Democracy’s Self-Destruct Button?

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Obama Administration

There’s a Taoist view that all compounded things carry within themselves the seeds of their own self-destruction. This is a fancy way of saying what goes up must come down, with the understanding that the ultimate cause of the coming down is intrinsic to the going up. I can’t say whether that’s always true, but it’s an interesting point to contemplate.

Americans value free speech. It’s one of the things people across the political spectrum agree on, or say they do. We may disagree on what constitutes actual censorship or whether speech should be free from consequences, but we all value the right of individuals to say any damnfool thing they want, by any means, as long as they aren’t disturbing the peace or somehow putting people in danger — shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, for example.

Political campaign advertisements have never been famous for candor or veracity. But it seems to me we’ve hit a perfect storm of circumstances in which our cherished value of free speech could be our undoing. Citizens United; extreme wealth concentrated in the hands of a few people with extreme views and no scruples; Fox News; media technology that quickly spreads unfiltered disinformation to targeted audiences — these things have contributed to an unprecedented corruption of political discourse.

Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” These days lies can circle the globe several times while stealing truth’s shoes and putting a bag over truth’s head.

And it appears we’re helpless to do anything about it. For example, Ohio has a False Statement Law that makes it a crime to knowingly or recklessly make false statements about a political candidate. In 2010 the right-wing anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List tried to run ads saying Democrat Rep. Steven Driehaus, running for re-election, supported “taxpayer-funded abortions” because he voted for Obamacare. And, of course, the ACA doesn’t provide tax funds for abortions, so that’s a lie. The Susan B. Anthony List sued the state for interfering with its members’ rights to free speech, and this spring the SCOTUS ruled that SBA had standing to sue. The ACLU itself filed an amici brief supporting SBA’s position. SBA may eventually lose the suit, but I wouldn’t count on it. Driehaus lost the election, btw.

And I’m saying our system of government is being choked to death by untrammeled “free speech.”

Paul Krugman brought up another example. Respected climate scientist Michael Mann published scientific findings the Right found inconvenient. But since they couldn’t dispute the science fair and square, they initiated a lie campaign aiming to smear and discredit Mann any way they could.

Mann, as some of you may know, is a hard-working scientist who used indirect evidence from tree rings and ice cores in an attempt to create a long-run climate record. His result was the famous “hockey stick” of sharply rising temperatures in the age of industrialization and fossil fuel consumption. His reward for that hard work was not simply assertions that he was wrong — which he wasn’t — but a concerted effort to destroy his life and career with accusations of professional malpractice, involving the usual suspects on the right but also public officials, like the former Attorney General of Virginia.

National Review columnist Mark Steyn was doing a particularly rigorous job smearing Michael Mann. But Mann filed a defamation lawsuit against Steyn, National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. I’m not completely up to speed on all the twists and turns this suit has taken, but D.R. Tucker writes that National Review appears to be getting nervous it might lose. NR originally defended itself by presenting the court with the fraudulent arguments against Mann, which were easily and objectively shown to be lies. Now NR is backpedaling and saying they never claimed Mann’s findings were scientifically fraudulent, although they did, and that Steyn and NR had used the word “fraudulent” to mean something other than, you know, fraud. NR’s legal team appears desperate to avoid going to trial at all.

The Right continue to paint Michael Mann as hysterical and over-sensitive because he was upset that powerful forces colluded to destroy his career and discredit his life’s work. Yesterday Steyn filed an amicus brief in support of neither party — I didn’t know you could do that; doesn’t sound very amicus to me — that I have not read all the way through, but it appears to be arguing that all this legal stuff is crimping Steyn’s style and he wants them to get it over with already. Poor baby.

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. c u n d gulag  •  Aug 12, 2014 @1:24 pm

    You can’t have a functioning representative democracy when one party tries to play by the rules, and the other side is willing to lie, cheat, and steal, in order to win.

    It’s the old, bringing a spork to a gun-fight.

    And people need to disavow themselves of the old belief that if they saw or heard something on the TV, or radio, or read it in print, that it’s has any veracity.

    Conservative media sources like Drudge, FOX, Reich-Wing talk radio, and conservative newspapers and Op-Ed pages, have shown that old belief to be false.
    They all lie with impunity, 24 X 7 X 365, all while projecting that it’s the more liberal, less conservative, people in the MSM who are the real liars and cheaters.

    We keep hoping that the bubble our conservatives live in will pop.
    And, eventually, it might.
    But, will there still be time to save the United States of America, when/if that happens?

