Monday, September 25, 2017

Freedom of Expression for Me But Not for Thee, One More Time

A friend posted this tweet by Billie Jean King this morning:

I suppose that King meant "public condemnation" to imply "public condemnation by the President," but even if so, she's wrong.  And since she left out the specific case, I'll begin with the more general statement she actually made, since many people would agree with it.

Freedom of expression does not mean that a person may not have to face public condemnation.  If you express unpopular views, or just views detested by a large number of people (who may not be the majority), you can expect to be condemned publicly.  Liberals and progressives are just fine with this principle for views they detest -- Republicans, Bible thumpers, white racists, Donald Trump.  In many cases they demand not just condemnation but the suppression of such views by the State.  It's only when opinions they agree with encounter pushback that they become more purist, though they are ready to demand the suppression of the views of their critics, as King did.

The First Amendment, and the general principle of freedom of expression, assume that there will be public debate, without making any assumptions about the quality of that debate.  (And a good thing, too, since the level of public debate is generally not high.)  What is important is that someone should be able to express a highly unpopular opinion without being silenced -- by the State or any other force.  Someone who wishes to express a highly unpopular opinion had better expect to encounter hostile responses; one very annoying tendency visible among liberals is that, for example, they should not be made to "feel like an outcast" (via) for taking an unpopular stand.  This would be bad even if they didn't feel that no such consideration need be extended to those whose opinions they hate.

It's to their credit that the athletes themselves, as far as I've seen, don't seem to be demanding that they not be criticized.  Perhaps because most of them are black and are therefore closer to political struggles of the recent past, they knew from the outset that standing up against the majority would make them lightning rods for hostility. 

Now I'll address what I take to be King's more specific reference to President Trump's attacks on the athletes who protest against American white supremacy, while generally supporting American military aggression.  It's true, as the friend who posted the tweet on Facebook argued, that the words of a President carry more weight in the public sphere than those of most citizens, though not (as she also argued) that they take "the form of law."  Admittedly, partisan fans of a president will want to see them that way.  But my friend, like so many Democratic loyalists, wasn't nearly as concerned about (for example) President Obama's prejudicial remarks about Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, let alone Obama's general war on whistleblowers.  Privately, she probably would have agreed with them even if they had the imprimatur of a president she admired, but like most Democrats she ignored them or minimized their impact on the well-being of people who'd been accused of crimes.  Nor, if I recall correctly, did she object to Obama's public criticism of Fox News, though right-wing partisans reacted to it in much the same panicky way that Democrats are now reacting to Trump.

Though I agree that a President's public statements will carry a lot of weight, it struck me funny to see my friend making the claims she did just as the owners of the NFL, and the NFL commissioner, struck back at Trump's demand that protesting athletes be fired.  Former NFL coach Rex Ryan, who'd campaigned for Trump, announced that he was "[bleep] off."  (Presumably bleeped by ESPN, where he appeared, rather than by Democracy Now!, who quoted him.)  Pushing back against the Leader of the Free World is harder than pushing back against a single football player, but it can be done, and it's being done.  (I'm with "former NFL player Donté Stallworth," who also appeared on DN! this morning, and warned against letting Trump hijack the protests into a controversy over himself, though that already seems to be happening.)

P.S. When I pointed out some of this, my friend replied that I should "tell it to the Joint Chiefs of Staff" in connection with Trump's announcement via Twitter last summer that transgender troops would no longer be allowed to serve in the military in any capacity.  This was a notably ill-chosen rebuttal, because, first, Trump sent that tweet as a declaration of policy, which was not the case with his denunciation of the NFL protestors; and second, because the Joint Chiefs did not accept the tweet as having the "form of law."  They announced that until a policy had been worked out formally, they were going to ignore Trump's announcement and transgender troops would continue to serve.  Until Trump signed a memo implementing the ban, it wasn't law.  The tweet itself did nothing.  This case also supports my general distaste for the hopelessly inadequate way liberals have been responding to Trump's provocations.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Those Were the Days!

The rally concluded, and people began strolling to the buses we had chartered to take them back to their cars.  Suddenly dozens of squad cars appeared, as if from nowhere.  They had been carefully concealed behind buildings surrounding the rally.  We counted hundreds of police from five different agencies.  Many of the squad cars displayed shotguns and contained six police officers in full riot gear, something most people there had seen only in television.  The Redwood City police department and the San Mateo County sheriff's office had prepared an elaborate ambush, and they were obviously disappointed that they had not found a chance to "teach you some patriotism," as one cop yelled at the protesters from a car window.

Only local newspapers reported that the march and rally had taken place, and they underestimated the size of the crowd, reporting that most citizens of Redwood City were hostile to such activities.  Bruce Brugmann, the Redwood City Tribune reporter who had been covering the napalm campaign, became so disgusted by the blatant censorship and and rewriting of his stories that he left to found the radical weekly newspaper the Bay Guardian.  Even a mere twenty miles away, the press and radio in San Francisco imposed a total news blackout.  This did keep many people in ignorance.  But it also educated tens of thousands about the role of the media.  Almost everyone in the area knew that an important event had taken place and could not help but wonder why it was not reported and how many events from other areas were not being reported to us.
The above text is taken from the historian H. Bruce Franklin's account of a rally against napalm production in the Bay Area in 1966, in his book Vietnam and Other American Fantasies (Massachusetts, 2000), pages 87-8.  The book as a whole is very informative.  I decided to read it today after seeing a critique of the first episode of the new Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War for PBS.  The critique mentioned that
in the 1990s historian H. Bruce Franklin found that most college students recognized the famous image of a prisoner being executed by a man firing a pistol inches away from the victim’s temple. But most of the students believed the shooter was a communist officer, rather that General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the South Vietnamese national police, an American ally.
This didn't surprise me; it fit with so much else I knew, such as the long and largely successful propaganda campaign to cast the United States as the victim in Vietnam, rather than the victimizer.  Franklin also quotes an amazing speech on the Vietnam war by Barack Obama's role model Ronald Reagan in which, as Franklin points out, "not a single sentence ... is accurate or truthful" (29).  I've seen a similar falsification about the post-9/11 war on terror; it's as if the structure of the scenario is embedded in people's minds, and they need only to insert the names and dates to fit the situation.

