Yesterday, December 18th, Chelsea Manning – heroine, whistleblower and inmate – turned 27. She has been behind bars for four years and eight months, ever since her arrest for leaking classified US documents. There isn’t much prospect that she will be released any time soon. Manning is serving a 35-year sentence, with the earliest possibility of parole being in 2021. She has appealed to Barack Obama for a pardon. It seems unlikely he will grant it.
It is against this gloomy and unpropitious backdrop that leading writers, artists and public figures from around the world are today sending Chelsea birthday greetings. Their contributions include letters, poems, drawings and original paintings. Some are philosophical – yes, that’s you, Slavoj Žižek – others brief messages of goodwill. A few are movingly confessional.
All send a powerful reminder: that for millions in the US and beyond, Chelsea Manning is an inspiring moral figure who deserves our continued support. Her leaks, published in 2010, at a time when Manning was unhappily stationed with the
US military in Baghdad, revealed the true nature of America’s twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also illuminated the gulf between Washington’s private thinking and its public diplomacy.
Edward Snowden sums up the mood of collective gratitude: “I thank you now and forever for your extraordinary act of service and I am sorry that it has come with such an unbelievable personal cost. As a result of your courageous act, the American people are more informed about the workings of our government as it positions itself for endless war … For this we all thank you. Happy birthday, Chelsea.”
For the moment, the attitude of the US administration towards whistleblowers is unrelenting. Snowden faces indeterminate exile in Moscow. And yet several contributors argue, persuasively in my view, that future White Houses will celebrate Manning and Snowden. Writing from his home in Adelaide in South Australia, the author and Nobel Prize winner JM Coetzee praises Chelsea “for the steps you took in the service of democracy – that is to say, of the right of people to govern themselves”.
Coetzee adds: “I myself am in my 70s so don’t expect to be around when you regain your freedom (unless your president comes to his senses and offers you a pardon), but I want you to know that I am confident there will come a day when your image, and the image of Edward Snowden, will appear on postage stamps of the US Postal Service.”
The traffic is mostly one-way – sent to Chelsea’s current postal address, Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas. But we do get a glimpse of her life through her correspondence with the British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. (Westwood’s birthday card is a striking green-red print with the slogan: “What’s good for the planet is good for Chelsea.”)
On 8 December, Manning wrote an article for the Guardian, recounting her struggle to be recognised as a “young trans woman”, fighting against an implacable US court and government system. Two days later, she tells Westwood that her days are busy. “I am working a lot, studying, working on the appeal and a lawsuit on fundraising, writing articles and trying to stay healthy.” Chelsea admits she gets too many letters to answer them all but promises to “try harder”.
Not a bad message for all of us. Happy birthday, Chelsea.
Happy birthday, Chelsea Manning. I thank you now and forever for your extraordinary act of service and I am sorry that it has come with such an unbelievable personal cost.
As a result of your courageous act, the American people are more informed about the workings of our government as it positions itself for endless war. You have inspired an angry public to demand a government that is accountable for its perpetration of torture and other war crimes, for the true costs of its wars, and for conspiring in corruption around the world.
The distinguishing strength of democracy is self-correction – that no matter how bad things get, the public in partnership with a free press can detect and correct mistakes of public officials. You valiantly renewed this self-correcting, self-determining American tradition of governance. For this, we all thank you. Happy birthday, Chelsea.
Molly Crabapple, artist ‘Wishing you a presidential pardon’
JM Coetzee, author ‘Your image will appear on postage stamps’
I’m sure it is not much fun spending your birthday behind bars, but I want to let you know that there are thousands and millions of people in the wider world who are thinking of you and wishing you well. We admire you for the steps you took in the service of democracy – that is to say, of the right of the people to govern themselves – and we respect you for the fortitude with which you have carried yourself since you were arrested, times when you must have felt very lonely and isolated.
I myself am in my 70s, so I don’t expect to be around when you regain your freedom (unless your president comes to his senses and offers you a pardon), but I want you to know that I am confident there will come a day when your image, and the image of Edward Snowden, will appear on postage stamps of the US Postal Service.
Terry Gilliam, filmmaker ‘We are deeply in your debt’
Birgitta Jónsdóttir, politician ‘Power is naked for one moment in time’
Thank you for changing the world, my life and for everything you are. Here is a poem I wrote for you, about you, for your birthday. Happy birthday!
