Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer's cameo at the Emmy Awards was an unseemly reminder that, in the United States, those in positions of power all too rarely face serious consequences for misleading the public. Spicer was handed a nationally televised platform on one of Hollywood's biggest nights to make light of the lies he told during his brief tenure in the White House. Meanwhile, we continue to see examples of how certain kinds of truth-telling in this country are often punished, especially when they challenge the powers that be.
This month, Harvard set off a controversy when the university's prestigious Institute of Politics (IOP) invited — and then disinvited — whistleblower Chelsea Manning to serve as a visiting fellow. In 2010, Manning, then a private in the Army, leaked a trove of secret documents that exposed wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The important revelations in the Manning documents . . . are too numerous to name," writes Freedom of the Press Foundation executive director Trevor Timm, "but they include the fact that the United States had killed far more people in Iraq than the government had admitted publicly, that United States soldiers turned a blind eye to torture by Iraqi soldiers and that the United States covered up the killing of civilians by American soldiers."
Manning served nearly seven years in prison for violating the Espionage Act, enduring long periods of solitary confinement that the U.N. special rapporteur on torture called "cruel, inhuman and degrading." She was released in May after President Barack Obama commuted her sentence. Since then, Manning has become a prominent activist for transgender rights, and the IOP specifically touted the perspective she would bring on "issues of LGBTQ identity in the military" in a statement announcing her selection as a fellow. Two days later, however, it rescinded Manning's invitation, succumbing to blowback from the bipartisan national security establishment.
A similar attempt to silence brave activism is currently playing out in another major American institution: the National Football League. Three weeks into the new football season, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick still has not found a place on an NFL roster. Last year, Kaepernick began kneeling for the national anthem as a protest against police brutality and racial injustice. His actions won praise from civil rights activists across the country, while inspiring similar protests by fellow athletes at every level. But he also infuriated many on the right — including President Trump, who called the quarterback a "son of a bitch" at a rally in Alabama this weekend — and was not signed to a team during the offseason.
Despite claims that Kaepernick's banishment is based on performance, ESPN writer Bill Barnwell recently examined the statistics and concluded that "there hasn't been a single quarterback in the post-merger modern NFL to play like Kaepernick did in 2016 without getting another shot at a job afterward." As Dave Zirin, sports editor of the Nation, has written, "What we have, quite simply and obviously, is a case of NFL owners' colluding to keep Colin Kaepernick out of a job."
Admirably, Manning and Kaepernick refuse to be cowed. After Harvard disinvited her, Manning tweeted that "this is what a military/police/intel state looks like . . . the @cia determines what is and is not taught." Kaepernick has continued to donate time and money to social justice causes, with his financial contributions now approaching $1 million. In a show of solidarity, the NFL Players Association honored Kaepernick as its most valuable player for the first week of the season, commending his "commitment to empowering underserved communities through donations and grassroots outreach." And in response to Trump's comments, dozens of additional players across the league took a knee on Sunday. (For their part, many team owners publicly supported their players' right to protest.)
Moreover, while Harvard determined that its offer to Manning was a mistake, Corey Lewandowski, the former Trump campaign manager who forcibly grabbed a reporter and lied about it, will continue to serve as a visiting fellow. Sean Spicer will, too. Harvard's decision to disinvite Manning was influenced by the public resignation of former acting CIA director Michael Morell, who maintains that CIA agents did not engage in torture, while rejecting the overwhelming evidence that "enhanced interrogation techniques" did more harm than good. And as Glenn Greenwald,co-founder of the Intercept, points out, a number of the former George W. Bush administration officials who deceived the country into the Iraq War now enjoy plum jobs at elite media outlets and academic institutions.
As strange as these times often seem, this warped dynamic between truth and power is disquietingly familiar. Indeed, the examples of Manning and Kaepernick are particularly telling because they have nothing to do with the current occupant of the Oval Office. Instead, they are a consequence of the normalization of corruption, which has resulted in some of America's most powerful institutions treating the truth as an inconvenience or, worse, an enemy to defeat.