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In recent months, there has been a great deal of talk across this country and on this campus about free speech. Conservatives in particular have been quick to defend voices like Charles A. Murray ’65 in order to protect the values of free speech from the onslaught of campus liberalism. While there are indeed many issues with the groupthink that can often arise on a campus as liberal as ours, I find it ironic that many conservatives have not been more defensive lately on another issue that merits much more (and substantive) discussion as of late.
I speak, of course, of Chelsea Manning’s dismissal from the Institute of Politics as a Visiting Fellow for this term. Upon her appointment on Thursday, hell has been wrought on the Institute of Politics. Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo refused to show up to a scheduled event, citing his vehement disagreement. In addition, a senior IOP Fellow resigned, and prominent Republicans condemned Manning’s appointment. The Institute of Politics gave in to a political wing that ironically condemns the illiberalism of cancelling free speech and disinviting speakers.
This is not an article about whether or not Manning was a traitor or not—she of course pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges, including espionage. What this is about is the right to free speech. Instead of standing up for their decision and following through with the principles they acted upon by appointing Manning, the IOP has caved to ideological pressure. If they truly cared about presenting Manning’s message to the world, they would have stood by the appointment. Ultimately, the IOP has shown us that voices can be silenced if they don’t fit with a dominating ideological agenda.
In a statement, Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf wrote that while Manning could potentially be invited to speak at the Forum in future, the Visiting Fellow title is viewed by many as an “honorific,” and therefore was perhaps not an appropriate decision to give to someone as controversial as her. But Sean Spicer, a man who damaged national discourse extensively during his role in the West Wing, was announced as a Fellow the same day as Manning. While I do not wish to conflate the actions of the two, how much more deserving of this “honor” is Spicer than Manning?
It is a shame that Manning will not be able to share her experiences with the Harvard student body in a capacity as a fellow. She is perhaps the most substantive high-profile speaker the IOP could have had this term.
One way in which ideology has obfuscated this debate is through identity politics. I strongly disagree with Manning’s decision to turn this into an issue of her gender identity. In a tweet released last Friday, Manning implied she was being disinvited for being a trans woman, and that her “marginalized voice” was being suppressed. This is ludicrous. It is undeniable that the Trump administration has taken a disgusting and reprehensible approach to transgender individuals. But both Pompeo’s and the Kennedy School’s statements specifically disavowed any suggestion of discrimination on the basis of her trans status. If one were to replace the name Chelsea Manning with Edward Snowden, the same actions would likely have happened.
Manning was disinvited because of a backlash against her actions of espionage, which were significant (however one looks at it). But by not acknowledging that this was the reason why she was disinvited, she has precluded a conversation on campus about the worthiness of her free speech. Manning has simplified a complex topic and fit it into the completely inadequate boxes of identity. This is upsetting, because it erroneously simplifies the issues that should be discussed: freedom, liberty and government accountability, which all of us—whether we are on the right or left—should care about.
The only statement that correctly discusses the gravitas of the issue is that of the Harvard Libertarians, who stated, and rightly:
“We are profoundly disappointed in the IOP’s decision...Harvard’s Latin motto—Veritas—means truth. Chelsea Manning’s only alleged crime was telling the American public the truth about the undeclared, unconstitutional wars that their government never allowed them to vote upon.”
Although I am not a libertarian, I believe Manning’s controversial actions deserve to be discussed, justified, and cross-examined in a space as important as the IOP. It would have gone a long way towards examining crucial questions of justice, privacy, security, and, of course, free speech. But these issues are not being discussed in the wake of Manning’s dismissal.
All that seems to matter for many liberals is her trans status, and all that seems to matter for many conservatives is her divulging of state secrets. And this is a problem. Because as the left and the right drift ever apart, we lose sight of what issues that matter really mean. This debacle is only one example of how political identifiers change to reflect personal ones, and vice versa.
This school’s motto is Veritas, and increasingly we find ourselves shrinking away from it into the comfort of our own worldviews and ideologies. We must gain the power to accept that others have viewpoints apart from our own. We must recognize that if the Republican establishment is slow to condemn neo-Nazis but quick to criticize Chelsea Manning, they do not believe in free speech. We must agree that if Charles Murray is allowed to speak at Harvard, Chelsea Manning should be allowed to be an IOP Fellow.
Otherwise, we have given up on Veritas.
Robert Miranda ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Pforzheimer House.
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