In Laura Poitras’s documentary, Citizenfour, Edward Snowden worries to Poitras and Glenn Greenwald that “they” (the press and government) will use his “personality” as a distraction when Greenwald starts publishing stories about the documents that Snowden has leaked. Snowden’s concern was meaningful considering the media coverage of Chelsea Manning, who was on trial at the time Poitras was filming the documentary for charges arising from the Espionage Act, including the charge of aiding the enemy.
Manning’s queerness, gender nonconformity (she now identifies as trans*), and experiences of being bullied in the Army made her an easy target for claims that her leaking of documents was not true whistleblowing, but amounted simply to a private vendetta against the Army and government. In one of the first articles on Manning in the New York Times, for example, Ginger Thompson suggested that Manning might have leaked documents as a way of seeking revenge for being bullied in the military, or for her struggles under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, or out of “delusions of grandeur.”
While Manning is never mentioned by name in Citizenfour, Snowden’s comment suggests that her unacknowledged presence may hover in the background — a specter against which Snowden and his advocates may be trying to distinguish him. Snowden’s comment implies his desire to be a model of rectitude and constraint, one whose actions cannot be questioned on the basis of any supposedly personal motives.
Snowden has been mostly successful on this score. While he certainly has a number of detractors among establishment politicians and some journalists (notably, Jeffrey Toobin), many on the Left clearly find his actions inspirational and motivational. In addition to Poitras’s documentary, Snowden has been the subject of two books (by Glenn Greenwald and Luke Harding) published by major American presses, and the ACLU has recently mounted a high-profile campaign to “Pardon Snowden,” complete with celebrity signatures. Perhaps most strikingly, Snowden has become the subject of a major Hollywood motion picure, Oliver Stone’s just-released biopic, Snowden.
Yet as Snowden has become a symbol in the mainstream left of resistance to state power and secrecy, Manning has receded from view. While many individuals have protested, signed petitions, written alternative press books, and penned letters on Manning’s behalf, dominant voices on the Left have placed Snowden at the center of our attention.
The mainstream left’s focus on Snowden, rather than Manning, as a model truth-teller may have something to do with the kinds of truths they each revealed; Snowden leaked a more coherent set of documents, that arguably revealed a greater wrong: government deception about mass surveillance. Yet if many on the Left (rightly) see Snowden’s act as important not just because of what he disclosed, but because of his political example, then we should ask what the stakes are of taking that example as our model of truth-telling, rather than — or in addition to — Manning’s.
For many on the Left, what Snowden offers us is a stirring example of what David Bromwich calls, in an insightful review of Citizenfour, “integrity — the insistence by an individual that his life and the principles he lives by should be all of a piece.” In Stone’s Snowden, for example, we see Snowden’s integrity through the progression of a fairly conventional story of the refusal of the “self-taught” man of conscience to be complicit in unjust deception.
Stone depicts Snowden as self-possessed, a man who refuses to let his thinking and principles be influenced by others (except perhaps by his liberal photographer girlfriend, whose interest in photographing and examining herself in her images serves as a complement to Snowden’s moral self-examination). Snowden’s self-possession is what allows him to accurately see, diagnose, and ultimately resist complicity in wrongdoing.
Poitras’s film gives us a more taut and complex picture of Snowden, and of the riskiness of his act, but still shows Snowden as a self-possessed, moral man: he says, for example, “I don’t want to hide on this, I don’t want to skulk around. I don’t think I should have to, and I’m not afraid.” Greenwald’s and Harding’s books offer similar depictions of Snowden.
Both films suggest indirectly that Snowden’s integrity might be a model for the rest of us. Stone’s Snowden does so by hinting at the pleasures that a life of principle can afford, in contrast to the discomfort and anxiety of a life of complicity in injustice.
At the end of the movie, Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) says that his “greatest freedom is that I don’t have to worry about what happens tomorrow, because I’m happy with what I’ve done today.” Despite leaving a comfortable job and life in “paradise” (Hawaii), Snowden (first played by Gordon-Levitt, and then the man himself) appears happier living a life in exile devoted to the fight against government secrecy and surveillance. At the very end, while an inspirational score plays, we see Snowden giving lectures via Skype and receiving a standing ovation. These, the film tells us, are the rewards and pleasures of the just — rewards we, or at least many of us, might also seek.
In a less celebratory vein, Bromwich similarly argues that Citizenfour offers a broad invocation to all of us: “[i]t is up to other Americans now, the uncertain end of Citizenfour says, to rouse ourselves and find the value of Snowden’s action as a resource.” For Bromwich, even if we cannot reveal classified documents, we can be people of integrity — committed to living according to principle, to not being complicit in deception, surveillance, and other wrongs.
In contrast to their valorization of Snowden’s integrity, these same filmmakers and journalists have tended to either remain silent about Chelsea Manning, or to suggest that Manning’s act was of a different order than Snowden’s. Manning is not mentioned by name in either film — an omission that bespeaks a conscious or unconscious desire to distance Snowden from Manning.
Harding and Greenwald, in contrast, distance Snowden from Manning explicitly. For example, in The Snowden Files Luke Harding says that Snowden’s leak “eclips[ed] the 2010 release of US diplomatic cables and warlogs by a disaffected US army private, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning.” Implicit in Harding’s statement is the claim that Manning’s act was tainted by personal motives or troubles; “disaffected” connotes malaise, not principle.
