War and the Sources of Fake News

June 25, 2019

The president would have us believe that anything critical of him is fake. To which many respond that everything out of the president’s mouth (or twitter feed) is fake. Both statements, of course, are false.

Everyone makes mistakes but deliberately faked news often has government hands all over it. One American Administration took us into Vietnam based on lies about what happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, which were revealed when government reports were finally declassified. Another took us into Iraq on the basis of cooked evidence about weapons of mass destruction.

Teaching free speech, I don’t compare truth and falsity – there are enough screw-ups to go around. I compare whether there is better information when the press can act as watchdog or when we are forced into total reliance on official pronouncements. Around the world the answer is obvious. Here the answer is clouded by our attachments to our favorite politicians. But the so-called classification system is designed to feed us cooked evidence when an Administration thinks we can’t deal with truth. Of course, some secrets are kept for reasons of national security or diplomatic reasons, but much is protected only for political reasons. All Administrations convince themselves that it’s good for America that they keep secrets or that they deliberately mislead us. We simply have to assume that even our own government lies to us regularly, sometimes convinced that it’s good for us and often convinced that distortions are good for themselves.

That’s why the press matters. No person or institution can understand everything or get everything right.  Even Einstein didn’t although I certainly like his batting average. But only by examining conflicting evidence do we have some hope of teasing out what we need to know.

John Stuart Mill gave us our basic understanding of free speech and press, teaching that public officials have reasons to mislead: for reelection, to enlarge their own power, to get what they want done, to protect themselves or their beliefs, etc. His point was human fallibility coupled with power to throttle everyone else spells a high likelihood of official gobbledygook masquerading as truth. Worse, official censorship blocks the press from digging and correcting as many important stories as possible. Science, by contrast, is designed to keep challenging mistakes and getting better answers. A free press, too, can keep improving answers.

Go back to the examples I made at the head of this essay. The press made lots of mistakes about Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere. But the most damaging mistakes resulted from intentional government newsfeeds designed to mislead. We eventually learned the truth about those and many other cases because reporters kept pushing for more and better information.

Unfortunately I’ve learned over many years not to trust our presidents – they have too many reasons to mislead us that seem good to them. I think Trump is worse than most – he so often misstates the facts that I never trust him. Conservative commentator Bret Stephens wrote, “the Trump administration has credibility issues, to put it mildly, which is one reason why electing a compulsive prevaricator to the presidency is dangerous to national security.” On the other hand, many other presidents have told the truth just often enough that we become gullible when they really want to mislead us.

There’s no way to know what the situation will be between the U.S. and Iran by the time this is broadcast.  But too many lives are at stake; too much depends on figuring out what information is accurate, who is telling the truth and who isn’t, let alone whether it justifies killing both Iranians and Americans. Let there be no war.

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The AUMF and War in the Middle East

June 18, 2019

Among the problems with the outdated Authorizations for the Use of Military Force are the countries trying to get Uncle Sam to fight their wars, the difficulty in telling who did what, and in knowing what even our own Administration is up to. Remember that one American Administration took us into Vietnam on the basis of attacks on American military vessels that never happened, and another Administration took us into Iraq on the basis of similarly cooked evidence.

Nor is it easy to tell what the current Administration is doing. The Administration tells us it is confronting Russia by implanting weapons in their power grids.[1] But Trump Administration officials warned the former secretary of Homeland Security not to bring up its efforts to confront Russian interference with upcoming American elections.[2] Are we facing them or bowing to them? As Bret Stephens put it, “the Trump administration has credibility issues, to put it mildly, which is one reason why electing a compulsive prevaricator to the presidency is dangerous to national security.”[3]

Should we support the Administration’s warlike stance toward Iran, on the assumption that we have accurate information that Iran torpedoed two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, including one that is Japanese owned, or should we believe the Japanese that the ships were attacked “by a ‘flying object’” from the air, not torpedoes in the water?[4] Is the best comparison the cooked attack in the Gulf of Tonkin in the Johnson Administration or the cooked claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the George W. Bush Administration?[5]

And what is all this for? Trump says he wants to stop Iran from going nuclear but Obama had already done that for the foreseeable future. Trump instead released Iran from its obligations under the nuclear agreement. The difference seems to be that Trump wants the credit. But he keeps threatening Iran and getting mad when they don’t lie down and play dead. Worse, Iran is disciplined and intelligent enough to find ways to fight back. Trump seems to figure that Iran alone has no right to fight back, though that way of thinking is likely to involve us in a totally unnecessary war, unnecessary because the agreement he terminated did a pretty good job.

