June 26, 2006

A Press That Holds Itself in Contempt

When you strip away the numerous distracting details and irrelevancies, people exhibit one of two basic perspectives toward government (including a particular administration that holds power), and toward authority in general. One group, composed of people some might consider skeptics but whom I regard as realists, consistently questions and challenges any concentration of power. Such people recognize one of history's primary lessons: that power seeks to protect its own prerogatives, as it simultaneously seeks to extend its reach. The realists recognize that people who routinely exercise great power should always be held to account for their actions, and there must always be restraints against abuses of power. They reject out of hand anyone's demand for unquestioning loyalty and obedience, a demand often expressed in the form: "Trust me." The realists know that it is precisely the person who makes such demands who is never to be trusted. Honorable people do not demand or expect unquestioning obedience.

The second group is made up of people who are eager to let others make the decisions that shape their lives. They identify with authority in general, and they willingly offer up their own judgment and independence on behalf of those who hold the reins of power. The phrase "speaking truth to power" not only doesn't hold meaning for such people: for these psychological dependents, truth and power are coextensive. The idea that truth and power might be fundamentally opposed almost never occurs to them, because they regard it as inconceivable and incomprehensible. These are the people who do not wait for the demand, "Trust me." They eagerly volunteer their trust to those in power before it is even requested. They think this proves their loyalty. If you rely on others to guide and protect your own life, loyalty is the prerequisite for such protection. The dependents know this without being told -- and so do those who hold power. The necessary interrelationship of the dependents and those with power ensures that the scheme will continue without challenge.

The press in this country has voluntarily placed itself in the role of abject dependent for several decades. Many members of the press will rush to reassure us of their independence and their willingness to challenge power -- and they will point to their treatment of the Clinton presidency as a notable example. But what did the press challenge in that instance? Not matters of state, and not anything remotely connected to the power government exercises or the policies it pursues -- but irrelevant business deals from the remote past, or private sexual behavior. In the same way, if Bush should declare martial law after another terrorist attack and begin to exercise full dictatorial powers, the press will rise to the challenge of questioning absolute power in the new environment in its usual fashion. Our press will offer numerous articles and commentary about whether our President for Life (under an emergency law passed in both houses by large margins) should speak to us more often, to explain how he is protecting us and why we shouldn't be concerned about those friends, acquaintances and even relatives who have mysteriously vanished from our lives. Our President for Life knows what is best for us, our press will tell us repeatedly and with many variations, and he's the only one who can keep us safe. But it would be so much nicer if he reassured us more often. Unlike the members of the press itself, ordinary citizens often don't understand the wisdom exemplified by our leaders, and by our President for Life. They tend to worry unnecessarily. The President for Life should calm their fears, and talk to them regularly in his soothing, folksy way. He should make clear that, although he holds the power of life and death over all of us, he's really a "regular" guy. He just happens to be a dictator -- but that last attack showed that's what we need now.

In this manner, the press will pave the way into hell, just as it has been doing these last several years. You think I exaggerate. Think again -- and consider this column from Michael Barone, who embodies Establishment "wisdom" as perfectly as anyone. Barone's slavish, meretricious stance is first revealed in the title: "Why Do 'They' Hate Us?" He begins this particular exercise in unthinking obedience with the following:
Why do they hate us? No, I'm not talking about Islamofascist terrorists. We know why they hate us: because we have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, because we refuse to treat women as second-class citizens, because we do not kill homosexuals, because we are a free society.
Everything that Barone contends he "knows" in this paragraph is wrong; see the opening of this essay for the correct explanation of "why they hate us." I also note, without further explanation since it would take me too far afield, that we most certainly do "treat women as second-class citizens," or, more accurately, primarily as necessary tools for procreation who regrettably take the form of actual human beings possessing the right to their own bodies. What else explains the unceasing attempts to restrict abortions, and even birth control? And we may not "kill homosexuals," but the majority party and its leader are sickeningly eager to write discrimination against gays and lesbians into the Constitution itself. But in Barone's mind, none of that threatens our vaunted "freedom." As he was about so much else, Orwell was entirely correct on this point: slavish, unquestioning dependency must be accompanied by the destruction of language.

And here is Barone's second paragraph:
No, the "they" I'm referring to are the editors of The New York Times. And do they hate us? Well, that may be stretching it. But at the least they have gotten into the habit of acting in reckless disregard of our safety.
I'm sure that commentators like Barone will get much better at this kind of thing under the coming dictatorship. Practice makes perfect, after all. But this is truly amateurish. He gets the idea that the New York Times -- and by extension, all of the press that fails to fawn sufficiently over our soon-to-be President for Life -- "hates us" out there, and then immediately backs off the idea: "Well, that may be stretching it." But he gets the idea out there. That's the important thing. No one remembers the qualification later. Propagandists like Barone know that; they hope the rest of us don't notice.

