Criticism, Yes; Suppression, No

When it comes to the proper, indeed–for liberty, essential relationship of citizens, watchdog groups, academia, and the media with government officials, the rule must be: “Criticism: yes; suppression: no.”

Liberty rests on the right to express opinions. Citizens, politicians, media are free to criticize. Indeed, when it comes to the behavior of politicians, the prime responsibility of the media is to criticize. The first weapon of a dictator is repression of the media, for even before the Strong Arm of the Law can be twisted by a dictator into a weapon against the people, the aspiring dictator must shape public opinion. And that is precisely why suppression of the media by politicians is the worst threat to our freedom, with the suppression of the voicing of political opinions by citizens a close second.

Anyway, is there anything more pathetic than a dictator who threatens citizens for “failing to show respect,” for hurting his feelings?

So, criticism: yes; suppression: no. Any politician who feels he or she has been misrepresented is, under our system of government, more than welcome to explain his or her behavior; indeed, we demand explanation. All are free to express opinions. [Making incorrect factual statements is a distinct issue; this discussion concerns the expression of opinions.] A citizen may criticize any official; a professional media representative is obligated to do so. Investigating malfeasance by officials is the primary duty of the media because trusting officials to be transparent both puts those officials in an intolerable position of moral hazard and effectively compels them to violate the 5th Amendment.

One caveat is important: a distinction needs to be made between freedom of speech of individuals representing themselves simply as citizens and freedom of speech of individuals representing and thus employing the power or prestige of an institution. If it is irresponsible (and punishable in court) for a citizen to yell fire in a crowded theater, it is all the more irresponsible for a policeman to do so. If it is irresponsible and perhaps criminally punishable for a citizen to make racist remarks or tell a lie, it is all the more reprehensible for a government official to do so. Acceptance of a position of power in a democracy confers the duty to behave responsibly. The more powerful an official, the greater the need for media exposure of that official’s behavior. By the same token, the more powerful an official, the more judiciously should an official choose his or her words. The standard of acceptable speech should be far stricter for a powerful official, capable by mere words of provoking hate crimes or inflaming the mob into demanding a war of aggression or frightening an adversary into launching a war, than for the average citizen.

Politicians unwilling to tolerate criticism should find alternative employment. A politician who responds to criticism with threats or insults directed at the individual (rather than explanations for the public) opens himself or herself to the perfectly logical charge that something is being shoved under the carpet. Putin’s arrest of demonstrators voicing their opposition to him and Erdogan’s immediate repression of Kurdish media outlets in reaction to the Kurdish party’s electoral victory may be the two most blatant current examples of this time-worn pattern signaling the rise of a dictator, but every citizen of every country, no matter how “free” or “democratic” or “stable,” must stand constantly on guard against politicians who attack freedom of expression. The one thing no emperor can tolerate is being told he is not wearing any clothes.

American Society 1, GOP 0

The bumbling ineptitude and penchant for cheap political trickery of the GOP health care debacle revealed for those who had not already realized it the spiteful, anti-social, racist contempt of GOP politicians for the American people: punish kids, punish the poor, punish the elderly, punish the very unemployed white male manual workers who elected them in their unseemly rush to condemn what our first black President accomplished. It’s not the uneducated white workers so much as their elected representatives in Congress who are the true deplorables…and now even those who voted for them know it.

Will the lesson stick?

No matter, perhaps. Tax policy is next, and Trump voters will now almost certainly be offered by their elected representatives of the GOP yet another lesson in being served (on a silver platter) by their very own GOP (to the hungry rich). Am I taking any risk whatsoever in predicting that Trump and the GOP will now proceed to offer a bill cutting taxes (for billionaires) while raising taxes for the much scorned bottom 90%?

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Note to Democrats: Don’t cheer too loudly; Obamacare, crafted hand-in-hand with Big Pharma, is in truth chock full’o garbage. Time for progressives to step up with a couple clear health care proposals to move things forward.

Netanyahu Shows Putin How the World Works

By attacking Assad’s Russian-guarded territory and then publicly asserting the right and intent to continue doing so as needed to prevent Hezbollah/Lebanon from acquiring arms Israel does not want them to have, Israel has launched an embarrassing challenge to Russia, effectively telling the world that, Putin’s year-long military intervention in the Mideast notwithstanding, it is Israel rather than Russia that stands supreme as military arbiter of the Mideast.