The fist pumping and showing off of military hardware is supposed to make Trump look tough, but it risks the lives of American men and women, not to protect America, but to protect Trump’s reputation, whether as tough guy or as bully depending on whom you ask.

American lives should not be spent in the Middle East. There’s little evidence that we can do any good. Its oil is no longer important and would be better left in the ground. It’s run by a bunch of petty dictators, most of whom would fade into insignificance without American aid and involvement. Moreover, by comparison to most countries in the Middle East, Iran has a relatively stable democratic system. Iran’s clerics have certainly imposed limits but nevertheless the people have a major voice in the choice of the Prime Minister and the legislature. Let Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states fight their own battles.

Meanwhile, I completely agree with Paul Barker, another former Peace Corps Volunteer who served this country in Iran, like I did, and who wrote the LA Times that before this Administration “leads the U.S. into yet another disastrous war, our lawmakers must repeal the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force and secure the passage of the Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act. The U.S. can ill afford to stumble into yet another forever war in the Mideast.”[6]

[1] David E. Sanger and Nicole Perlroth, U.S. Escalates Online Attacks on Russia’s Power Grid, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/15/us/politics/trump-cyber-russia-grid.html.

[2] Eric SchmittDavid E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman, In Push for 2020 Election Security, Top Official Was Warned: Don’t Tell Trump, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/us/politics/russia-2020-election-trump.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer.

[3] Bret Stephens, The Pirates of Tehran: If Iran won’t change its behavior, we should sink its navy, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/14/opinion/iran-oil-tanker-attack.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage.

[4] Eliot Higgins, Was Iran Behind the Oman Tanker Attacks? A Look at the Evidence, June 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/14/opinion/iran-tanker-attacks.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.

[5] Id.

[6] Paul Barker to the LA Times, , 5/18/19.


The Crime of Climate Change

April 25, 2019

Yesterday we celebrated nearly a half century of earth days. Some problems have been dealt with, but the problem of climate change has only been getting more urgent. People have been driven out of their homes, communities have been submerged, people have been starved and parched for lack of food and water, fallen victim to thieves looking for the means of survival, and for any or all of those reasons lost their lives and their families to climate change. Those politicians and corporate managers who have refused to lift a finger to protect the climate our lives depend on, those who have blocked any effort to protect our global home should be held criminally guilty of a litany of crimes from conspiracy to murder.

One of the highest priorities of government is to protect us – against fraud, weapons, bad people and natural disasters. A certain trashmouth thrives on enemies and goes looking for them in the Middle East where many share a religion less common here, and on the southern border where he seems terrified by women and their children worn out by a trek of thousands of miles, and starved by the endless walk. They give him the opportunity to shake his fists and flick his tongue at the weak and defenseless.

Amidst the fake threats he claims we should fear, he ignores the big one, the threat that will make our lives nasty, brutish and short, leave our communities in chaos with disease, drowning, and starvation. Climate change destroyed much of this year’s corn crop in the Midwest and is gradually damaging and destroying food supplies, flooding homes and farms, weaponizing bugs, mosquitos and disease. That’s real news that should displace his make-believe one.

But you can’t shoot the climate – that just doesn’t fit the demands of his trash talk and bravado. Dealing with the changing climate requires being willing to listen and learn from people who know what they are talking about, to put aside the arrogance of claiming that he alone knows more than all the world’s scientists, doctors and specialists. He might have to accept advice from people who have spent decades studying the problem.

A world in chaos, where survival depends on theft and murder, is the oyster of hoodlums, gang members and terrorists. Rather than worry about Honduran immigrants, let’s deal with the fact that our country can be turned into Honduras because everything that creates wealth and normality is threatened by climate change. We may hold the Russians and the Chinese at bay with armed forces, but the military will not keep the climate normal.

Are we strong enough to look into the real face of danger and organize ourselves to deal with it? Our government and our scientists and our people have dealt with real challenges when we’ve let them. We’ve sacrificed when we had to. Economists tell us that the most efficient and effective step we could take is a significant carbon tax, but we don’t trust government to redirect the profits from such a tax in order to protect ordinary Americans the way it did when we were at war in the 40s. Too many politicians insist that any attempt to help and protect the people is socialism; they corrode our ability to use government to protect us.

