The Meaning of Manning
By Tony Palmeri
from the September 2013 edition of The SCENE
[Note: This piece was written in early August, while the sentencing hearing for Private Manning was ongoing. He ended up being sentenced to 35 years, essentially for embarrassing the United States government. Years from now, the arrest, torture, show trial, and incarceration of Manning will be widely seen as one of the worst travesties in the history of the United States.].In 1923 English scholars C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards released The Meaning of Meaning, a groundbreaking work that sparked decades of discussions about the nature and purpose of communication in society. The authors’ main insight, that “meaning” resides in people and not in words, helped explain why misunderstanding mars most communication encounters. More important, Ogden and Richards promoted reflection on the ethics of communication; i.e. if misunderstanding creates tension and distress between humans, are we not all responsible for helping to remedy that situation?
Early 20th century communication scholars knew their insights could be twisted unscrupulously by governments, corporations, and other institutions of power. Still, even they would be shocked at the extent to which contemporary political and corporate powers not only resist remedying misunderstandings, but actively keep individuals and the public at-large as confused as possible.
One look no further than the detention and trial of Private First Class Bradley Manning, the soldier now convicted of leaking classified documents to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, to see how supremely rotten is the current state of political communication in America. Indeed, to grasp the meaning of meaning today requires first grasping the meaning of Manning. The treatment of Private Manning represents one more step toward what writer Peter Van Buren calls “post-Constitution America,” a major feature of which is the “Guantanamo-ized definition of justice.”
Bradley Manning served as an intelligence analyst in Iraq. Frustrated by his superior officers’ directive that he should keep quiet about war crimes, he struggled with trying to figure out the responsible course of action. When neither the New York Times nor Washington Post showed significant interest in obtaining materials from him, he turned to WikiLeaks. Of all the classified communications released, the most controversial was a video of US soldiers killing innocent civilians (including Reuters news organization journalists) almost gleefully.After Manning’s arrest in May of 2010 on suspicion of unauthorized leaking, he was subjected to Gulag style incarceration including extended solitary confinement, being forced to sleep naked without pillows or sheets, sleep deprivation, and denial of the ability to communicate. Keep in mind these were the prison conditions Manning was exposed to before even being indicted for a crime. In language that could come right out of dystopian novels like Orwell’s 1984, military officials insisted that Manning’s solitary confinement wasn’t torture but actually a “prevention of harm watch.”
Elite media turned out troves of stories based on the leaks, yet curiously and sadly would not champion Manning’s cause in the same way most championed Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers 40 years earlier. Some have argued that Manning’s actions were worse than Ellsberg, an argument Ellsberg himself repeatedly refutes. Moreover, the main difference between their cases appears to be the fact that the documents released by Ellsberg were labeled “top secret,” but nothing released by Manning carried a similar label.Elite media mostly ignored Manning’s prison plight, so it was left to United Nations special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez to alert the world to the travesty: “I conclude that the 11 months under conditions of solitary confinement (regardless of the name given to his regime by the prison authorities) constitutes at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture.” No doubt Edward Snowden read Mendez’s report before making the decision to seek asylum instead of placing his fate in the hands of USA prison authorities.
After 3 years in horrid prison conditions, Manning’s court martial proceedings finally began on June 3rd of this year. Military prosecutors labored to show how his disclosures constituted irreparable harm against The Homeland, including “aiding the enemy” and “espionage” in accordance with World War I era legislation. In keeping with the Guantanamo style justice mentioned earlier, prosecutors sought conviction for “wanton publication.” Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman had the perfect retort: “The real offense, for which no one has been charged, is the wanton disregard for human life that Manning exposed.”
Media elites in their establishment slumber could not be bothered to express even mild outrage at being effectively barred from Manning’s trial, but woke up to announce relief that Judge Denise Lind acquitted the whistleblower on the “aiding the enemy” charge. Conviction on aiding the enemy would have criminalized investigative journalism. JeremyScahill, author of the bestselling DirtyWars, said that “The corporate media coverage of this trial, which is arguably one of the most important cases in modern American history, has been utterly shameful . . . There has been more coverage of the indictment of that Real Housewives lady and her husband than there has been of Bradley Manning,”
As I write in early August, the trial is in the sentencing phase. Manning faces as much as 136 years in prison for the sham charges he was convicted of at the show trial. The Obama Administration, instead of using Manning’s revelations to support the obvious need for a reset in the conduct of the “War on Terror,” instead took the Nixon/Bush/Cheney route of overt intimidation and persecution of people of conscience.
Welcome to the 21st century United States where, thanks to thuggish government officials and a compliant corporate press corps, those exposing criminality themselves come to be defined as criminals. That is the meaning of Manning.