They demonstrate a contemporary preoccupation with the rights of minorities and the offended, potentially over and above those of the majority or authority, of principles above pragmatism and of a profound dislike of any suspicion of power and money.
Manning did not know and could not have known the extent of the risk he was taking, how many innocent people’s lives he was endangering by exposing state secrets to an opponent in war. Certainly, he may well have been acting on his conscience in response to a handful of wrongs he witnessed, but he leaked 700,000 documents: the leaks were indiscriminate.
He was bound by his employment for the US state to keep the secrets to himself. As David Blair says in his Telegraph blog, Manning had no right to reveal any information, let alone do so randomly and recklessly. He betrayed his country, and what he did was treason.
Yet a vast swell of the public – quite possibly a majority – considers him a hero. If, during the war, a Briton had given away our national secrets to the Germans, the consequences would have been unthinkable – and the traitor would have been seen as a hero only by Hitler.
But, with the strange ways in which attitudes have turned, Manning is now feted as courageous – and one can’t help feeling it’s as much for his defiance of authority as much as anything else.
If a loved one of mine had been killed in a terror attack carried out as a result of information he leaked, I don’t think I could bring myself to pass the time of day to anyone claiming he was a hero.
Illegal means illegal
What Manning did was, of course, illegal. And some people seem to struggle to understand that means. Illegal is illegal is illegal, no matter who you are. But campaigners claim it’s racist to encourage people who are doing something illegal to stop doing something illegal. It’s not.
The law is paramount. If a court reporter believes someone in a trial is guilty but he or she is found not guilty, under no circumstances would the reporter cast doubt on the verdict in reporting the case. From the moment of judgment, the defendant IS not guilty. That’s how the law works.
It would be racist, offensive and outrageous, of course, to say someone was not wanted in Britain because of their colour or race. But that’s not what the advertising vans are doing. If a legal British citizen breaks the law and is punished, no campaigner claims they are being victimised; yet somehow it’s different on sensitive migration issues. We may like, sympathise with or respect individual illegal immigrants but that’s different from believing them to be legal. By all means argue for compassion or exceptional treatment for such people, but do not claim prejudice. Something is either legal or it’s not. The adverts on the vans might be unkind and hard-hearted but they are not racist.
Many people who know north-east England are up in arms over Lord Howell’s suggestion that fracking be carried out there, where it is “desolate” rather than in the overcrowded South-east. It was a silly thing to say; he spoke without thinking and expressed himself clumsily.
But much of the criticism of the peer has centred on his background and wealth, with former deputy PM John Prescott tweeting: “It should probably come as no surprise that Lord Howell went to Eton” – as though going to a public school is as much a sin as his comments and such a background automatically makes him either insensitive or stupid, or both.
Predictably, Lord Howell has also been branded a “Tory nob” and a “clueless southern toff”. It is perfectly acceptable – cool, in fact – to abuse in this way those seen as wealthy or from a particular class.
But it’s one rule for the “underdogs” (who are in fact in a majority), and another rule for those from comfortable backgrounds. Imagine the heinous vitriol if it was the other way round and southern Tories, public-school products or the wealthy talked of “Labour yobs” or “clueless northern riff-raff”.
This is not to say the wealthy, upper classes or those in power should not be criticised – far from it. Merely that a strange inversion has happened since the old days of deference that has created a new type of social inequality. The new equality is that for certain sections of society, there is no equality.
Of course, fracking should not be a north/south or rich/poor issue (yes, there is also poverty in the South, even in Sussex). If shale-gas exploration is going to happen despite its unpopularity, no communities should be immune from the blight.
So it’s curious that while the traditional holders of power. privilege by birth or wealth are these days often held in contempt, it’s more often becoming the case that those without power or in a minority demand special treatment or respect. The trouble is that respect is something you earn through your actions, not something you get through demanding it.