Let’s talk straight: any politician who doesn’t make dealing with climate change our top priority should have the book thrown at him or her. Climate change is already killing millions. It’s not opinion; it’s physics. There are fanatics in Pakistan and Africa who don’t believe in science, where the worst diseases are endemic, and where people kill aid workers trying to vaccinate the population. We know better; there’s no excuse.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 23, 2019.


The Mueller Report

March 25, 2019

There is a misleading trope about the Mueller report. Mueller’s inability to find enough evidence to charge Trump or his staff with collusion or conspiracy doesn’t mean they’re innocent, exonerated or can’t be charged in the future. Innocence is different from the lack of evidence. The inference of wrongdoing remains from the contacts and transactions with Russia of Trump and the Trump campaign. It just wasn’t deemed strong enough without more evidence. Guilty people and criminal organizations sometimes beat charges.


Take America Back

March 18, 2019

It is painful to see the forces of hate killing men, women and children on many continents and here in many states, in schools and public places, taking apart the work of what we have been honoring as the greatest American generation who spilt their blood for the America they loved. It is painful and frightening to see the effort of the alt-Wrong to rip apart the free world that this country took the lead in creating. It’s painful to see terrorists crediting an American president as their inspiration for murder.

When I was a small boy, American men were fighting, and dying, in the Pacific, Africa, Italy and, after the landing in Normandy, through France and Germany. They were struggling for freedom, democracy and brotherhood. As the war ended, Truman sent Franklin Roosevelt’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt, to the UN. Truman sent her there to make clear to the world the depth of America’s commitment to building a robust and sustainable free world. She chaired the seventeen-­member UN Commission on Human Rights and led that body in the development of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. You could have drawn much of it from our own Constitution. These were American ideals on the world stage.

In 1948, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Vinson held racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional. Then in 1952 the NAACP brought five cases to the Supreme Court challenging segregation and seeking to overrule Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that had upheld segregation in 1896. The Truman Administration told the Court that the US was being attacked around the globe because of segregation and that segregation complicated American foreign policy. Obviously important, the case was reargued after President Eisenhower took office and Chief Justice Vinson had died. Eisenhower’s Justice Department submitted its own brief to the Court, and it underscored the arguments of the Truman Administration that this country needed to end segregation. The Supreme Court agreed; in Brown and a series of cases it made clear that American government could make no distinction of race, creed or heritage in its treatment of Americans.

Americans cheered Brown and made clear it was a popular decision. We believed what they said in the Declaration, that “all men are created equal.” Americans fought a Civil War over that principle. By the time of Brown, this country had embraced people like Jesse Owens, Marion Anderson, and Ralph Bunche among many others. With some obvious and vocal exceptions, Americans embraced the end of segregation. That is the America embraced the world over, admired for its principles and its heart. That is the America that took all of us to its heart regardless of which country our ancestors came from, which faith they brought. That is the country that our ancestors embraced with both love and pride, the America they wanted to be part of and contribute to. That is the America they wanted for us. That is the America we need to take back.

An America with neither mind nor heart clearly needs a trip to see a Wizard of Oz. An America with a man in a position of power who gloats that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” with impunity is an America which actually does need to deport someone, and to wall out the orange-haired imposter before he corrupts our genetic inheritance.

— A version of this commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 19, 2019.


Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and Other Prejudices

March 10, 2019

Muslim representation in Congress is good for America. But with the racist demagoguery of the Trump Administration, it is important for Jews and Muslims to discuss intergroup rhetoric and prejudice. I’ve heard some nonsense about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s remarks about Jews. Let’s clear it up.

First, criticism of Israel, Hamas or the PLO are neither anti-Semitism nor Islamophobia. Lots of us are critical of the regimes in places sacred to us.  So are many who live there.

But charging disloyalty is a problem. Omar said “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Charging disloyalty because people care about what happens to a country or people abroad is over the top and fans prejudice. Omar is one of those who cares and should be concerned about the implications of her own rhetoric.

Americans have cared about foreign nations and peoples since the acrimony here over the French Revolution. America’s first political parties split over it, with successive presidents Adams and Jefferson on opposite sides. Other prominent examples include American support for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire early in the 19th century. More recently many Americans supported the IRA, the PLO, Hamas and Israel though all are controversial here and abroad. Sympathy isn’t disloyalty though we disagree about who’s right. Treating sympathy as disloyalty would make traitors of us all.