Observers can only wonder if, during Netanyahu’s recent visit, Putin truly offered him permission to attack Russia’s allies at will and subsequently brag about it…and what Putin imagines he will receive in return. Israeli media hypothesized that indeed Putin may have made such a concession:

Friday’s strikes resemble closely the pattern of the attack in December 2015 on a Damascus suburb in which nine operatives working for Iran were killed, including Samir Kuntar, the murderer of an Israeli family who had been released by Israel in a prisoner exchange in 2008 and was believed to be planning new cross-border raids. That strike took place just three days after Netanyahu and Putin had spoken by telephone and was the first to be carried out after Russia had placed an air-defense shield over large areas of Syria, including its capital.

It was unlikely then, back in December 2015 and on Friday, that Israel would have attacked in Syria, within Russia’s zone of operations, if it thought the Kremlin would react with anger. [Haaretz 3/19/17.]

Whatever Putin conceded in private, he no longer looks like the leader of a rising superpower.

As for Netanyahu, he risks much so publicly making a fool out of Putin. One may fairly question the likelihood that Putin will be content to enjoy the pleasures of managing the Mideast in practice if he must appear to be kowtowing to the likes of PM/FM Netanyahu and DM Lieberman.

Yet, there is thought behind the risk. What Netanyahu and Co. stand to gain from exposing the real value of Russian protection for Israel’s Shi’i adversaries goes far beyond a few weapons for Hezbollah. If Russia can only protect its allies to the degree permitted by Netanyahu, both Syria and Iran will have fundamental cause to reconsider their alliance with Russia.

Russia’s RT news station quoted the Israeli Defense Minister’s blunt warning that “Israel’s security is above everything else; there will be no compromise.”

“Next time, if the Syrian aerial defense apparatus acts against our planes, we will destroy it,” Avigdor Lieberman told Israeli Public Radio on Sunday. “We won’t hesitate. Israel’s security is above everything else; there will be no compromise.” [RT.]

Lieberman left no room for consideration of the security of Russia’s allies. Will Putin trade his Shi’i crescent alliance cutting across the center of the Mideast for an alliance with the increasingly right-wing Israel? With Israel demanding the freedom to defy Russian interests, it is not clear how Russia would benefit from such a deal. With his Syrian military bases in operation and his plan to split Turkey from NATO progressing smoothly, is Putin now trying to hijack a certain unsinkable aircraft carrier?

What Are You Hiding?

With Trump proclaiming his desire to improve relations with Russia, why would any member of his Administration try to hide contacts with Russian diplomats? Why are they not bragging about avoiding a new Cold War? Politicians win by doing things; why are these politicians trying so hard to cover up what they have been doing with Russia?

Media Fairness/Official Transparency

Much could be criticized about bias in the reporting of the mainstream U.S. media–its sensationalism, traditional political bias (either pro-Administration or anti-Administration, as the case may be), its superficiality, its shortsightedness, and its constant effort to whitewash American sins. Nonetheless, the efforts of politicians to avoid transparency constitute a far greater threat to the freedom of Americans. In arguments over bias in the behavior of the media, the broader context of the efforts of politicians to classify information to avoid personal embarrassment rather than to prevent the country’s enemies from gaining access should always be the primary consideration. The American public has little leverage over corrupt officials without the constant probing of a free media.

Now, consider the theoretical situation of the appearance of fraud linked to a powerful foreign government by a presidential appointee. Add the failure of the appointee to respond to a written request by multiple U.S. senators to provide information concerning said case, giving the appearance that the appointee is trying to cover it up until after Senate confirmation of his appointment. A troubling media report is followed by a formal request by Congressmen for an explanation, leading to…silence.

At this point, the issue of media behavior becomes simply irrelevant: when the very behavior of the official or appointee criticized by the media appears to confirm the media’s accusations of impropriety, then the only issue of concern is the appearance of an effort to cover up improper behavior by the appointee. The crucial requirement for the healthy functioning of the democratic system and for the integrity of the administration is to achieve full transparency before any other related actions, e.g., the Senate confirmation vote, take place. Anything less creates an appearance, a presumption of guilt. A government body responsible for determining the suitability of an appointee that does not investigate such an appearance is flouting its responsibility to the American people. The media cannot fairly be accused of bias when the absence of transparency by officials obstructs the media’s duty to investigate the government.

