Millenials, Manning, and the Selfie Problem of the New Political Age

Manning Selfie: The propaganda machines of any given election cycle cannot begin to compete with the nuance and depth of your typical Millenial’s social media footprint. The overwhelming majority of 18 to 29 year olds are not only connected, but happy to disclose “a great deal of personal information” on social networks even as they mature, according to a survey of technology experts. Enough has been written about the ramifications of social media, from potential employers uncovering old party pictures to the anxiety provoked from the spectatorship of the lives of others. What has not been addressed is the question; why aren’t media-savvy, personality peddlers storming the political world?

To start, let’s establish what are the exact skills that social media has ingrained in the generation that grew up with it. I’d argue that our fluency with social networks fosters an ability to curate a public personality on a media platform. Unlike interactions in real time, which have millions of variables to derail even the most a carefully constructed persona, a personal profile is a controlled and relatively quiet environment of self-projection. Online, you are given the time and space to carefully tinker with the pictures on your profile. To realize the desired image, however, is no easy task, and the time and effort involved gives observers the impression of extreme narcissism.

“Selfies” have been interpreted as a perfect distillation of this narcissism of our age. However, when challenged to justify their practice, frequent selfie-takers are surprisingly eloquent. A writer at BuzzFeed and Rookie, for example, explained that selfies were a way of “taking ownership of my body and deciding how I want to be seen” so as to “control the narrative of your own image.” Even if selfies are focused on superficial representations, there is an earnest belief in Millennials that some true “self” can eventually be triangulated and represented in the continuous narrative that social network newsfeeds create.

Oddly enough, the ability to shape a perfect persona has still left us with a lack of youthful political figures with mass appeal. The 18-29 demographic for whom mass media manipulation of public imagery is already second nature should be able to create some powerful human symbols. Yet the most infamous and predominately youth-associated movement — Occupy Wall Street — neglected to produce a young leader. Youthful groups, and not just Occupy, have purposefully eschewed a power structure that would allow a figurehead to form, instead opting to appear as an anonymous mass. Even if such political movements are too anarchistic to produce political leaders, some political actions cannot avoid being associated with an individual. Namely, the major government leak always gives us a new major government leaker. Pvt. Chelsea Manning (formerly identified as Pfc. Bradley Manning), 25, who in 2010 transferred thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks has been attributed traits that are similar to the behaviors associated with Generation Y. She has been described as technologically hyper-literate or even savant, and has been accused of the oh-so-GenY-characteristics of narcissism and fame mongering. Manning is certainly the victim of generational stereotypes, but these stereotypes do not stop at reducing her to a two-dimensional public figure. They represent a full-scale failure of communication between generational symbolic codes.

On August 21st, 2013 Manning was dishonorably discharged and sentenced to 35 years in prison. On August 22nd, Manning sent a letter to NBC’s Today Show requesting that people identify her as a woman and address her as Chelsea. Manning’s gender dysphoria was not a surprise to anyone following her case, but this fact did not prevent the breakout of a rash of accusations that she had suddenly made this proclamation to get into a women’s prison.Or, from others, it was taken simply as an indication that Manning is a “nut”, and her actions, whistle blowing included, were effectively pathologized and delegitimized. It is easy for supporters to call the whole question of her sexuality beside the point and to label the above comments as blatant character assassination. However, in the court records that were available to the public, Manning’s sexuality was most prominently brought up by her own defense. This occurred during the sentencing trial, and the goal of the defense at that point was to mitigate the sentence (which had a 90 year maximum) by arguing the extreme stress of her gender dysphoria caused her erratic behavior, rather than malice or ill-intent. It is clear that among those fighting for Manning, there is no strong consensus on how to approach her mental health history or sexual identity.

Regardless, Manning’s identification as a woman was clear in 2010, before being arrested, when she claimed she “wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press…as a boy.” Even though Manning’s gender identification announcement was a long time coming, it is striking that Manning’s first move upon speaking with the public was to take control of her personal narrative. Supporters of WikiLeaks and Manning are quick to decry critiques of Manning that belittle her political motivations in favor of personal ones. However, it is clear that Manning is very concerned with her personal representation, especially with regard to her gender. Manning’s desire for peace with her personal identity is a generational prerogative especially critical for someone with gender dysphoria, but it also gives her supporters an uphill battle in keeping her narrative political rather than personal.

That being said, the prosecution also made use of Manning’s personal artifacts. Major Ashden Fein argued of the prosecution argued that exhibit 40 was “a picture of a person who thought he was finally becoming famous.” Prosecution exhibit 40 is a selfie. The very same thing which some argued allows people to gain narrative control of their existence was recast in the patronizing eye of the elder bemoaning kids these days. In effect, the prosecution attempted to manipulate the generational stereotype into fodder for an even more deviant narrative of Manning’s motivation.

The writer and director of the 2013 documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Alex Gibney, argues that Manning is not a “pure political figure, like [Pentagon Papers leaker] Daniel Ellsberg.” Gibney is trying to say that Ellsberg behaved purely on political motivation while Manning’s motivation was more personal and vindictive, but his statement betrays the crux of the matter. Ellsberg is purely political insofar as his public representation has ended up relatively free of personal details. In terms of politics, Manning has expressed clear political motivations, and her actions were extremely similar to Ellsberg’s, even according to Ellsberg himself. Manning, on the other hand, has become a victim of a new technologically literate age, in which personal details inevitably make their way to the public. New York Time’s columnist, David Carr, illustrated this beautifully when he opened a column penned shortly after Manning’s sentencing describing a “disgruntled loner” who revealed military secrets for “some noble and some personal” reasons. The mind jumps to Manning, but Carr reveals that the loner he is discussing for the moment is Ellsberg. In reality, the two individuals are similar, but the difference – at least in the extent to which they are political figures – lies only in how they are covered and who has taken control of their personal narrative.

Manning’s political purity is surely on unstable footing, and this is owed to the fact that Manning’s personality, like many of her cohort, has been proffered to the public for analysis. Even though Millenials will argue that involving the personal in the public realm is an avenue towards narrative control, it is clear from Manning’s case that once the narrative is out there, it is all too easy for it to fall in the hands of others. What emerges on a public level cannot remain a pure political narrative because a pure narrative is necessarily an abbreviated and curated one. Millennials’ voluminous personal media presence creates complexity that calls for more nuanced interpretation of character and action, but it is much easier and much more popular to just write it all off as narcissism.

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