‘Manning is free’

'Manning is free' 'Manning is free'
'Manning is free'
‘Manning is free’

Dear Chelsea,

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.

[Appeared in The Guardian, on December 16th, 2014.]