The Chairman As Hero

Responsible officials in a democracy understand that their first duty is to defend the system. Choosing among the infinite array of possible policies is secondary.

Militant to a fault and most willing to offer America’s soldiers for the defense of such foreigners as least deserved their help, exposed by the heat of campaign as not really up to being President, this poor conservative who could not tell a Sunni from a Shi’i but thought he could decide who America’s friends were, suddenly—in a bizarre twist of fate— found his calling defending not some pseudo-ally with America’s armed might but true, liberal, Madisonian, Jeffersonian American values with his voice and his courage. Who could have imagined that it would be a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who would become the champion of such liberal values as freedom of speech and freedom of the press? Who could have imagined that the Chairman, or indeed any chairman of an armed services committee, would turn out to be the one, single senator capable of teaching Americans about how a politician on the make can become a dictator and overthrow American democracy?

If the destruction of the fourth estate—a press free to criticize power, to expose the nakedness of the emperor—is not, as the Chairman stated, the first step toward dictatorship, then it is certainly one of the first four steps, the other three being setting up a minority as scapegoat, endlessly repeating the Big Lie, and undermining the independence of the judiciary…and these other three steps have of course already most firmly been taken. Perhaps only one further step exists in the basic recipe for establishing a dictatorship: starting a war.

It does not matter whether a politician establishes a precedent intentionally; it does not matter whether a politician takes advantage of the precedent. Precedents do not die by themselves: they sit silently on the shelf, loaded guns for anyone to grab and fire without having to justify themselves (“why not? Joe did it!”). That is why they are called “precedents.” The precedents of attacking the judiciary as an institution independent of Presidential desires, of attacking the right and duty of the media to criticize power and expose its limitations, of making scapegoats out of innocent minority groups are vastly more important than any particular policy of the day. Whatever the intentions of the Administration, its actions in one short month constitute a text-book example of how to turn a democracy into a dictatorship and thus establish an incredibly dangerous precedent that must be denounced and rejected in the clearest possible terms. Otherwise, someday, someone will seize this poisoned precedent and use it for nefarious purposes.

To make the above point crystal clear, the structure of the house of democracy rests upon a number of pillars, of which four of the most important are: an independent media; an independent judiciary; a constrained president; and respect for groups (racial, sexual, political, age, educational level, political perspective). Senator McCain stands out among GOP leaders for the clarity of his defense of these pillars of democracy, in contrast to the many who, for superficial reasons of particular policy preferences, profess to be satisfied with the current oppressive atmosphere of hostility toward this or that group, this or that profession, this or that sex, this or that branch of government.

So, whatever one may think of Senator McCain’s long career, whether or not one may think that his survival of POW camp entitles him to be called a “hero,” his defense this week of his own party’s negligent, if not hostile, attitude toward the independence of the media entitles him to be considered a true hero.

Political Ethics

Some people tell outrageous lies to awaken people. Senator Al Franken likes to state the truth, truth that everyone knows but no one is willing to admit, to awaken people.

 

Sen. Al Franken said Sunday President Donald Trump’s references to Sen. Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” are “racist.”

His comments came after Trump reportedly attacked Warren in a closed-door meeting with several senators, telling the Democrats who attended that “Pocahontas is now the face of your party.” [CNN.]

The interesting question about the Pocahontas remark is not whether or not it is racist to sneer at the opposition political party for having a leader with non-white DNA in her blood but why Trump is apparently so profoundly worried over the rising prominence of Senator Warren. Yes, Warren’s thoughtful remarks on the reliability of the U.S. financial system, the protection of consumers, and the need for an attorney general of the U.S. who will defend the civil liberties of all Americans are a fresh breeze in the partisan heat of Washington’s endless self-serving propaganda, but after all, Trump just won! He is President. Warren, on the other hand, is just one of the senators of the defeated party and not even (so far) the Senate minority leader. Yet the honor of special treatment is now almost daily being bestowed upon her by one top Republican after another.

