Un-Manning; Or, Queering Bradley

Bradley Manning Trans Wig

Private First Class Chelsea (formerly Bradley) E. Manning has serious gender issues. Or so goes the story of the moment. In the wake of her statement, the question of identity (and language) has somewhat displaced that of the conviction and sentence. Another dimension in the smearing of whistleblowers, perchance. A way to denigrate and emasculate her still further, and so to reinforce the patriarchal entitlement of that shining city on the hill. Except that Manning’s sexual personhood is more contested than that.[1]

Navy Captain and psychiatrist David Moulton, according to CBC, testified that Manning’s ‘gender disorder’, amongst other things, “caused him to conclude he could change the world by leaking classified information”. But Moulton was a defence witness. Captain Steven Lim, Manning’s brigade commander, also pointed towards gender trouble, and revealed the existence of the now much-seen photo of Manning in a wig to the Fort Meade court. Again, a defence witness. Manning’s lawyers were forbidden from seeing much of the (non-)evidence against him, thanks to techniques of classification, and this surely influenced their strategy. Since they could not openly contest claims of the most traitorous harm (claims that were in the end unsubstantiated), why not try and reduce the sentence with whatever biographical resources were available? Where gender identity sometimes served as justification for the leaks, at others it was made irrelevant (to wit: “It was never an excuse because that’s not what drove his actions. What drove his actions was a strong moral compass.”). Interviewed today, David Coombs (Manning’s lawyer) again juggled his client’s personhood somewhat unsuccessfully, maintaining both that “we weren’t offering it as an excuse” but also that Manning’s gender explorations were relevant because they “happened at the same time [as the leaks and therefore] that provides context”.

Paradoxically enough, it is at times Republicans who have had to point out the shamefulness of this strategy:

Now that he prepares to stand trial, he has shown himself to be willing to sacrifice honorable gay and lesbian servicemembers to avoid responsibility. Lawyers for Manning are claiming that his struggle with his sexual orientation contributed to emotional problems that should have precluded him from working in a classified environment. This shameful defense is an offense to the tens of thousands of gay servicemembers who served honorably under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” We all served under the same law, with the same challenges and struggles. We did not commit treason because of it.

Despite the appeal to homonationalism, there is here an actual defence of LGBTQ identity against perpetual fears of a deviance that cannot be trusted with full equality. Fairly obviously, framings of ‘disorder’ put trans* and genderqueer back in the realm of medical pathology from which they have only just begun to escape. And yet this is not a one-sided story of medical bio-politics. Continue reading

The Manning Trial, Truth-Telling, and The Precariousness of Democractic Society

The following is a piece written as part of an interview I did at City University on the political and ethical significance of the Bradley Manning trial currently ongoing (links to potentially embarrassing video to follow).

I think that the most important thing that the Bradley Manning trial shows us is the gap that opens up between our legal institutions and our sense of right and wrong, between the law and morality. Many people around the world are shocked by Manning’s imprisonment. People are shocked partly because he has been held under conditions that the UN said violated his human rights, but also because Manning is being tried for exposing the actions of US soldiers and diplomats, including evidence of many potential and confirmed human rights violations. Manning’s supporters are incredulous and view the proceedings now taking place at Fort Meade as illegitimate.Bradley Manning War Crimes

I understand this incredulity and on a level I share it. What I want to suggest, however, is that what we are seeing in the trial of this young man is even more troubling than the corruption of the law by politics – it reveals that the law is always suffused with politics. The law is a technical code. Yes, it is also a normative system that is supposed to determine right and wrong, guilt and innocence. But it is vital that we do not forget that it is a technical code first and foremost, a code that political authorities use to justify their power. Therefore, those with the capacity to influence and manipulate the legal code will always be at an advantage, will always be able to shape that code not towards the pursuit of justice but towards their own interests. This is what Finnish legal scholar Martti Koskenniemi calls this the gap between apology and utopia. The law has its utopian moments and this is especially true of human rights law – for example, Manning supporters see him as a hero who has exposed the grievous crimes of the US government and its military, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. They appeal to human rights standards that are quintessential moral claims, but which sadly lack the force of political authority and so are not reliably protected. This is important, but the law also has its moment of apology, where it serves the interests of established authorities, of powerful actors like the US government.

Continue reading