The Secret Sharer

Insurgent Truth: Chelsea Manning and the Politics of Outsider Truth-Telling BY Lida Maxwell. New York: Oxford University Press. 224 pages. $27.

The cover of Insurgent Truth: Chelsea Manning and the Politics of Outsider Truth-Telling

Journalists often describe Chelsea Manning as a “whistle-blower.” This is understandable—I’ve called her that myself. The act for which Manning is best known, for which she has been celebrated and persecuted, is usually understood as a bold instance of whistle-blowing. But this is not how Manning primarily describes herself. On her Twitter profile, she identifies as a “Network Security Expert. Fmr. Intel Analyst. Trans Woman” and, first on the list, “Grand Jury Resister.” Grand jury resistance is the reason for Manning’s present incarceration. Last March, she was taken into federal custody for refusing to testify as a witness in grand jury proceedings relating to investigations into WikiLeaks.

Manning’s silence is no act of personal allegiance to Julian Assange. It’s a principled stand against the federal grand jury process—one of the blackest boxes in the US criminal justice system, which has historically been dedicated to disrupting social movements. For her resolute silence, she will remain in prison for at least another year and will accrue nearly half a million dollars in fines. Unless she testifies, which, she’s made clear, she will not. “I would rather starve to death,” she has said.

When the political scientist Lida Maxwell wrote her new book, Insurgent Truth: Chelsea Manning and the Politics of Outsider Truth-Telling, Manning had not yet stepped into the role of grand jury resister. Yet Maxwell already, and rightly, saw Manning as outside the typical codes of whistle-blowing. In Insurgent Truth, Maxwell delineates the proper tradition to which she believes Manning belongs: that of the “outsider truth-teller” who knows that power is best challenged through outright resistance. The “outsider truth-teller” does not seek transparency as a means of fixing a wrong and holding specific individuals to account; her actions aim to challenge the entire power structure, the hierarchies that accord her “outsider” status in the first place. The outsider’s struggle for existence itself reveals grim truths about oppression, domination, and power—that is, the conditions under which truths get to be told at all. At the core of Maxwell’s concise text lies the question: “What does a truth-teller look like?” Or, more precisely: Who gets a label like “truth-teller” and what is allowed to be called “truth”?

Maxwell contrasts the outsider truth-teller with the figure of the whistle-blower, looking at how someone might choose one of these roles—or have it chosen for them. The whistle-blower exposes certain damning facts with the aim of redressing a nameable wrong and correcting a system. Within Maxwell’s schema, the whistle-blower is accepted by much of society as a credible bearer of truth and a servant of the public, even if condemned by the government. To blow the whistle is to check and balance, to restore rather than disrupt public order and faith in institutions. This sort of truth-telling has long been “typically masculine, heterosexual, and motivated purely by a concern with a narrow public good.” For Maxwell, Edward Snowden is the ur-whistle-blower: He leaked a staggering trove of classified documents in order to expose state malfeasance and overreach, with the aim of defending the rights of the private citizen and returning government to its rightful function. He calls himself a “patriot,” and his supporters apply the same label. As he gathered damning National Security Agency files while working as a contractor, he kept a pocket US Constitution propped on his desk.

Chelsea Manning, New York, January 2018. Manolo Luna/Wikicommons
Chelsea Manning, New York, January 2018. Manolo Luna/Wikicommons

The outsider truth-teller is a more unwieldy character. Insurgent Truth posits that outsiders are often people whose own subjectivity is bound up in the truth they’re revealing—a fact that is held against them. When Manning’s nonconforming gender and sexuality were first revealed in leaked chats with the hacker Adrian Lamo, her motives in releasing the Afghan and Iraq War Logs were questioned even more harshly. Manning had drawn a connection between the suffering she experienced in the masculinist military and the US war machine’s murderous imperialism abroad. She was keenly aware that her own treatment and the obscene violence against civilians she witnessed were on a different scale of brutality but nonetheless part of the same dynamic: the military’s power to disappear and silence inconvenient people. The very thing that helped inspire Manning to leak—her understanding of herself as vulnerable to the violence she was trying to expose—made her illegible as a bearer of truth. The press seized on the leaked chat logs as evidence that Manning was acting out of private animus toward the military rather than in the “public good.” This response, Maxwell argues, reveals how the “oppressive public/private dyad” delegitimizes figures like Manning and determines what gets to count as truth.