Internal external crisis
cause deep earthquakes
pangs of awareness
as for one perfect moment
the looking glass is clear
Sounds of screaming silence
when perspectives change
rushing in stillness
everything is changing
Hiding is over
only option left
No glory is requested
Power is naked
for one moment in time
echoes through history
everything has changed
Her voice is everywhere
in the truth she exposed
to lock her in a cell
in a body
what is in plain sight
Slavoj Žižek, philosopher ‘Manning is free’
We often hear that today’s radical left is unable to propose a feasible alternative. What you did simply was the alternative. To quote Gandhi, you were the change you wanted to see.
For this, you risked everything, your life included. You didn’t do it for any personal gain like money or fame. What you did was also not part of any large political project. You found yourself in the position of a person who knew too much. And, out of a sense of duty, you simply did what you had to do with this knowledge. If this is not an ethical act in the strict Kantian sense, an act of moral freedom, of doing a duty for duty’s sake, then this term has no meaning whatsoever.
The price you are paying for this is terrifying. One can only imagine to what painful experiences you were submitted during the long months after your arrest, how your body and mind were treated. Even if we discount direct torture, there was isolation, the humiliation of being forced to do private things in front of others. It is a true miracle that, after this ordeal, you didn’t break down but retained your full dignity as well as the surprising ability to report on what you did and what you went through in a calm rational way.
This is why, when I am asked about freedom today, the first answer that comes to my mind is: Manning is free, much more free than all of us who are “free” to choose this or that cake or drink, holiday destination, etc. You confront us with our freedom when we would sometimes prefer to ignore it. As such, you are – if I may risk and use this word – one of our true masters. They are very rare today. A true master is not an agent of discipline and prohibition, their message is not “You cannot!”, also not, “You have to …!”. Their message is a releasing “You can!” – what? Do the impossible, do what appears impossible.
When we listen to an authentic political leader, we discover what we want (or, rather, what we always, already wanted without knowing it). And we become aware that we are not just caught in a hopeless stalemate, that we can do something for what we want. A master is needed because we cannot accede to our freedom directly; we have to be pushed. Therein resides the difference between a true master and, say, a Stalinist leader who pretends to know (better than the people themselves) what people really want (what is really good for them), and is ready to force this on them even against their will.
But an authentic master does not need to be a leader. That’s why one of the few persons to whom I dare to compare you to is Marek Edelman (1919-2009), a Jewish-Polish political and social activist who was the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Before the second world war, he was active in the Jewish Labour Bund; during the war, he co-founded the Jewish Combat Organisation, took part in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising as one of its leaders, and also in the citywide 1944 Warsaw uprising. From the 1970s, he collaborated with the Workers’ Defence Committee; as a member of Solidarity, he took part in the Polish round table talks of 1989. While fighting antisemitism all his life, Edelman publicly defended Palestinian resistance, claiming that the Jewish self-defence for which he had fought was in danger of crossing the line into oppression. Because of this, he never got official Israeli recognition for his heroism. Edelman knew when to act (against Germans), when to make public statements (for Palestinians), when to get engaged in political activity (for Solidarity), and when just to be there. In the wake of the growing antisemitic campaign in 1968, he decided to stay in Poland, comparing himself to the stones of the ruined buildings at the site of the Auschwitz camp: “Someone had to stay here with all those who perished here, after all.” This says it all: what mattered was ultimately his bare and muted presence there, not his declarations – it was the awareness of Edelman’s presence, the fact of his “being there,” which set people free.
And exactly the same holds for you. The very awareness of you, of your deeds and your fate, makes us free. But this freedom is a difficult freedom – it is also an obligation to follow in your steps. Maybe, in this way, we can also make your birthday a little bit happier.
Alan Moore, graphic novelist ‘You are a heroine to millions’
You don’t know me. My name’s Alan Moore and I’m an occult charlatan and writer living in Northampton, England’s furthest inland point. It isn’t what you’d necessarily refer to as a pretty town, but through my window here the slice of it that I can see is looking good this afternoon. The sky is freeze-dried to a perfect powder blue, and the low winter sun ignites the brickwork of the terraced houses as a kind of petrified and stationary orange fire, already blazing for a century by now. What I’m attempting clumsily to get across is that the world’s still here, that it still has its good, clear days, and that those days are better and are clearer thanks to you and what you’ve done.
