Principled Dissent and Cynical Gamesmanship

Everyone hates the ACLU – or we’re told we should – but loves Voltaire. For years, Bill O’Reilly on Fox News has been saying the ACLU is going to destroy America, by bringing this suit or that defending the free-speech rights of people who say hateful or dangerous or treasonous things, people who should just shut up, or bringing suits pertaining to any of the other items in the Bill of Rights. That’s what they do – they take the Bill of rights seriously. But O’Reilly says that’s madness. Here’s a bit of that – the ACLU is a “terrorist group” for filing a lawsuit against Rumsfeld and for opposing Bush administration anti-terrorism measures that the group believed were unconstitutional – arbitrary arrest, detention without charges, denial of due process, torture and all that sort of thing (and they didn’t think much of the No-Fly List and massive wiretapping of everyone without warrants). O’Reilly says they had no right to bring such suits, or even protest what the administration was doing, in these times. But Bush and Rumsfeld are long gone and O’Reilly has moved on. He rails against Daily Kos and MoveOn.org and ACORN now. The American Civil Liberties Union is so last decade.

Many agree with O’Reilly of course, save those few of us who have been dues-paying members of the American Civil Liberties Union. It was a giggle many years ago when jury duty came up and we all filed into the courtroom for initial jury selection, and the judge asked if any of us belonged to the ACLU or any other such subversive organizations. The membership card came in handy that day – thanked by the court and dismissed. Bill O’Reilly is not alone. That judge knew that pesky questions about constitutional rights were always trouble, and the case was about a drug bust and the issue was entrapment. It’s fair to assume the defendant was convicted. After all, the defense attorney, a young public defender, didn’t object to the judge’s screening question. No one seems to take the Bill of Rights very seriously.

But then there’s Voltaire and his famous defiant statement about free-speech rights – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Everyone likes to get all smug and sanctimonious and self-righteous and quote that one. We’re the good guys, even if Voltaire may not have said that – he’s quoted saying that in “The Friends of Voltaire,” 1906, by S. G. Tallentyre, with no documentation. But it doesn’t matter. Voltaire should have said that. It sounds good and noble and right.

Yes, Sarah Palin has a problem with anyone, save Rush Limbaugh, using the word “retard” in public discourse, and thus claims there’s a specific exception to the general Voltaire Principle, as it has become. But she is who she is. One suspects she is not all that familiar with Voltaire and the history of Rights of Man stuff and the details of the Enlightenment, and how all that fed into our constitution. Who is? And who should be? We are at war. As she said – “To win that war, we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law.” And she wants the job.

But that just illustrates the conflict inherent in all this – to preserve our way of life, where you have the freedom, the inalienable right, to say what you want to say, no matter how unusual or provocative (and often mind-numbingly stupid) – with the exception of saying anything pornographic or shouting fire in a crowded theater – we often insist that others just shut the hell up. We hate the ACLU for defending that right, and love Voltaire for expressing the essence of it so brilliantly. You know what any pop psychologist would say. We’re conflicted.

Actually we have a problem with dissent, with people objecting to what we think is right, and necessary, and vital. Recently this came up on MSNBC’s “Countdown” – Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter was asked by Keith Olbermann for his comments on the Republican attacks on President Obama’s national security and counter-terrorism policies – the Republicans were saying Obama was being too nice to the terrorists when he wasn’t doing anything much at all, really, and was giving them civilian trials, when Bush did the same thing. But then Obama’s instructions to the military had gotten rid of two or three times the number of key bad guys Bush ever managed in his eight years. It seemed to Olbermann kind of hypocritical and wrong. How could they defend such baseless nonsense?

And Jonathan Alter said this:

I think [Republicans are] in a place now where they just want to hurt Obama. And what they don’t get – I wish they would look into their souls a little bit – is that if they convey over and over again that the president of the United States is weak, what does that do? It emboldens the terrorists, and I don’t say that lightly.

But think of terrorists overseas, or at home, who might be plotting an attack. If they think that the president is weak, which he is not. He’s manifestly not. He’s killed twice as many of them, not to put too fine a point on it, with these Predators [drones], as his predecessor did.