Insurgent Truth opens with the story of Cassandra—the mythic template for outsider truth-telling. Having refused the god Apollo’s sexual advances, Cassandra is cursed to foresee the future but never be believed, her warnings of the destruction of Troy ignored. Maxwell sees Manning as a modern-day Cassandra: the conveyor of terrible truths, who is pushed “outside the circle of the hearable,” imprisoned and isolated. The book places Manning within a surprising but thoughtful lineage of historical “outsiders”: Virginia Woolf, Audre Lorde, the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, the Black Liberation activist and feminist Anna Julia Cooper. The effect is a weaving of radical calls for collectivity among outsider voices, desirous of a clearing, if not a scorching, of the political ground, and a world rebuilt around better truths. Sites of solidarity are, after all, a prerequisite for outsider truths to rise to the status of “truth” at all, reflections as they necessarily are of the consensus realities of the marginalized and oppressed.

If the members of this theoretical legacy are well chosen, Maxwell’s use of Snowden as a counterpoint, albeit a respected one, is at times taken too far. While his whistle-blowing was inspired by constitutional fealty, Snowden was also subjected to harsh scrutiny and was belittled by the press. This doesn’t quite fit Maxwell’s narrative. More importantly, she minimizes the importance of Snowden’s NSA leaks by reducing them to a simple call for better privacy protections. But the state-corporate nexus of mass surveillance revealed in the vast Snowden trove is at least equal to Manning’s War Logs in terms of the sorts of unsettling truths they reveal. That the US government responded with fangless “privacy” legislation does not make Snowden’s revelations any less radical. And the truths Manning revealed about the war machine’s murderous brutality were normalized too. Maxwell’s praise of Manning’s leaks as “world-changing” and “transformative” rings slightly hollow. They should have changed the world. But they did not.

Maxwell is more convincing when she develops her conception of “insurgent truth” as a corrective to what she calls “the regime of the modern fact.” Following Trump’s ascent, and given his ongoing commitment to flagrant, pernicious lies, a cottage industry has emerged of liberal appeals to Truth as a weapon. Consider the Washington Post’s self-important slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” or the New York Times’ ad campaign proclaiming “Truth can’t be manufactured”—a most manufactured, near-religious notion of truth indeed. The idea, or rather the wish, that some pre-political truth will deliver us from Trump’s post-truth era has become one of the defining liberal myths of our time. The figure of the whistle-blower—James Comey, Gordon D. Sondland, the “anonymous” CIA officer who lodged the Ukraine allegations—is lauded as a savior, bearing the sword of truth, poised to deliver the smoking gun. Which is not to say the necessary work of fact-checking and whistle-blowing should be dismissed; rather that a reckoning is in order with the limitations of facts in the face of indifferent power. “Democracy needs more than facts and a willingness to debate on this (un)common ground,” Maxwell writes.

It takes a certain privileged position to believe in the ability of raw fact to “speak truth to power.” The undeniable fact, caught countless times now on cell phones and police bodycams, of cops brutalizing and murdering black people has not been sufficient to topple the racism undergirding US policing. Ramsey Orta, who filmed the police killing of Eric Garner and became a target of brutal harassment by law enforcement, is, like Manning, imprisoned. Black Lives Matter protesters, mentioned by Maxwell at a few points, enact outsider truth-telling in the streets because the facts of white supremacy are not meaningfully heard in the courtroom or the classroom or the office. Garner’s last, gasped words, “I can’t breathe,” are repeated as a chant. This is what Maxwell means by the “activity” of telling insurgent truths.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising last June, Manning wrote a short missive from prison, a paean to intersectional struggle, to be publicly read by supporters at New York’s Queer Liberation March. “Christopher Street, Washington Square, Stonewall—on these streets, on this land which rightfully belongs to the Lenape people, the true history of queer and trans liberation is written,” she wrote to the gathered marchers. “All these places tell stories: Stories of solidarity, of love, of rebellion. Our movement for freedom began here, and the fact that you are all standing here today proves it is far from over.” She ended her message with the three words with which she hashtags her most optimistic, radical, and ferocious tweets: “We Got This.” Maxwell’s reading of Manning’s “We” as a collective of outsider truth-tellers, “creating new scenes of reality,” is as apt as it is inspiring.

Natasha Lennard is a columnist at The Intercept and the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life (Verso, 2019).