National Commentary

Manning, Snowden & the ‘Misfit’ Factor

nfbentonpicThank heavens for misfits and non-conformists.

I mean that. “Thank the heavens” might be more precise, because I am solidly persuaded that evolution in the universe from the beginning has been predicated on a certain dissymmetry that compels it forward. It has been identified in physics in a number of ways as “lefthanded” features of certain physical properties from the sub-atomic level to human beings. For purposes of the conversation at hand, the evidence shows that “misfits” are naturally and constructively hard wired into our species.

I developed this argument in more depth to explain why a certain percentage of us are homosexual in my 100-part series published weekly in a Washington, D.C. gay newspaper between 2010 and 2012 called “Nick Benton’s Gay Science.” They will be compiled in a book due out this fall entitled, Extraordinary Hearts: the Central Role of Same-Sex Love in the Progress of Civilization.

While homosexuality is not the only manifestation of the social dissymmetry I described, the impulse toward non-conformity certainly is, and nothing could describe better the shared qualities of our modern day secret intelligence renegades Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden than that.

Non-conformity is indispensable for progress, it always has been, and it usually really pisses off the “powers that be” and fiercest defenders of the status quo.

More precisely, it is “constructive non-conformity” that drives progress. Certainly, the non-conformists that nature routinely spits out in all of its reproductive cycles do not always wind up well.

That’s because non-conformists are usually not welcomed in life. They are often unhappy victims of abuse, hatred, bullying and misunderstanding, often never making it to adulthood and frequently driven to suicide or to turn angrily anti-social in ugly ways.

It takes uncommon love to nurture a non-conformist properly, and that often comes from places outside the nuclear family, where pressures from the dominant society to impose conformity on the young is very prevalent.

Good mentors, teachers, grandmothers or authors can make a huge difference, and if the non-conformist, by these factors, glows with the love she or he has received, then that non-conformist will play out his or her special gifts in very constructive ways that often can be socially transformative, even if shocking or ill-received at first.

I’d say a high percentage of our nation’s founding fathers were such non-conformists, or students of ones. They did more than break the laws of their British overlords, they forcibly threw them out of the colonies and wrote their own laws based on the highest of moral criteria respecting the inherent rights of all. Talk about “constructive non-conformity!”

Contrasted to this recognition came the hatchet job that elite social conformist columnist David Brooks did on the moral intent of Snowden in his June 13 column, “The Solitary Leaker.” Brooks’ column oozed the contempt he, and others of his ilk, have not for Snowden’s specific actions, but for Snowden “types” more generally.

Great literary giants of the 20th century, E.M. Forster and Christopher Isherwood were close friends and both were gay. Both wrote about the special role that “others” play in society, offering a natural perspective that someone operating within the norms of society simply can’t have.

They celebrated being gay in this way, and wrote and lectured about it. Their writings are a poignant antidote to the pressures on the gay community today to conform to the culture of straight male-dominated society. Being “other” for them was in the manner of “constructive non-conformity” and they considered it crucial and important to the wider culture.

Forster wrote in a 1939 pamphlet called “What I Believe” of what he called an “aristocracy,” “not an aristocracy of power, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and plucky. … They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos…they are sensitive for others … considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not in swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.”

Notwithstanding breaking laws, “misfits” Manning and Snowden both sought to expose and thereby strike blows against “cruelty and chaos.”