Barone goes on to discuss the NYT story from last December about the NSA spying on Americans, as well as the NYT story from last week about how our government monitors a huge number of worldwide financial transactions. Anyone could spend the better part of a day thoroughly demolishing almost every aspect of Barone's comments on these two stories and what they might mean about the exercise of massive government power. But all that is merely a detail, and a leadup to Barone's main point, one we have heard before from many other commentators. Referring to the Times editors and the sources for the latest NYT story, Barone writes:
But who elected them to make these decisions? Publication of the Times' December and June stories appears to violate provisions of the broadly written, but until recently, seldom enforced provisions of the Espionage Act. Commentary's Gabriel Schoenfeld has argued that the Times can and probably should be prosecuted.
I don't think most Americans even begin to grasp how truly extraordinary this is, or what it portends. I've been saying for over a year (and even longer) that what people like Barone want is censorship (and see this recent follow-up). There can no longer be any question about that.

But it is critical that we appreciate precisely what is going on here. No one has challenged these stories or other similar ones on any major point of fact; to the contrary, the reporting is widely viewed as being entirely correct on the main issues, and further revelations have confirmed their accuracy. So the crime -- and remember that Barone and others are speaking of crimes here -- is that the press is reporting stories contrary to the administration's wishes. That's it. That's the whole thing. Let's put it still more plainly: if you displease the administration, you're a criminal.

Barone has an alternative view, of course, which he offers in his final paragraph, as he simultaneously returns to his primary theme and now offers it without any qualification whatsoever:
Why do they hate us? Why does the Times print stories that put America more at risk of attack?
Does Barone or anyone else have any evidence at all that these stories "put America more at risk of attack," other than the government's mere assertions to that effect? I've seen none, and I view it as impossible that any exists. And even people like Barone don't actually believe this. Anyone who thinks about it for more than a second realizes that our actual enemies are more than smart enough to have figured out the most likely methods by which we might be tracking them. They make other arrangements, and look for ways to avoid detection.

The severe limitations of minds like Barone's can be seen in the next sentence:
They say that these surveillance programs are subject to abuse, but give no reason to believe that this concern is anything but theoretical.
One might note that when the government makes revelation of such abuses itself an additional crime, it is more than a little unlikely we will learn of them. But the problem with this approach is much worse, as Jacob Hornberger has discussed:
"Well, then, where are the mass round-ups, and where are the concentration camps?"

Again, people who ask that type of question are missing the point. The point is not whether Bush is exercising his omnipotent, dictatorial power to the maximum extent. It’s whether he now possesses omnipotent, dictatorial power, power that can be exercised whenever circumstances dictate it — for example, during another major terrorist attack on American soil, when Americans become overly frightened again.
The full scope of the unquestioning obedience that Barone is so anxious to provide to this administration is starkly revealed in his concluding sentences:
We have a press that is at war with an administration, while our country is at war against merciless enemies. The Times is acting like an adolescent kicking the shins of its parents, hoping to make them hurt while confident of remaining safe under their roof. But how safe will we remain when our protection depends on the Times?
This is ludicrous beyond words, even and especially on Barone's own terms. He places complete trust in the Bush administration to successfully defeat actual terrorists -- while he simultaneously believes that the government's efforts can be completely undone by a few stories in a few newspapers. I remind you that this government has at its disposal the strongest, most unimaginably powerful military arsenal ever to exist in world history -- and they are going to be done in by a little newspaper reporting? Ludicrous doesn't even begin to capture the distance from reality contained in this view of the world.

But take the main point: the press is our enemy, and "they hate us" -- "us" being "normal," "patriotic" Americans. It's worthy of note that Barone doesn't even feel he needs to define who "us" is: the audience he addresses already knows. It's "us" versus "them" -- and "they" are the enemy.

Given this perspective, censorship is but small punishment for those who are the enemy, who wish to destroy "us." And you can be sure that censorship will only be the beginning. If and when there is another 9/11 or worse within our own borders, censorship is a near certainty, and probably fairly quickly.

And I have no doubt that the loudest complaint will be only that censorship was not imposed sooner, and even more stringently. After all, we're at war, and people are trying to destroy us and our "civilization." Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and liberty in general are luxuries we can't afford.

And when we win the war, what will be left? Nothing that is recognizably the United States as it once existed. And the press itself will have been indispensable in creating that world. For the most part, they will congratulate themselves on their bravery and valiant service. After all, it takes great courage to make oneself a slave voluntarily, and eagerly to enter into bondage. They've been doing it for years. Why, they deserve a medal. In the brave new world that is now so near, they'll probably get one.

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