public interest whistleblower? Why do we find in the New York Times or New York Magazine so brazen an appeal to latent homophobic prejudice, while Manning's credible public interest motives are suppressed or dismissed? Why, behind the veil of "balance," does PBS Frontline so zealously concentrate on irrelevant gossip about the sex life of Bradley Manning?

The answer, sadly, is that there is no great conspiracy. While the personal prejudices and political biases of journalists and editors will no doubt play a part in this, it is no accident that "sexing up" is a euphemism for making a piece of reportage more interesting. Sex sells, and the salacious details of the sex life and gender identity of an alleged whistleblower are probably the best way to move the largest number of units with this story, which otherwise deals with sober and inconsequential things, like justice, human rights, and the abuses of state and military power. This, and the melancholy fact that there is a populist appeal to a story that takes an exemplar of moral fortitude, and alleges that his actions spring from sexual proclivities, rather than adherence to principles. A hero, after all, is an embarrassment to those with less elevated motives, and Bradley Manning would not be the first person whose actions so clearly implied our own shame that it became necessary to destroy him, whether that means putting him in a box for the rest of his life, or smearing him in the 'liberal media' as just some effeminate and contemptible queer who had no idea what he was doing.