The human Mystery Play continues, and appears to be approaching an eventful and important plot-point in its narrative. Yes, ice shelves melt and ocean levels rise, but these are at least hazards we can see and can respond to, however inadequately or belatedly. The swelling flood of information that is now around our waists and climbing fast, though, is invisible save for its world-changing effects. The pool of knowledge that our species has been steadily accumulating since its origins has over the last 20 years burgeoned to a tsunami; an ungovernable force of history that no leader or nation can control, direct, influence or indeed do anything with save for surfing dangerously on its whitecap foam of cash.
This tidal surge of data washes everything before it. Institutions and authorities designed for the far simpler reality of just a hundred years ago have burst their banks; have found their timeworn principles inadequate to a flash influx of insight and revelation, an unruly torrent carrying us all struggling towards the edge of a Niagara future in amidst our driftwood debris of outmoded ideologies.
From my perspective, the extraordinary period of transformation that the world is passing through at present would potentially seem as significant as, and far more dramatic than, shifts from hunting and gathering to agriculture or from agriculture to industrial society. It’s surely as tumultuous in its transition and with just as many lives disrupted, but then you already know this far better than I.
Our species would appear, like it or not, to be upon the brink of a new era typified by an often-uncomfortable illumination and an inescapable transparency. Kicking and screaming, we are nonetheless evolving into a condition of lucidity, and you – a single individual – have been a crucial instrument of that unprecedented evolution, that vast human process. And the weight you’re carrying, you’re carrying for all of us. It is my possibly vain hope that you might somehow feel that multitude of extra shoulders, and in this cold season somehow feel the warmth of that enormous love.
You are, reluctantly I’m sure, a heroine to millions and, it can be safely said, to further millions yet unborn. I’m also relatively certain that there are those moments when that knowledge offers only the most threadbare wrap of consolation and I wish, along I’m sure with many of your other correspondents, that I could provide something more tangible. Alas, in a communication such as this it’s only words and ideas that can be relied upon to not set off the X-ray scanners. Fortunately, occult charlatans are as a group more comfortable with the intangible, so if it’s not presumptuous may I at least offer you this, the idea of a cake that has the idea of a file concealed within it: human beings can never experience reality directly, but instead only experience their own perceptions of reality in the vibrations of their tympana, in signals from their nerve ends and in the photon bombardment of their retinas. To any individual, the outer universe – from its most minute quanta to its furthest, oldest galaxies – is a phenomenon occurring only in their mind. This is not solipsism, but simply a recognition that each man and woman is positioned at the centre of a cosmos that is theirs alone, with the individual as its pivot and its governing intelligence. Our inner world is, in this sense, the only world that we can ever know or live in, but our inner world is endless and immeasurable, and is also the mysterious fountain from which most of the apparent outer world around us has emerged. The territory inside is the most potent and astounding human territory of all, and is accessible by anyone, regardless of their tangible, material circumstances. As the great American philosopher and entertainer Robert Anton Wilson once had his fictional character John Dillinger remark: “The only way to escape from a locked cell is to walk out through the wall, into the fire.” You have proven in so many ways already that the fire inside you is a powerful one, and I’m convinced it will sustain you.
Now it’s some hours later and it’s dark outside, although with the adornment of a gorgeous moon. Take care of yourself, Chelsea, and know that you’re in our minds and in our hearts.
With immense love and gratitude from your friend.
Joe Sacco, cartoonist ‘Can people send you books?’
Lupe Fiasco, rapper Painting, Womanning
The inspiration came directly from a particular Warhol of Marilyn Monroe at the MOMA. The meaning behind the work, for me, is about our roles in society; how those roles and identities can be reversed and re-decided and the consequences that come along with that process. Chelsea’s “double agency” as covert intelligence officer and spy, as well as the overt duality of “man becoming woman”, is something that I felt needed to be captured and re-contextualised. She encapsulates the antiheroes in society – sitting up in the heights of mythology, simultaneously demonised and forgiven.
Peter Tatchell, activist ‘Solidarity with Chelsea Manning!’