The important point here, it seems to me, is not even that Republican leaders seem so overawed by the calm, thoughtful, and cerebral demeanor of the senior senator from Massachusetts, but that they spend their time attacking her, personally, as opposed to talking about the fundamental societal concerns that she keeps perversely insisting upon discussing. Have we heard a GOP leader state that quoting the wife of Dr. King is unacceptable? Have we heard a GOP leader state that Wall St. financial corruption is good for America? Have we heard a GOP leader state that the way to “make America great again” is to grant a free hand to corporations to cheat American consumers? Nope, afraid not; the GOP wants to interrupt her, shut her up, and make crude remarks about…her DNA?!?

For those Americans who have never had the privilege of serving in Washington, it is perhaps worth pointing out that in Washington’s particular culture, when you have no answer to counter an opponent’s point, it is customary to slap them down with an irrelevant insult.

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Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Policy Concerns:

Respect Is the Core of Democracy

Democracy thrives to the degree that the society adopting that system of government is made up of individuals who treat each other with respect. Without the voluntary agreement of the members of the population to treat each other with respect and to demand that their elected and appointed officials treat citizens with respect, all the tools of liberty–supreme courts, term limits, separation of powers, bills of rights, etc.–are worthless.

Respect is the core of democracy. Democracy is the political superstructure of a very particular type of socio-political system, a way of organizing society historically uncommon—both hard to achieve and hard to maintain. We can easily give it up, if we are too tired; it is not a logical choice for a tired, disenchanted population, and there are always vigorous self-promoters more than ready to drive, if you would prefer to curl up in the back seat and sleep. Be aware, however, that the decision to hand the steering wheel to someone else is a lifetime commitment: it is a decision to stop making decisions, to become a permanent follower. But it does have the wonderful benefit of permitting you to blame all your own shortcomings on a select list of officially sponsored “guilty groups.”

In this non-democratic way of thinking, there is no need to concern oneself with moral sensitivities toward these guilty groups…precisely because they are “groups,” not people. This is critical. These “guilty groups” do not contain “people.” What they do contain has many names. During the hot days of Bolshevik revolution and war against Russian “guilty groups,” Trotsky called the Russians in those groups “insects.”

This approach is carefully designed by those who wish to steer the vehicle of society to sound very appealing and comforting to the majority so it will permit the self-appointed saviors to slip smoothly into the driver’s seat. The problem with this tidy little package will only be revealed after it is far too late. Although Russians eventually buried their Soviet Union, the impact of that era’s excesses and outrages continues to plague the Russian people. Put simply, once the process of naming groups rather than individuals as the enemy becomes accepted, it takes on a life of its own. This seems to be inevitable, and a for very logical reason: the fallacy hidden under the Big Lie.

A group is almost never the real enemy. Real enemies are individuals who want to do bad things. Most of us are focused on living and don’t consider piracy the optimum way to enjoy life. A lot of us will follow a pirate, be he sufficiently smooth-talking, or be we sufficiently desperate, however. And once the pirate is empowered by society on the basis of a Big Lie blaming all the ills of society on, well, not exactly a scapegoat, but more precisely a “scapeherd,” then the new Pirate-in-Chief immediately faces a Big Problem: the fallacy of the Big Lie very quickly becomes clear for all to see. The consequence of this is the need constantly to add new “guilty groups,” and you may soon find that you, loyal follower though you may be, suddenly turn out to be a member of one of these “guilty groups.”

Historical examples are legion, the Bolshevik Revolution perhaps being the best known in Western society. First came that whole herd of White Russians, then “the West,” then in the purges all the old Revolutionary Bolsheviks (who were arrested on trumped-up charges and murdered by the state after fake trials), then various minority groups (e.g., a whole herd of relatively less poor farmers and the Chechens), that whole “group” of insects who engage in political dissent (including professors, independent-minded Party members, honest judges, inquisitive journalists, and sundry people who read books), and finally in World War II Russia’s finest generals.

