The Internet has pushed our culture to a breaking point as we struggle to keep up with innovation—and Bradley Manning was caught in the crossfire
(Update: Bradley Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in prison, coverage here. His lawyers will petition Obama for coverage.)
When cultures reach critical stress points, they find individuals to use as scapegoats for that stress. The stress our culture feels is the tumult and chaos caused by the Internet and the end of privacy—and the scapegoat is Private Bradley Manning.
In The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer’s monumental 1890 work of comparative religion and mythology, which examined and drew parallels between the “superstitious” rituals of cultures around the world, Frazer showed the trans-national and trans-historical importance of the scapegoat ritual.
The scapegoat ritual, in its many forms, is a way that a tribe attempts to purge evil. The irrational, pre-scientific thinking goes like this: The crops have been doing bad, the rain hasn’t been coming, or nature has generally been unfriendly. Therefore, the Gods or whatever supernatural agencies the tribe believes in must be angry with the tribe. Clearly the tribe has somehow been bad, sinned or angered the Gods. Hence the use of a scapegoat: The tribe ceremonially puts all of their “sin” on one thing, animal or person, and then destroys, tortures or sacrifices that thing to the Gods in the hope that the Gods will cheer up.
The scapegoat upon whom the sins of the people are periodically laid, may also be a human being. At Onitsha, on the Niger, two human beings used to be annually sacrificed to take away the sins of the land. The victims were purchased by public subscription. All persons who, during the past year, had fallen into gross sins, such as incendiarism, theft, adultery, witchcraft, and so forth, were expected to contribute 28 ngugas, or a little over £2. The money thus collected was taken into the interior of the country and expended in the purchase of two sickly persons “to be offered as a sacrifice for all these abominable crimes—one for the land and one for the river.” A man from a neighbouring town was hired to put them to death. On the twenty-seventh of February 1858 the Rev. J. C. Taylor witnessed the sacrifice of one of these victims. The sufferer was a woman, about nineteen or twenty years of age. They dragged her alive along the ground, face downwards, from the king’s house to the river, a distance of two miles, the crowds who accompanied her crying, “Wickedness! wickedness!”
But to think that these rituals are the province of “pre-modern” cultures is hubris. Just because we have better technology and sanitation does not change us at the fundamental level. It would be easy to make a case that all of these superstitious rituals are just as active in ultramodern 21st century humans as they were in tribal cultures. South Park, for instance, did an absolutely genius episode several years ago about Britney Spears’ public breakdown, satirizing modern culture’s need to build up child stars and then tear them to pieces—a public scapegoat ritual. (Full episode here, make sure to watch the end.)
Now speaking of scapegoats, you’ve by now heard the news that Bradley Manning has been acquitted of aiding the enemy, but is still facing spending the rest of his life in prison—after already having been placed in dehumanizing, brutal solitary confinement for years.
A couple points about this.
First, note how the mass media headlines for this story mostly read something to the tune of “Bradley Manning acquitted” or “Bradley Manning not guilty.” That’s not guilty of aiding the enemy—which carries a life sentence. Instead, he’s guilty of a whole slew of other crimes, which together carry the penalty of up to 136 years… i.e., life in prison. The sentencing remains to be conducted, but note the way the government saves face (likely with an eye on the recent furor over Trayvon Martin) by appearing to be kind and forgiving while potentially meting out the exact same punishment.
Second, Bradley Manning has been in solitary confinement for years. He has been brutally treated—tortured—on American soil just as surely as if he had been at Guantanamo Bay. But easily forgotten is that he is being tortured for revealing things like the brutal murder of war correspondents for Reuters, along with civilians, in the Collateral Murder video. The crimes Manning revealed far outweigh the crimes of a post-adolescent who kept the files on a Lady Gaga CD to avoid attention.
What Manning did is act as a lightning rod for the central stresses of the digital age. And so he has become a scapegoat. Even Julian Assange has profited in notoriety and visibility while Manning, who gave him the leaks in the first place, is crucified.
I recently saw the appalling We Steal Secrets, which purports to be an unbiased documentary about WikiLeaks and Manning, but which largely focuses on Manning’s sexuality, painting him as a mentally disturbed transvestite, some kind of deranged Batman villain, who clearly did what he did out of some kind of individual pathology, not once examining the pathology of the system Manning was a part of and acted as a pressure release for.
One of America’s true heroes is the gay soldier Bradley Manning, the whistleblower alleged to have provided WikiLeaks with the epic evidence of American carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the Obama administration that smeared his homosexuality as weird, and it was Obama himself who declared a man convicted of no crime to be guilty.
Even now, as he is sentenced, the press (what small parts of the press are even bothering to look past the surface or even report on the case) ignores the content of what Manning leaked, focusing on distraction and personality journalism as always.
The governments of the world are terrified of the Internet—as evidenced by the new filters David Cameron is attempting to put on UK ISPs. Frankly, I don’t blame them—I’d be scared too if I was in their place and getting regularly embarrassed by whistleblowers like Manning or Edward Snowden, and then watching the Arab Spring erupt through social media. I’d be scared of the vast, chaotic masses. And we’re scared of them too, post-PRISM—scared of what they’re watching us do and how much power they’ve taken. The Internet has empowered governments and the masses alike, and neither party knows what the fuck to do with that power. It’s a chaotic time for the human race even more traumatic than the invention of the Gutenberg Press. That’s a lot of collective fear, and in such chaotic times, both governments and their people—who are all part of one tribe, never forget—will look for scapegoats.
And that is why Bradley Manning is dying for our sins.