The false equivalence between racists and whistleblowers.

So a National MP and assorted right-wingers believe that Chelsea Manning should not be allowed to speak in NZ because she is a [insert unpleasant adjectives and nouns here]. Many of those who vociferously demanded that a Canadian white supremacist tag team be allowed to use publicly funded facilities to spew their venom in NZ have gone silent about Manning. To their credit, some of that motley “free speech coalition” think she should be allowed in, so at least they have the virtue of being consistent.

What is interesting is that those who want Manning banned from entering NZ appear to be using a false equivalence. They believe that people who, at little personal cost, encourage racial divisions and promote xenophobia are comparable to people who, at great personal cost, divulge abuses of power and authority in and out of war zones. In their minds both types of speech are basically the same: offensive to some, welcome by others. If racists are to be silenced, then so should dissidents be.

That is simply nonsense. There is no equivalence of any sort between racist xenophobes and people of conscience.

I am not entirely comfortable with what Manning did in releasing classified materials to Wikileaks. I am uncomfortable because Wikileaks has moved from being an objective whistleblowing outfit to a tool of authoritarian forces seeking to undermine Western democracies, and because she had outlets within and outside her military chain of command that she could have gone to in order to raise alarms about improper conduct that she was familiar with (which is why she could not avail herself of the whistleblower protections available to civilians). In any event she was tried, convicted and sentenced for unauthorised disclosure of classified material to unauthorised outlets and had that sentence commuted by President Obama. She is now a free US citizen with no restrictions on her rights to vote, work, travel or speak. In fact, she even ran in the Democratic primary for a Maryland Senate seat (although she lost in a landslide to establishment politicians).

The Canadian racists have suffered no indignities other than cancellation of speaking events and ridicule. Sponsored by Rightist promoters with little legitimate institutional backing, they nevertheless whinge about their treatment and ask that suckers donate money to them in order to cover their expenses. Manning accepts what has happened to her and uses her experience to talk publicly about abuses of authority and the dangers of confronting powerful institutions. Her talks are sponsored by civic organisations and academic institutions.

It is interesting that the National MP who wants Manning banned from NZ, Michael Woodhouse, not only maintained that the racists should have been given a NZ forum, but also appears to have more than Manning on his mind. After all, the Opposition Leader is currently mired in a slow burning fiasco over his travel expenses that threatens to undermine his position. It is widely believed that the leaks about his expenses came from within the National caucus and rumours of plotting and scheming against him are rife. Not surprisingly, Simon Bridges is desperately trying to find a way to put a lid on the affair and move on to anything else. Now Woodhouse drops the call for banning Manning into the mix. Bridges has to respond by either supporting or repudiating his Immigration spokesperson’s demand, a complication that he does not need and a no-win proposition whichever way he chooses to go.

Bridges and Woodhouse may believe that the proposal to ban Manning is worth floating because it is a good diversion that will allow Bridges to reassert control over his caucus while cementing support from National’s conservative base. But, because he defended their right to speak in NZ, it also gives the impression that Bridges would prefer to have foreign racists rather than whistleblowers address audiences in this country. Or perhaps Woodhouse was being mischievous rather than helpful in raising the issue, something that poses more questions about Bridge’s hold on the National Leadership. Whatever the motivations at play, Bridges stands to lose more than he gains from Woodhouse’s gambit.

In the end this is just another beat-up. Unlike the Canadian racists, Manning poses no threat to NZ’s social harmony. She is not coming to test the boundaries of free speech. The idea that her US convictions disqualify her apriori is nonsense given her public role and the fact that what she was convicted for did, in fact, serve the public interest even if it discomfited the authorities that she was exposing (and who took their judicial revenge upon her).  So if foreign racists without prior convictions (that I know of) can come to NZ to preach division (and I did support their right to speak so long as no taxpayer money was used to host them and they provided their own security), then it seems to me that it is only fair that a whistleblower convicted for doing so can come to speak about the dangers of unbridled and unchecked authority under the same rules.

All she needs is a visa and a private venue, something that the racists ultimately were not able to secure.

Then again, perhaps the false equivalence is just a ploy and the beat-up is not just on Manning.

10 thoughts on “The false equivalence between racists and whistleblowers.

  1. I think you are misrepresenting things here. There are very few people who object to Manning speaking in New Zealand. They are querying why Immigration would grant a visa to someone with a conviction under the Espionage Act. This is not a freedom of speech issue but a visa one.