He’s not weak. If they continue to convey that he is weak, that gives serious help to the terrorists. So, I think the pressure should now be on these Republicans – aren’t you helping the terrorists by insisting against all evidence?

And then he added that the onus is now on Republicans to consider whether they are “harming us” with their dishonest rhetoric. They should think about that, not that they will.

But Steve Benen is clearly conflicted about this:

Olbermann found this compelling. And if I’m being honest, at first blush, I had a gut-level appreciation for what Alter was arguing. But it’s probably worth pausing and taking a deep breath before going too far down this road.

Then Benen goes on to discuss how three years ago Ed Koch wrote a column defending George Bush, insisting, in the very same way, that criticism of the White House might undermine our security, saying this:

Democrats and some Republicans in Congress are seeking to humble, embarrass and, if they can, destroy the President and the prestige of his position as the Commander-in-Chief who is responsible for the safety of our military forces and the nation’s defenses. By doing so, they are adding to the dangers that face our nation.

Benen recounts what happened next:

Right-wing blogs were delighted. Conservatives implored those mean liberals who “disparaged” the president to consider how inherently dangerous their criticism of the president might be.

But that was the way it was, in those days:

Throughout the Bush/Cheney era, this was as common as the sunrise. Dissent was equated with disloyalty. Prominent conservatives would casually throw around words like “treason,” “traitor,” “fifth columnists,” and “Tokyo Rose” comparisons. In his capacity as the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer went so far as to warn Americans that they “need to watch what they say.”

It wasn’t complicated – to be patriotic was to support the president in a time of war. “Don’t you understand?” conservatives would ask Bush/Cheney detractors. “Al Qaeda can hear you. We can’t appear divided in a time of crisis. We can’t let the world think our Commander in Chief lacks Americans’ support. We can’t show weakness – and you’re helping our enemies.”

That was the right’s line, right up until Election Day 2008, at which point dissent became the principal responsibility of all decent American patriots. It’s funny how that works out.

Yes, anyone can see the cynical gamesmanship at play, but Benen says that what Alter said should be subjected to what seems to be something you could call the Voltaire Test:

As a liberal offended by senseless Republican attacks on President Obama, I can appreciate the appeal of his argument. Indeed, it’s satisfying on a certain level to think the shoe should be on the other foot for a while.

“Oh yeah?” a voice in our head says to the right, “now it’s your turn to have your patriotism questioned for having the audacity to criticize the president in a time of war. It’s your turn to be told that terrorists will exploit your comments. It’s your turn to explain why you’re dividing America when we should be coming together with a sense of common purpose.”

This is even more compelling when, as a purely factual matter, what liberals said about Bush was true, and what conservatives are saying about Obama is not.

But I nevertheless recommend caution. Conservatives were wrong when they too tried to stifle dissent, and they broke with American norms when they compared us to terrorist sympathizers because we disapproved of the president they embraced.

So the bottom line here is that dissent and debate is always healthy (it seems Voltaire was right):

As a factual matter, Republicans and their far-right allies really are trying to undermine American leadership during a crisis, but in our free society, they’re allowed to do that.

I’m reluctant to tell anyone they’re “emboldening terrorists” based on their political beliefs. That’s just not how we’re supposed to do things in this country, even if the right forgot this principle for seven years.

Yeah, but what if the other side won’t play fair?

But, in spite of Sarah Palin and her special rules about specific words – mostly gamesmanship, where she gets to claim everyone is being rude and insensitive and insulting to poor little Sarah, and by extension rude and insensitive and insulting to all Real Americans – there has been a lot more of Voltaire in the air recently, what with Obama entering the lion’s den and fielding questions from a group of one hundred forty Republican congressmen (and congresswomen) – on his own, no notes, no teleprompter, for ninety minutes, on camera, where everyone got to say what they would.

And that was followed by Jon Stewart spending two nights on O’Reilly’s Fox News show, with the two of them having at it, and Fox trying to be fair and posting what they had edited out. And what they cut out was interesting, like this:

I know what this is. I come from Jersey – it’s the same thing: “I’m not saying your mother’s a whore. I’m just saying she has sex for money. With people.”