    I don’t think anyone can say, definitively…

  2. Ed  •  Aug 12, 2014 @1:38 pm

    Some years back Congress passed the “Stolen Valor Act,” which made it a federal crime to make false claims about receiving military honors; it was struck down on constitutional grounds and never enforced. This was an attempt to criminalize certain kinds of “fraudulent” speech, and yet it was judged to violate the First Amendment.

    It was not that clear what its scope would have been. If you said that you got the Silver Star in Vietnam when you were actually a clerk typist at Fort Ord, that was supposed to be something that the government could prosecute. But what if you went around to bars claiming that you once got an Article 15 for telling your platoon leader to blow it out his ass, when in fact you got the Good Conduct Medal? What then?

    If the National Review is running scared, I am happy for that. But it is very difficult to apply speech laws to particular cases.

  3. maha  •  Aug 12, 2014 @3:59 pm

    Ed — The National Review case is not a free speech suit; it’s a defamation suit. You can’t claim an absolute right to defame someone under the First Amendment. There is some leeway in criticizing public figures or people who are very famous, but Michael Mann is neither, and National Reviews published lies about him that were obvious, verifiable lies. According to this web page, if Michael Mann were a public official or a movie star he’d have to prove actual malice to win his suit against NR. If he has to prove that I think he probably could, but I don’t think he should have to prove that. Seems to me he has a very strong case.

  4. moonbat  •  Aug 12, 2014 @2:20 pm

    And it appears we’re helpless to do anything about it.

    It looks to me like Mann will get his day in court, he sounds like someone who’s more than tired of being f$cked with by these ignorant a$$hats, and he’s got National Review on the run. As a Penn State alum, and someone who despises how the right twists the truth about any subject you’d care to name, I’d like to drop by their Meteo department and just give the guy a nod and a big pat on the back. Mann’s work has been vindicated by several investigating bodies, some of them international, and he works in one of the best and most respected meteorology departments in the country. He’s got everything going for him, in other words. He’s not some weenie birkenstocked professor in some third tier college that the right can just roll over, destroy their career, and laugh about it.

    But the larger issue is ..the Taoist view that all compounded things carry within themselves the seeds of their own self-destruction.

    Some years ago, I heard a lecture by (wish I could remember the guy’s name), who knew a lot about history. He pointed out that the Pax Romana lasted 200 years. Two hundred years where all the incentives were there for the wealthy of Rome to pull together for the good of the Empire. Two hundred years of peace, almost as long as the USA has been in existence. After that, it was every man for themself, and Rome unraveled.

    A few years ago, I did some work with a Canadian psychic, and his remark about America was whether our country can pull together or not. It’s really the biggest test of our time. Stay tuned.

  5. Barry  •  Aug 12, 2014 @3:11 pm

    And Steyn at one point said that he wished the lawsuit were proceeding under UK libel law, which just proves how f-ing dumb he is.

  6. maha  •  Aug 12, 2014 @4:07 pm

    Barry — you are right; looks like UK is a far more plaintiff-friendly place.

  7. Craig  •  Aug 12, 2014 @4:25 pm

    When Edward R. Murrow in a TV special and then the lawyer for the U.S. army in a famous congressional hearing dismantled the credibility of Joseph McCarthy, the media pretty much stopped quoting the senator.

    Today, people who lack credibility are followed with cameras and pens as if the reporters are covering some 1950s Hollywood divorce case. We see too many people like Bob Woodward going from being a reporter who seeks out the facts to being a stenographer.

    It is hard these days to find out the news. I find myself having to dig for it. I use keywords all the time to see if I can find out more beyond the framing of a story that usually takes hold. I’m not a reporter but it’s discouraging how often the story that is worth knowing is buried while self-serving noise is presented to the public.

    The laziness of mainstream media and the deception of the American people by organizations like Fox News IS certainly one of the biggest news stories of this era.

  8. Doug  •  Aug 13, 2014 @9:07 pm


    Truthfulness. He will never willingly tolerate an untruth, but will hate it as much as he loves truth. … And is there anything more closely connected with wisdom than truth? (Plato)

    The philosopher is in love with truth, that is, not with the changing world of sensation, which is the object of opinion, but with the unchanging reality which is the object of knowledge. (Plato)

    This seems to be the eternal question. Truth v. opinion. Free speech is enshrined in the Constitution not to enable liars, but to allow diverse opinions to be protected, even if those ideas are political or religious heresy. This is how it MUST be. The flaw that’s freely exploited, particularly (but not exclusively) by the right is presenting outright lies as truth or presenting the matter of opinion (which is and must be protected) as if it was fact.

    The remedy has to look at Plato’s rigor – and allow generous compensation for playing with objective fact or mis-labeling an opinion (protected) as a fact. The ethics aren’t rocket science and it’s a cure worse than the disease to assign government the role of final arbitrator of truth.



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