Selma James, QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 2014

Considering the enormity of the truths which Chelsea Manning made accessible to us, it was somewhat disappointing how modest were the demonstrations in her support, in Europe as well as in the United States, though millions more were sympathetic who stayed at home.  This was the case when she was being tortured in prison, and the protesters were not many more when she went to court to face her accusers.  From the first, it was evident that her personal dignity was unshaken, her decisions were consistently sensible.  All of this was extraordinary considering what she went through, which could have undermined, unbalanced or at least demoralised most of us. An example of good decisions was her choice to plead guilty but to the “right” things – this seemed the best that could have been done – and the way she handled her coming out as a woman, especially the timing.  We who admired her for what she had done despite what that would cause her to face, were won over to pride and love by the apparent equanimity with which she faced all her persecutors threw at her.

    The support crowds were small because the movement itself has been flat for some time.  This doesn’t mean that people are not struggling and organising – we have to; survival often depends on it.  It does mean that people are uncertain of facing up to the powers that be if not absolutely necessary for that survival.  And if they do collectively protest, they are often nervous not of the result – you never know that until you confront – but of whether their initiative will become a battleground against the politically ambitious who may try to take over for their own purposes.  We never know how much of those internal fights are promoted by the infiltrators that governments organise.  (We in the U.K. are enjoying the spectacle of an ex-police agent speaking out about how it works and how much of it there is.) But there is enough political ambition native to the movement. 

     In fact, the movement’s relative quiescence has been the terrain challenging the whistleblowers.  This quiescence is reflected in the absence of any organised opposition among elected officials generally, and in the absence of national media which can be relied on to tell even half of what they know (and not bother to dig too deep for the rest).  Whereas journalists in some parts of the world risk their lives to tell our story, we see only the exceptional broadcaster and editor ready to risk career prospects in the “free West”.  In this climate, whistleblowers are even more crucial to knowing what is really going on. The accountability to the public that individual whistleblowers have displayed is what we hope for in points of reference of social movements, which we have seen so little of. 

    The response of the establishment has been not only to persecute the truth-tellers, but of course misinterpret their motives, accuse them of immorality if at all possible, and take our eye off what they have revealed to us. 

    In the U.K., the first of the recent series of truth-tellers was Craig Murray, career diplomat.  In 2002, while British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Murray began to send memos denouncing torture by the Karimov government.  The U.K. ultimately responded by charging him with 18 accounts of misconduct, including “hiring dolly birds [pretty young women] for above the usual rate”, and removing him from his post in 2004. Fighting his case, after a near fatal pulmonary attack, he referred to himself as a “victim of conscience”.  He was finally exonerated of all charges. 

    None of this seems to have thrown him off course.  Murray has been a staunch supporter of Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame, and has written brilliantly in Assange’s defense without a hint of self-referentialism.  Assange was himself accused of rape under dubious circumstances.  If the British government wanted to prosecute rapists, they have only to ask Women Against Rape for help, in some cases for names and addresses.  But the purpose of these accusations was to round up the support for Assange’s persecution from all those who feel so strongly about rape, but are prepared to overlook the State’s likely motives and its record on other heinous crimes as well as rape. 

    Assange, who has just celebrate seven years of Wikileaks from his refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, was followed by Chelsea Manning, who was in turn followed by Edward Snowden, the CIA and NSA employee who disclosed classified details of top-secret U.S. and British government mass surveillance programs, and is now in exile in Russia. Time magazine of 24 June, 2013 mentions others, including Aaron Swartz who committed suicide before going to trial. Unusually, they are not ridiculed or even condemned, and Time’s catalogue of truth-tellers about government secrets gives the impression that this is a growing and ultimately uncontrollable roll call.