Democracy cannot survive loose generalizations about disloyalty. Plus, they block sensible responses, tying us up fighting each other instead of dealing with the issues. Dealing sensibly with the Middle East requires coming back from the brink. Obama had a point in saying that we need to disengage from the Middle East because it’s more difficult and takes more attention and energy than it’s worth. My view is that America should refuse to support either side that breaks agreements and creates serious problems for America – killing innocents, uprooting people from their homes, expanding settlements – both sides have committed plenty of atrocities. But amid loose charges of disloyalty, sensible policies are off the table.

With good reason, Jews are very sensitive to anti-Semitism and Muslims to Islamophobia. Prejudices are fanned by sloppily extending disagreement to attacks on peoples’ decency and legitimacy. In my course on comparative constitutional law we took up the troubles in Ireland. There was plenty of criticism to go around. But it didn’t and shouldn’t have made any of us anti-Irish. Americans once were viciously so. Before Trump, those days seemed over for the Jews, Irish, Poles, Italians and they should end for the Muslims, Blacks and others. And good riddance. Americans have been attacked and killed not only over race but over support for unions, and sloppy, unsubstantiated charges of disloyalty against Catholics, Germans, Italians, and Japanese, to name a few – in some cases just for knowing people’s languages. It was a sordid past that we should be doing our best to put behind us, for everyone’s sake.

I would make it a criteria of loyalty to back off generalizations about people and deal with our work, our ideas, our contributions and our mistakes on their own terms. The very idea that some of us are better than others because of our ancestry is un-American to the core. The very idea that our sympathies for the peoples from whom we came justify charges of disloyalty is a threat to us all, and to everything that did make America great. The very fact that Trump and others are now challenging that consensus is the biggest threat to the future of our country. Prejudice and hatred are a disease that can destroy America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 12, 2019.


The Importance of Learning from Others

November 27, 2018

Americans have been reluctant to accept the importance of studying other countries. We tend to divide them into good and evil and assume that’s all we need to know.

As a teenager I was interested in science and in classical music. For both, I thought it wise to learn some German. But few schools taught it in the wake of World War II. Germans were the enemy.  But two World Wars provided reason enough to study German. President Roosevelt understood how vile and dangerous Hitler was long before Pearl Harbor and took steps to prepare the American military because he could and did read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the original German.

Americans, however, seem more concerned about being subverted by knowledge of foreign places than by the costs of ignorance. It’s as if many of us have an inferiority complex about our own culture. White racists bask in western European skin color even while screaming America first. America has enormous worldwide influence, but many Americans continue to fear comparison to worldwide knowledge.

From the Napoleonic wars through the Franco-Prussian and two world wars, old World European nations repeatedly attempted world dominance and took a hundred million people to their graves. This country created or supported numerous international institutions to keep Europe at peace, the Soviet Union at bay and level out the boom and bust cycle of international economics, but too many Americans fear those same international institutions as if they were the work of foreign hands designed to subvert us.

The costs of ignorance are serious. Too many American Administrations have treated Saudi Arabia as an ally though it is run as a savage and medieval country, and too many, except for Obama, couldn’t accept talking or negotiating with Iran despite repeated overtures to the U.S. and the fact that they are one of the most westernized, even Americanized, countries in the Middle East. We’ve made similar mistakes trying to control who governs in Central and South America, Vietnam, and other countries. America seemed incapable of appreciating the strategic sense and the long game behind Obama’s attempt to strengthen America’s position in the Far East. It may be too late to recover the ground lost to China.

It’s time to get over our terror of learning about and respecting other peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country made up of so many different peoples. It’s an odd terror for a country in which we can walk out of a bus or train station in cities like New York and enjoy the kindness of strangers who themselves come from all over the world. It’s an odd terror in a country where we talk with taxi drivers about their immigration to and joy at being here. It’s a terror that undermines the benefits of our universally admired university system.

Does one really have to be from somewhere else to appreciate the strengths of our own country? Must appreciating our own country rest on ignorance of others? Or can we trust ourselves to learn about others, to appreciate their strengths as well as faults, to build on and incorporate their accomplishments into our own as we have done in art, literature, music, theatre, dance and so many other arts and sciences, to learn from others as well as from each other as we build our own strengths? Or are we really afraid that recognizing the strengths of others will sap our own?

The internet attributes to many people, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Sam Levenson, a family friend of ours, that we must learn from the mistakes of others because we don’t have time to make them all ourselves. First, however, we need to encourage each other to explore and learn.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 27, 2018.

 

 

 

 


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