But the reason I wanted to quote this particular passage has to do with other misrepresentations of history that I see among many liberals and progressives, including those who are old enough to know better.  The militarization of the police that is presently under way, for example, and the treatment of peaceful dissidents as enemies of the nation who must be crushed, is not as new as many people seem to want to think.  The 3500 or so white, clean-cut, middle-class folks who gathered to object to the production of napalm for use against Vietnamese civilians weren't attacked and beaten by the police that time, though it's clear that the police were hoping for an excuse to do just that.  Later on the police were less restrained.

The other point is the suppression of news of such a rally outside the local newspapers.  Many liberals fondly believe that the mainstream media took an adversary stance toward the government in those days.  That's simply false, though as always even their customary collusion was never abject enough to suit the mighty.  Whatever the flaws of the Internet (and they are many), it makes it much easier to spread information about such actions now.

This greatly offends the sensibilities of the high priests and priestesses of the cult of Expertise.  I've begun grappling with the dreadful apprehension that I may actually have to read Hillary Rodham Clinton's new book.  At first I was skeptical of the brief excerpts I saw online, which were so badly written and downright stupid that they were hard to credit: surely they weren't representative of the whole?  But the more I saw, the more I had to believe that they were.  (See Sam Kriss' account of his own ordeal reading the book here.)  And this bit, widely circulated, is symptomatic:
This is what happens in George Orwell's classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, when a torturer holds up four fingers and delivers electric shocks until his prisoner see five fingers as ordered. The goal is to make you question logic and reason and to sow mistrust toward exactly the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves.
This Moebius strip of a sentence (well, two sentences) seems not to be atypical of What Happened.  Every quotation I've seen that features a literary allusion shows that she (or her ghostwriters) don't really understand the material they're invoking.  The "torturer" in that scene is a functionary of the "leaders," and his victim is one who has distrusted "the people we need to rely on: our leaders, the press, etc."  The torturer seeks to bring the dissident back into the fold, to trust those whom he should trust in a time of war and peril.  Orwell certainly hoped that his readers would mistrust "our leaders, the press, experts who seek to guide public policy based on evidence, ourselves."  (Ourselves?  Does Clinton mean the rabble there, or Herself and the other wise elites "we need to rely on"?)  For that matter, doesn't Clinton want us to mistrust our Supreme Leader Donald Trump, the press that made people dislike and distrust her, and ourselves if we find that we disbelieve Hillary Clinton?

Oh, it's true that Americans have come to distrust our government and other institutions over the past half-century.  H. Bruce Franklin reports the results of a poll that tracks the growth of this distrust since 1958: "In 1958 ... over three fourths (76.3 percent) of the American people believed that the government was run for the benefit of all, while only 17.6 percent believed that it was run by a few big interests" (43).  By 1994 the numbers had flipped: "76 percent expressed this profound distrust of the government, while a mere 19 perccnt still clung to the belief that they lived in a representative democracy" (46).  This is bad news -- how long can a country survive when its citizens have so little trust in their government? -- but for people like Hillary Clinton, the remedy is more trust in our national institutions; it is unthinkable that those institutions should be more trustworthy.  Instead we citizens must believe in our leaders' probity, which is not much more plausible than that five fingers are four.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Those Who Manufacture History Get to Repeat It Over and Over

Something to keep in mind amid all the Trump administration's ranting about North Korea: Iran entered into an agreement with the US to ensure that they would make no nuclear weapons. Iran hadn't in fact been making nuclear weapons in the first place. US propaganda consisted largely of references to Iran's "nuclear program," which most people, often including the propagandists, heard as "nuclear weapons program."  The GOP and some Democrats opposed the agreement, for unclear reasons. The agreement is now in place, and Iran is in compliance with it, but the warmongers still are trying to portray Iran as a nuclear threat to the US.

Now imagine that North Korea agreed to get rid of its (still very few) nuclear weapons, and kept its promises, as Iran has. Does anyone believe that the US would lay off, would stop threatening North Korea and presenting it as an existential danger to American security? Or would the US continue to lie, as it does about Iran and its compliance with the agreement that the US forced on it?

You don't have to imagine very hard, because North Korea made such an agreement with the US in 1994, and kept to it.  The US broke it.  I think it's reasonably clear that these media campaigns have nothing do with peace, stability, or even American security -- not least because our hawks are doing everything in their power to diminish our stability and everyone else's. They're not even about oil or other resources that our plutocrats crave; Iran has oil, but North Korea doesn't have much we could want.  The issue is domination, the demand that nowhere in the world should there be any nation that isn't under US control.