    As these high-profile cases were spilling the beans, mainly on the U.S. government, we saw the emergence of those who offer us more immediately useful information.  Those of us in Britain have been witnessing the government’s destruction of the National Health Service in preparation for privatization, begun by Labour (Tony Blair) and continued by the Tories.  There has been a procession of whistleblowers who have called it on the hospitals and every aspect of their neglect of – even cruelty to – patients, from the shortage of nurses to the horrendous death rate.  (It is now accepted that one hospital at least was responsible for the untimely deaths of hundreds.)  Despite the pressure to keep your mouth shut to keep your job, employees and even one or two officials were determined to call it.  Then there were the family members who refused to allow the unreasonable deaths of beloved elders to go unchallenged. The employees were sacked, persecuted, unsupported by any agency claiming to monitor and protect patients.  The families were ridiculed, their claims dismissed.  After persistent campaigning for the re cognition of the truth, their complaints were examined and acknowledged.  But depressingly, no one in government or management resigned or was sacked. That campaigning continues, and truths keep emerging.

    It is taking a while for people to digest what they are learning about what goes on behind the closed doors of those in charge.  It is difficult for most people to envisage the level of callous brutality of government calculations.  The worst of us down here are not that calculatingly brutal as them up there.  So the full impact and appropriate response of all the whistleblowers, present and future, is still to come.  However, fury is quietly growing.  Meanwhile, the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, refused to meet with Obama because of Snowden’s revelations on NSA surveillance – they tapped her phone!  But there have been massive demonstrations in Brazil against the theft and waste of funds which people believe should be used for poverty reduction, instead of for staging football’s World Cup.  Therefore for credibility’s sake, the president has had to make her own demonstration against the imperial giant in the North.  That gives us a taste of what whistleblowing can help make happen as part of a mass movement.

Some of the abuses of power exposed by Chelsea Manning

·         The extensive, officially sanctioned cover-up of rape (often of children) and other sexual violence in both Afghanistan and Iraq. That rape included the sexual torture of prisoners (often minors) in Iraq; and In Afghanistan the organized rape of minors by military contractors, at least one of which has a track record of doing the same thing in Bosnia.     

·         Released a classified U.S. military video depicting the indiscriminate slaying of over a dozen people in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad, including two Reuters news staff, and the shooting of those coming to attend to their wounds, including two children.

·         Exposure of how the U.S. Embassy in Haiti worked closely with factory owners contracted by corporate giants including Levi’s, Hanes and Fruit of the Loom to block an increase to the minimum wage for Haitian workers from $1.75 per day to $5 per day.

·         Exposure of how the US uses NGOs (over 300 in total in Venezuela) to attempt to destabilize the government. The U.S. Ambassador details a five-point program for USAID and the “Office of Transition Initiatives” to fund “human rights” NGOs, in order to “penetrate Chávez’s political base,” “divide Chavismo,” “protect vital U.S. business,” and “isolate Chávez internationally”.

·         Exposed how Israel tried to coordinate the most recent invasion of Gaza with Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, offering to allow the two of them to take control of Gaza after an Israeli defeat of Hamas.

·         Amnesty International said the leaked documents helped galvanize opposition to longtime Tunisian dictator Ben Ali by revealing the depth of his government’s and family’s corruption and helping to begin the “Arab Spring”.

Selma James is an anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist campaigner and author. Raised in a movement household, she joined CLR James’s Johnson-Forest Tendency at age 15. From 1958 to 1962, she worked with him in the movement for Caribbean federation and independence. In 1972, she founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign, and in 2000 she helped launch the Global Women’s Strike which she co-ordinates. She coined the word “unwaged” to describe most of the caring work mainly women do, and it has since entered the English language to describe all the work without wages of women, children and men, in the home, on the land, in the community .   In 1972, Ms James co-authored the women’s movement classic The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community.  In 1975, she became the first spokeswoman of the English Collective of Prostitutes. She is a founding member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (2008). She addresses the power relations within the grassroots movement for change, organizing across sectors to undermine divisions of sex, race, age, nation, etc., South and North. Ms James lectures in the UK, Ireland, the US and other countries and has worked with the Venezuelan Revolution since 2002. 

Publications include Sex, Race and Class: The perspective of Winning (2012), The Ladies & the Mammies: Jane Austen & Jean Rhys (1983) and The Milk of Human Kindness (coauthor, 2005). 

This essay originally appeared in

QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, vol. 1, issue no 1, p.47-51, 2014