These details don’t matter, except naturally to those implicated. The point is that this whole process can happen anywhere, any time, and the clue that this socio-political landslide is starting comes when authorities and voters start focusing their attention not on misbehaving individuals—which exist within any group, but on the groups themselves, as though the group were a thing, with a personality. Suppose a politician were to attack an opponent not by saying, “Your position on economic reform will harm us because…” but by saying “Your ancestors were…” The remark is idiotic because it makes no difference whether it is true or not; it is not relevant to solving the problem.

When you criticize an individual for doing something or advocating something, the point of your criticism is the act or belief, and that is a perfectly legitimate subject for discussion because it is in fact directly relevant to resolving the problem. If the problem is starvation, the behavior of a hoarder or an inefficient farmer is a real issue to be resolved. If the problem is dirty air, the behavior of a polluting CEO is a real issue to be resolved. In contrast, were one to criticize the race, sex, heritage, nationality, age of a person, that would distract from solving the issue, it would remove responsibility from the individual, make the individual irrelevant, and focus attention on the group: all “Westerners,” all “Jews,” all “Muslims,” all “immigrants,” all “critical reporters,” all “interfering judges,” all those who expose Emperor’s nakedness. When a politician focuses blame on a group, he is using the magician’s trick of getting you to look away; the politician’s purpose is, in short, not to solve problems but to distract attention…to distract you.

That is why respect is the core of democracy. Democracy is the very opposite of everyone marching in step and saluting smartly. Democracy is about different people making the effort to understand each other and make room for each other and working toward mutually beneficial goals not because they agree—the only person I never argued with was my mother, and even that was more out of love than because I actually agreed with every single idea in her head—but because they respect each other. If you choose not to “like” a group, so be it; that’s your choice. Don’t invite that group to Thanksgiving Dinner. Individuals, however, are a whole different matter. You can still talk respectfully to the individuals in that group about whether to drive on the right or the left. When it comes to individuals, make your choice on the basis of…the individual. And if the individual talks all the time about this good group and that bad group, watch out: you are being conned.

Ethics vs. Partisanship

Ethics and partisanship are concepts that usually mix about as well as fire and gasoline, but this time appears to be different. The long-term result is the strengthening of democracy, for democracy can only work when principles take precedence over partisanship.

Ethics and “GOP” have not, over the last generation, been terms one would automatically associate, so it is truly refreshing to see a senior GOP Congressman condemning GOP White House officials for using their official positions to promote their private businesses. Richard Painter, chief ethics lawyer for George W. Bush, had already set the stage by denouncing Trump’s criticism of a department store as “inappropriate,” and now Jason Chaffetz has joined his Democratic counterpart Cummings in submitting a letter to the Office of Government Ethics noting “an inherent conflict of interest” in Kellyanne Conway’s promotion of Trump family’s private business.

Whether or not it results in any real action, this letter by the ranking member and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asking the Office of Government Ethics to recommend disciplinary action represents a stunning official “red line” in the path of an Administration only three weeks old that will surely find its place in U.S. legal history and be used in the future as a precedent to justify the disciplining of wayward officials. A bureaucrat thus charged would be in serious jeopardy of being fired if not imprisoned; we shall see what standards apply to White House officials.

At this point, the question of whether or not Chaffetz took appropriate initiative or just grudgingly came to the conclusion that White House behavior had simply become too blatant to ignore is a relatively minor issue. The mere fact of Chaffetz taking a stand on a serious question of White House ethics demonstrates that GOP Congressmen can be enticed to put principle before party and that, on specific issues of profound concern to American society—such as having ethical behavior by its elected representatives, it may be possible for Democrats and Republicans to focus on substantive issues, leaving partisanship to the side. Are we moving toward a less partisan and more flexible, issue-based approach to governance where a goal of accomplishing something might take precedence over scoring points?

This in no way should be read as implying that Chaffetz is remotely liberal in the sense of being “Madisonian” in his view of democracy or at all interested in broad cooperation with the Democrats. Rather, it seems to show that it is simply possible in the real world to find an occasional GOP Member of Congress willing to seek common ground with the other side of the isle on an issue-by-issue basis. No one is expecting such cooperation suddenly to become common, but given the razor-thin edge in the Senate, and the debilitating nature of the current hostility between the two parties, Chaffetz’ signature on that letter constitutes a welcome step toward the strengthening of our battered democracy.