Today I'll be voting Proudhon

The joys of not voting

Today is a rite of passage for me—not because it'll be my first vote in Scottish election, but because it'll see my first spoiled ballot. I've organised a postal vote for the occasion, so as to register maximum discontent. There's something pleasingly absurd about going to the trouble of having ballot papers sent to me for spoiling, but I've now at last reached the point where I just don't feel able to vote any more.

Until now, at each election I've been a voter in—from Parliamentary to Student Union—I've caved in to the feeling that my vote will have an effect in the world. I've even stood in a couple. Many anarchist colleagues report similar feelings, giving each other accusing looks all the way down to the polling station. We may not believe in “representative” democracy, but by Godwin we want to make sure the wrong person doesn't get in.

This year, for me, that pressure's particularly heavy. My constituency, Orkney, was until this year represented by Jim Wallace, former deputy first minister and a seemingly unassailable candidate. But with his departure from active politics there's seen to be a political vacuum in the islands that the parties are rushing to fill. Our new Tory candidate particularly has run a stellar campaign, pushing hard on local hot button issues. Frightened of her potential victory, and without a Green or Socialist candidate this year, I know much of the Orkney left is looking askance at the box next to the new Liberal Democrat candidate in a flurry of tactical voting.

But not I. This year I give up. Not from apathy or laziness, but because I just don't believe in it any more. I've been joking about the things I could do with my ballot papers—practicing my origami, making confetti for student theatre, supplementing my flat's supply of Tesco Value toilet-paper—and my friends laugh, and then give me a very odd look. Not wanting to vote is quite like being a vehement atheist: everyone resents you for adopting the extreme position that they desperately hope isn't true. And you're just a little frightening.

Anyway, I'm going to fill in the ballot paper boxes with little anarchy symbols and smiley faces now, covering the remaining space with quotations from Proudhon. Beyond bringing a smile to the face of the counters, I don't quite know what I hope to achieve with this. I don't know what happens to the deliberately spoiled ballots, except being announced in a folorn little number alongside all the mistakes people make at the polling stations. Part of me hopes that someone somewhere reads the messages people write, and that they're all compiled into a dossier in a dusty room somewhere—but I think that's the same part of me that believed that voting was meaningful.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.