In a different register, Glenn Greenwald — who was and continues to be an ardent supporter of Chelsea Manning — portrayed Snowden as someone who appears more like a real whistleblower than Manning.
In his book about Snowden, No Place to Hide, Greenwald notes that Manning “was criticized (unfairly and inaccurately, I believe) for supposedly leaking documents that she had not reviewed” — an argument that “was frequently used to undermine the notion that Manning’s actions were heroic. It was clear that nothing of the sort could be said about our NSA source. There was no question that he had carefully reviewed every document he had given us, that he had understood their meaning, then meticulously placed each one in an elegantly organized structure.”
Greenwald’s comment suggests that even if Manning is a true whistleblower, Snowden is easier to defend, that his actions make him appear like the whistleblower we want and expect.
The desire to distance Snowden from Manning is understandable. Leaders of social movements have long tried to select morally and politically un-impeachable (or at least, less impeachable) individuals as their symbols and exemplars. As Danielle McGuire recounts in At the Dark End of the Street, Rosa Parks was not the first person to refuse to sit at the back of the bus, but she was the person chosen by the NAACP and other early civil-rights leaders as the symbol around which they and other groups could and would rally.
Two other young women, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, also challenged bus segregation in court. But E. D. Nixon, a leading civil rights organizer in Montgomery, deemed both women too compromised to serve as symbols: Colvin’s pregnancy outside of marriage and working-class status made her a “liability,” while Smith’s father drank and her family lived in a “low type of home.” In contrast, Parks, as Nixon said years later, was “honest, she was clean, she had integrity. The press couldn’t go out and dig up something she did last year, or last month, or five years ago.”
The logic is simple: If the person who resists unjust state power appears morally “pure,” the struggle by extension appears pure as well, pursued solely out of a concern with justice. Yet when we overlook or downplay Manning’s actions and render Snowden’s heroic, we perpetuate a hierarchy of public speakers — in this case, holding up an ideal of the self-possessed, white, straight man of principle — while treating Manning as someone better kept private, quiet, out of view.
In turn, we reify and treat as natural an unjust oppression that Manning was trying to fight. In the chat logs with Adrian Lamo, Manning claims that she leaked documents out of a broad discontent with government secrecy — not only the secrecy of their actions in Iraq, but also the secrecy demanded of her by Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. When we allow Manning to be pushed to the sideline, and treat her sexuality and gender nonconformity as matters of “personality” that can “distract” us, we reenact the injustice and silencing that she experienced in the Army.
But what if we see Manning differently — not as someone whose truth-telling is perverted by her “private” motives, but as someone who is a stronger and more potent exemplar of truth-telling because she refuses to privatize her queerness and gender nonconformity?
Manning’s refusal to see these as separate issues — to bracket her sexuality and gender while pursuing transparency — could and should be seen as a form of courage and integrity, to be emulated by others.
If Snowden offers us a model of the integrity of the self-possessed, we could say that Manning offers us a model of the integrity of the dispossessed.
This integrity is revealed in her refusal to separate her queerness and gender nonconformity from her public actions. It is revealed in her description (in the chat logs) of herself downloading documents while listening to Lady Gaga; resisting conformity to the model of the morally serious truth-teller, Manning shows that truth-telling can be a risky pleasure in and of itself. Her integrity is revealed in her wariness about revealing her identity. As she says in the chats with Lamo, she would not mind revealing her identity, if it weren’t for the fact that her picture would be plastered all over the media “as a boy.”
Her refusal to identify herself initially, in other words, was a refusal to be read and interpolated into a gender that did not do justice to who she was and is.
Finally, her integrity can be seen in her broad resistance to secrecy: not just to the government keeping secrets from the people, but to the mandated privatization (or secret-ization) of queerness and gender nonconformity. Manning’s leaking of documents insisted not only that the people know the truth about the government’s actions in Iraq, but also that she, too, is a proper member of the people as she is, a proper public speaker of truth.
We should hold Snowden up as a model of democratic action, as Stone, Poitras, and others do. Yet when we mobilize Snowden’s example and keep Manning in the background, we lose an important example and model of truth-telling as political resistance — one that may be especially relevant and inspirational for those who are not white, cisgender, heterosexual men.
From Manning’s integrity, we learn that even if the dominant culture sees you as untrustworthy, suspect, or queer, you may find and reveal integrity in telling the truth as who you are, and how you see it — and you may solicit a public who would vindicate you as a proper public speaker.
Elevating Manning’s example of integrity, we may also encourage and politically demand greater public receptivity to truth-telling that comes from the dispossessed: from people of color telling the public that the police are murdering black men and women; from women telling the truth about sexual assault and rape; from trans people revealing ongoing harassment and violence.
We could start such a project, today, by linking Snowden and Manning insistently, on principle, as a matter of conscience. There should be no pardon of Snowden that does not include a pardon of Manning. While Snowden lives in Moscow and gives talks via Skype, Chelsea Manning languishes in a jail cell, where she has been recently sentenced to serve fourteen days in solitary confinement for a suicide attempt.
As part of demanding a pardon for Manning, we could declaim this treatment, today, as unfair and cruel. Rather, though, than claiming that Manning deserves a pardon in spite of her private motives, we should demand the pardon in part because of her courage in connecting the dangers of government secrecy about war with the dangers of government secrecy about her sexuality and gender.
If Snowden’s integrity reminds us of the importance of following the principles each of us hold, Manning’s integrity reminds us of the importance of fighting for the voices of the dispossessed to be heard, and allowing those voices to challenge and transform our principles.