Billy Martin (formerly Poppy Z. Brite), author ‘I hope you achieve every freedom’
As I do with all writing projects these days, I’ve put this off until the last minute because my words have deserted me. Once upon a time, I was a professional writer of fiction and nonfiction, but these days, trying to write is like trying to squeeze blood from a tiny wound. It isn’t a block, exactly; I just feel like I’m finished with that part of my life. The de-wording process began with the near-destruction of my beloved home, New Orleans, following the post-Katrina failure of the federal levee system. But it really kicked into gear (or should I say out of gear?) after I started testosterone therapy in 2011. I was assigned female at birth and have identified as male for … ever, pretty much, but I did not find the courage to begin physically transitioning until I was 44.
Despite the loss of my words, it is still the best thing I’ve ever done, and there have been rewards beyond the obvious one of finally living as I’ve always been meant to do. First and foremost, I have a wonderful partner in my life, a gay man whom I would never have met if I’d kept living as female. He is an artist, and life with him has led me to rediscover a love of making visual art I’d abandoned in my late teens. I have also begun practicing my native voodoo/hoodoo/rootwork again. It has fascinated me since childhood, but I drifted away from it in my teens (again – ain’t puberty in the wrong body grand?) after a boyfriend commented that these practices were for “paranoid people”. I didn’t want to be paranoid, and I cared too much for his opinion. I didn’t stop practicing – I’ve had some kind of altar everywhere I’ve lived – but I lost my focus.
All this blather is leading up to the fact that, because I didn’t feel I could write you a satisfactory letter, I decided to light a pair of candles on my altar for you instead. They are dressed with herbs for protection and legal success, as well as Fiery Wall of Protection Oil and Success Oil. The John the Conqueror candle is for general protection, good fortune, and blessings, while the Just Judge candle is for luck in court and success with all your legal proceedings.
I truly hope that everything goes well for you, Chelsea, and that you are able to achieve every freedom you desire. I will keep the home fires burning for you.
Vivienne Westwood, fashion designer ‘Good for Chelsea’
Saul Williams, poet ‘We salute your wayward flag’
I am writing on behalf of those who have no idea what to say, who have trouble putting thoughts into words and even more so into actions, of the unsaid and unspoken, on behalf of the silent and silenced, the disempowered and disenfranchised, of those who exercise freedom at the rate of creation yet rarely suffer consequences as grave as those that have been set before you, and on behalf of those who have suffered worse, who have been murdered, forever silenced, the martyr loser kings and queens, those made examples of, lied about, who had no chance of survival, whose sentencing was a bullet to the head at an undisclosed place and time, whose stories are untold, forgotten, purposely misconstrued, so that the powers that be, the super-powers, could maintain their hold on the collective imagination.
There is a history to this, you know. It is a history that would create a fixed template for the present if it were not for those who took chances to speak out, to protest, to break protocol, break the rules, stand in the line of fire, who saw greater consequences than their own punishment. These people, many, if not mostly, dead, grace hipster T-shirts and college dorm walls, they are the heroes of not only dreamers and rebellious youth, but of great thinkers, organisers, leaders of those who see through the paternalistic dogma of authority, students who foresee greater and greater possibilities and take those visions to the streets, the schools, the courts and prisons. Poets, like myself, recite their names as mantras, as a call to arms, as a means of remembering those who have given more of themselves than is to be expected when comfort and fear are the rulers of the day.
My dearest Chelsea, I am writing to inform you that you have made the list. Your actions, your bravery, your voice and concern have inspired a whole generation of those who are just blossoming into the possibility of being the change they wish to see. We understand your anger and disillusionment with a system that feeds lies to its citizens, that encourages allegiance to a lesser intelligence for the mere sake of “business as usual”, that murders more than dreams, but the dreamers themselves. We who have seen whole nations, ethnic and religious groups targeted for the sake of corporate gain, who have watched arrogance and ignorance dance wildly down the isle of capital sanctuary, while soldiers like yourself are merely expected to throw rice and bombs.
I know that you have been called names like “traitor” and a host of others, but please never forget that for many of us who guard the flame that will one day burn the injustice out of empire you are a hero. Your actions have sparked more than global unrest, they have sparked the imagination of artists, engineers, teachers, and activists. You have given hope, even when those who would punish you for your actions remind you of your oath to God and country, your actions have reminded us that God would not favour countries more than humanity itself. And we applaud you, we buy you dresses and handbags (what size are you now?), pop bottles in your honour, and salute your wayward flag.
And please Chelsea, when the ghost of Ginsberg visits you in your cell tonight, and whispers “happy birthday” softly into your ear, turn your head and boldly kiss him, dead on the lips.