Note (Sept. 16): After reading Benedict Cumberbatch’s full, unedited remarks published Monday at The Guardian, I believe his meanings as originally reported remain intact. Concerning the sentencing of Chelsea Manning, the actor still defers to the authority of President Obama and the U.S. military, claiming it is right that Manning pay a price for the simple reason that she broke the law. (Nowhere does he call for the prosecution of law-breaking U.S. officials and CEOs, however.) Regarding the destruction of citizen privacy by governments, the actor says he merely wishes that changes to laws governing civil liberties would occur slowly and through debate. His interest in distancing himself from controversy is clear when he says: “I don’t have an opinion about it, I don’t think it’s right or wrong.” —Alex
Benedict Cumberbatch, the British actor beloved by millions in England, America and elsewhere for his cool portrayal of a contemporary Sherlock Holmes, will soon appear in theaters worldwide as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the DreamWorks film “The Fifth Estate.” Cumberbatch recently ventured comments on two hot button political issues: the mass spying by British and American governments on private citizens, and U.S. President Barack Obama’s punishment of Army whistle-blower Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning. In articles published this week in The Guardian, the actor expressed ambivalence about both topics.
“[Cumberbatch] is alarmed by the revelations of mass surveillance by the NSA and GCHQ, and doesn’t like the idea of anyone reading his private emails,” journalist Decca Aitkenhead wrote on The Guardian’s website. But the actor is receptive to the idea that government invasions of privacy could save lives. Aitkenhead quoted him as saying: “Oh, but you might have stopped me from being killed on a tube I took last Wednesday. If they are saving lives, how can we say that’s less important than civil liberties? You don’t have any civil liberties if you’re dead.”
It’s a troubling remark from a man described in a previous Guardian profile as a “natural liberal.” As columnist for that paper Glenn Greenwald has said over and over again, the prioritization of security over liberty is a value promoted by conservative officials and pundits to justify increasing government control over private lives. It is dangerous because there is no such thing as absolute security and thus, in this formulation, no end to the lengths to which governments can claim they must go in the supposed pursuit of it. (A surveillance camera in every bedroom?) America’s founders accepted a measure of mass insecurity to preserve the personal liberty they knew was essential to democracy and human dignity and happiness. Cumberbatch is not an American, but one could think that the last two-and-a-half centuries of Western fealty to this idea might have made an impression on him.
The remark is also short of honest because it ignores the well-documented fact that acts of terror often follow provocation—through foreign or domestic policy—by governments whose officials are at the time of real or concocted danger all too happy to vanquish the evil-doers from atop their gleaming horses. All that is required of us, the infantilized public (and increasingly, all that we are permitted) is to recognize our rulers’ absolute authority and magnificence.
But that was not all the actor said: “Isn’t it hypocritical to say, we should know everything about you as a government, but the government can’t know anything about us? … [I]f you are a private individual who’s packing semtex to kill people and destroy what we know as democracy for political purposes, then you’re more than just a private individual.” This argument ignores the fact that the power to shape events and compel outcomes is unevenly distributed to states and individuals: Governments have any number of increasingly terrifying and technologically sophisticated ways to squash people; people have a difficult time doing the same to governments.
Cumberbatch’s comments on Manning, the U.S. Army whistle-blower sentenced last month to 35 years in prison for leaking documents showing government abuses and worse, are similarly disturbing. The actor said he sympathizes with Manning on a human level, but that the Army private “broke a law. [She] knew what [she] was doing.” Cumberbatch doesn’t see why Obama should grant Manning the presidential pardon she applied for. “[She] did what [she] did out of a conviction that an alarm bell needed to be sounded. But [her] superiors might have been right to say to [her], it’s not your position to be worried about it within the hierarchy of the military organisation, which is why [she] had to be sentenced. [She] took an oath, and [she] broke that oath.”
What is heartbreaking about this set of sentences? Aside from the abandonment of the notion that individuals are obligated to the best of their ability to discover and struggle for what is right—especially as they grow up—it’s the contradiction involved in simultaneous claims to sympathy for one’s fellow humans and unthinking deference to authority. With this statement, Cumberbatch leaves us to wonder whether he understands that governments are run by groups of individuals who often use state power for their own underhanded purposes.
One grasps that Cumberbatch is a high-profile figure interested in preserving his membership in the British gentry—a kind of politician of himself, protecting his reputation, which enables future invitations to parties, the offices of statesmen and the company of other desirable people. Personal contradictions are often described as marks of character, proof that a person is a real human being, for which we should all be fascinated. But they can also be dangerous. Cumberbatch’s comments serve the interests of his social class, and it’s not the class to which most of his fans belong.
honeyfitz (CC BY 2.0)