Fox News used to be all about [how] you don’t criticize a president during wartime. It’s unacceptable, it’s treasonous – it gives aid and comfort to the enemy. All of a sudden, for some reason you can run out there and say, “Barack Obama is destroying the fabric of this country.”

Benen was discussing that matter too, but the interesting thing is the dynamic at play – following Obama’s lead, Stewart enters the lion’s den of Fox News, and everyone gets to say what they want, except O’Reilly and his team get to edit down the hours of tape to a manageable size, and people wonder if this is rigged in O’Reilly’s favor, and he denies it and says it was a “fair cut” – case closed. Then he decides to post all the footage on the net, to be fair. But what he and his team decided to leave out is never on air. Why was it left out? It seems we’re all still working on that Voltaire thing.

It comes down to playing fair. There is political gamesmanship and there’s playing fair and square. And it’s not just in matters of free speech, as Evan McMorris-Santoro reports in this item:

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has put an extraordinary “blanket hold” on at least 70 nominations President Obama has sent to the Senate, according to multiple reports this evening. The hold means no nominations can move forward unless Senate Democrats can secure a 60-member cloture vote to break it, or until Shelby lifts the hold. …

The Mobile Press-Register picked up the story early this afternoon. The paper confirmed Reid’s account of the hold, and reported that a Shelby spokesperson “did not immediately respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking confirmation of the senator’s action or his reason for doing so.”

Shelby has been tight-lipped about the holds, offering only an unnamed spokesperson to reporters today to explain them. Aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid broke the news of the blanket hold this afternoon. Reid aides told Congress Daily the hold extends to “all executive nominations on the Senate calendar.”

This is all about two earmarks:

The two programs Shelby wants to move forward or else:

A $40 billion contract to build air-to-air refueling tankers. From Congress Daily: “Northrop/EADS team would build the planes in Mobile, Ala., but has threatened to pull out of the competition unless the Air Force makes changes to a draft request for proposals.” Federal Times offers more details on the tanker deal, and also confirms its connection to the hold.

An improvised explosive device testing lab for the FBI. From Congress Daily: “[Shelby] is frustrated that the Obama administration won’t build” the center, which Shelby earmarked $45 million for in 2008. The center is due to be based “at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal.”

And it seems a San Diego State University professor and Congressional expert told the Mobile paper “he knew of no previous use of a blanket hold” in recent history. Other details – the FBI doesn’t want that testing lab, as they already do that work elsewhere. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office first doubted the story was true, but later, after Shelby confirmed it, McConnell’s office refused to talk about the holds. And in an interview Shelby gave to a television station in Alabama earlier, he said he’s holding up Obama’s nominees because he thinks the White House is biased against Alabama. It is?

This is very odd. Everyone is entitled to their views and opinions, but should they be entitled to shut down the government? Of the seventy or so nominations on hold are many national security nominees, including four to senior positions in the Pentagon.

Yes, Shelby is playing hardball – give him his money for his state or you’ll have no staff to handle terrorism or much of anything else. In fact, he can kind of stop the government. Is that cynical gamesmanship or good politics? And is it also a free speech issue? He is making a dramatic point about what he thinks is right. This is a statement.

All Obama can do now is make recess appointments – bypassing Senate confirmation, and he can then call the Republicans obstructionists, and they can call him a tyrant running roughshod over Congress and flaunting his power and sneering at the Senate and doing what’s clearly just not right. Everyone will have an opinion on that. This will not be nice at all.

But what can you do? It seems we are still working out what is principled dissent, exactly, and what is cynical, nihilistic gamesmanship, which ruins everything. Opinions vary on that matter. They always will. And we still want to be just like Voltaire, defending dissent, except when we don’t – the ACLU and Bill O’Reilly will always be at odds (and it’s good press for both sides). Which side, at any given time, is right?

But some things will never be resolved. So we’ll muddle through, and give Shelby what he wants, or not. And we’ll tell certain people to shut up, and they won’t. We have a messy system. But maybe it’s best that way. Chaos and anger may be the same thing as freedom. And you get used to it.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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