  2. MacDr.:

    It is true that she was convicted of espionage charges but those charges were about as valid as the charges of terrorist association leveled against Ahmed Zaoui in France and Belgium. To wit: those were eminently political charges and eminently political on the face of it–if you provide classified documents to unauthorized people without permission of your superiors or other pertinent authority and you are not covered by civilian government employee whistleblower protections because you are in the military, then Espionage Act charges are the catch-all clause under which you get prosecuted.

    Having said that, I agree that on the face of it Woodhouse is focused on prior convictions as a reason for Manning’s exclusion. However, besides the obvious cover that it provides for his dog whistle, that would mean that pretty much every rocker and rapper (and many tourists) looking to play in NZ need to be banned. But Simon may not be aware of that contradiction, much less the hypocrisy of trying to play it for partisan advantage.

  3. Simon G:
    Thanks for that. Looks like the tail is wagging the dog and the dog is visceral in her reaction.

  4. Trump has shown the Right that they don’t need to make sense they just need to generate as much controversy as possible, which the media and thence their viewers will lap up, and then hope to eke out a win by activating enough peoples base feelings before their higher reasoning can take effect.

  5. “because she had outlets within and outside her military chain of command that she could have gone to in order to raise alarms about improper conduct that she was familiar with”

    Manning addressed this issue in detail in her recent RNZ interview with Kim Hill. She says anyone who raised suched issues was immediately put on a trouble-makers list and became subject to investigation / sanction themselves.

  6. I would have thought it a given that if you maintain the principle of freedom of speech, then it would make no sense to deny a visa to a foreign person on the grounds that she has previously been convicted in another jurisdiction for exercising free speech.
    I also believe that it is ridiculous to claim, as the New Zealand political establishment has in the past, that freedom of speech allows for the free expression of opinion, but does not not extend to statements of fact. If Manning’s offence was to to reveal facts that the political establishment in the US would rather keep secret from the people, then in my book it was no offence at all and certainly should not be used as justification for denying her the right to speak in this country.
    However the colonial regime in New Zealand has an appalling record on freedom of speech (the military regime in Myanmar adopted the same legislative model as New Zealand when setting out to suppress freedom of speech in that country) and I do not expect much from it in the case of Manning, Molyneaux and Southern or others.
    Another curiosity is that the colonial establishment puts a lot of effort into either inviting foreign speakers into, or banning them from, its jurisdiction, despite the evidence that such foreigners (whether statesmen, trouble makers or bona fide dissidents) have very little impact on the political sensibilities of ordinary New Zealanders. All a bit crazy.
    If they were genuine, the politicians would allow our own people the freedom of speech and political opinion which they have denied us for the past two centuries.

  7. Yes, I know that there were issues with her immediate chain of command. But she could have gone outside it to the JAG assigned to that part of the Iraq theater, and if she was determined to get the evidence of war crimes out into the public domain, it would have been better to approach major US media outlets like the NYT, WSJ, WaPo, all of whom have formidable legal teams that could have better protected her from retribution.

  8. I’m not much older than Manning and I think I have a good insight.

    First of all, in my experience, chain of command is useless for things like this. Going outside the chain is only designed for making minor corrections, for large scale stuff it is going to be just as useless as going up the chain. Everyone is about keeping this sort of thing in-house as much as possible, more than they care about correcting things.

    At the time Assange and Domschitt-Berg were like heroes to young techies. The reputation of the press was absolutely abysmal after they championed the Iraq War. Talking to the foreign press would have worked better, but that wasn’t well understood at the time, especially to an American.

    Later it became apparent that Assange was a giant arsehole and Wikileaks basically collapsed. Only Assange as the personality remains.

    I can fully understand why Manning took the route she did and I have some sympathy.

  9. Good points James. My belief that he could have used the JAG in the first instance, perhaps by going directly to the US forces HQ in the Green Zone, was that he could bring war crimes to ist attention. That is a big deal and would be hard to sweep under the rug. I also agree that Wikileaks looked to be an objective outlet at the time. Your remark about going to the foreign press rather than the US press is also intriguing. It is true that there was a lot of cheerleading by US media in the build up to the Iraq invasion, but some major outlets were pretty critical of the justification and covered the debates fairly well. Going to the foreign press would have been seen by US authorities as just as bad as going to Wikileaks, IMO, although outlets like the Guardian, Le Monde and the Times all would have been safe hands.

    In any event it is all water under the bridge now, and it would be interesting to hear her address the questions we have been discussing.

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