On Tuesday, the New York Times published an op-ed by Brookings Institute fellow Jamie Kirchick titled “When Transgender Trumps Treachery,” in which Kirchick lambasts the liberal media — including fashion magazines — for its embrace of Chelsea Manning. “The fashion world has a new darling. She's a size 4, counts Queen Elizabeth I and Marie Antoinette as her style icons, and has 'a flat stomach, great legs and curvy hips, according to Vogue,” Kirchick wrote. Manning, who was released from prison in May after having her 35-year sentence commuted by President Barack Obama and was subsequently featured in two Vogue spreads, is undeserving of these accolades, Kirchick claims — not because she’s transgender, but because she had the gall to leak classified government information.
“Not since Vogue published a piece about the wife of Syrian President Bashar-al Assad, ‘The Rose in the Desert,’ for which it subsequently apologized and scrubbed from its website, has it celebrated such a morally compromised figure,” Kirchick wrote.
Since being released from prison in May, Manning has been a beacon of positivity on the fractured left, a reminder that truth and justice still occasionally prevail in a world that seems increasingly chaotic and unjust. She often punctuates her tweets with several emojis and her signature hashtag, #WeGotThis. Kirchick evidently has a problem with the notion that Manning, who somehow manages to radiate joy and hope despite having had to go to prison for a victimless crime, is enjoying her life as a free woman and likes to use emojis in her tweets. Those tweets, Kirchick says, “read like the doodles of a freshman peace studies major and belie her portrayal as the moral conscience of our time.” It’s not clear what Kirchick hates more: Manning, happiness, or that Manning is happy.
Since being released from prison in May, Manning has been a beacon of positivity on the fractured left.
On Twitter, Kirchick, who works for a prominent think tank and regularly appears on network television, promoted his op-ed as a condemnation of the “unseemly glitterati fawning” over Manning. Kirchick’s dislike for Manning isn’t surprising: In the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, he wrote several pieces for The Daily Beast in which he claimed millennials and leftists were as responsible for Trump’s rise as the religious right. Kirchick, a reactionary who claims to oppose Trump yet seemingly loathes “radical Islam” and anti-fascism as much as any member of Trump’s administration, is the embodiment of the craven both-sides-ism the Times’s opinion editors have embraced since Trump was elected.
Kirchick has had it out for Manning for a long time. In 2012, Kirchick wrote a piece for Out magazine in which he argued that Manning “is no gay hero” because her act of treason — leaking classified information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including videos of U.S. soldiers killing unarmed civilians and journalists — helps the claim “that gay people are unfit to serve in the armed forces” (this was before Manning had come out as a transgender woman). He rehashes the argument in his Times piece, adding that it’s likely most liberals wouldn’t have embraced Manning so readily if she weren’t trans. According to Kirchick, “it’s hard to imagine Ms. Manning receiving such positive reception — never mind a spread in Vogue — if she still identified as Bradley, transgender being the liberal cause du jour. Ms. Manning’s atypical identity adds a frisson of subversion to her already subversive acts.”
This should go without saying, but there’s a huge difference between publishing a favorable spread about Asma al-Assad, whose husband uses chemical weapons against his own people, and Manning, who courageously leaked information that changed the way the world understood the United States’ ongoing wars in the Middle East. By the time Manning leaked classified information about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 53 percent of Americans saw the Iraq War as a mistake, according to a Gallup poll. Manning’s leak was concrete proof for what a lot of people knew to be true: American soldiers were torturing and killing civilians in cruel, unjust Middle East wars. It’s impossible to say what our collective understanding of these wars would be without Manning’s sacrifice — and it was a sacrifice. The United Nations condemned the treatment she received while during her seven years in prison, saying it was cruel, inhuman, and degrading, and may have constituted torture. Even Obama, who waited until the very last minute to commute Manning’s sentence said her punishment was excessive. “The sentence she received was very disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received,” Obama said during a January press conference.
Kirchick has had it out for Manning for a long time.
Kirchick, meanwhile, has no sympathy for Manning, who was on suicide watch during her last year in prison and was repeatedly held in solitary confinement. He seems to think her punishment fit the crime, and disagrees with the general consensus that Manning committed a victimless crime.
“Celebrating Chelsea Manning just a few years after gay and transgender people were permitted to serve openly in the military discredits the LGBT cause,” Kirchick writes, because conservatives can use her to claim LGBT people have a predisposition for treason. Notably, a secret Department of Defense report which Buzzfeed obtained in June shows that Manning’s leak didn’t harm U.S. interests in the Middle East, but it did have the potential to cause “serious damage” to “intelligence sources, informants, and the Afghan population,” a fact Kirchick uses to concern-troll his readers.
“When Ms. Manning transmitted 750,000 secret military records and State Department cables to WikiLeaks in 2010, she not only jeopardized continuing missions and disrupted American diplomacy,” Kirchick wrote. “She also put an untold number of people’s lives in danger.” Kirchick cites a New Yorker profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange published this month, which says that when the U.S. military tried to locate “hundreds” of Afghans named in some of the documents Manning leaked, many were found and safely relocated, but “many could not be found, or were in environments too dangerous to reach.”
Kirchick’s concern for the Afghan informants who worked with the American forces — if it’s even genuine — isn’t misplaced. Iraqi and Afghan translators who worked with the U.S. have been persecuted in their countries and, since 2008, have been able to apply for asylum in the U.S., even if they don’t usually get it. Unsurprisingly, Kirchick doesn’t mention that the U.S. government has done virtually nothing to help the Afghan and Iraqi civilians whom the military — not Manning — put in danger, nor does he muster any concern for the hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqi civilians whose torture and deaths Manning shed a light on.
Instead, the bulk of Kirchick’s criticism of Manning focuses on the fact that she violated the Espionage Act. To Kirchick, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were justified, but Manning’s decision to break the law was not. Being a traitor is an unforgivable sin.
“Not only did Ms. Manning violate her oath by assuming the right to determine what classified information should be made public,” Kirchick wrote, “but she also did so in cooperation with a megalomaniac who would go on to play an outsize role ensuring Mr. Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton.”
Kirchick’s problem with Manning isn’t that she did something morally wrong, but that that she stepped out of line. For bootlickers like him, that’s a graver offense than war.