Secrets and Lies

The recent arrest of a former Senate Intelligence Committee staff member—a veteran of almost 30 years in government service—on charges of lying to FBI agents investigating leaks of classified information surprised some.  However, what really churned the waters was the concurrent seizure of the phone and email records of The New York Times reporter to whom he had been allegedly leaking—but with whom he was most definitely having sex.  They don’t call Washington “The Swamp” for nothing.

This incident and so many like it speak to the inherent tension between government secrecy and a free press in a democracy.  That which government would prefer remains hidden has always been catnip for reporters, but it appears more and more the case that a symbiotic and worrisome relationship has developed between those in government and those working in the press—each seemingly tethered to fewer and fewer institutional norms or traditions.  Given that government cannot operate effectively in a glass house, both the leakers and those reporters who are anxious to disseminate secrets are playing a dangerous game that could have catastrophic consequences.

We generally find government information falls into three broad categories.  

First, we have information that can and should be made readily available to all: the cost of contracts, specific legislative and regulatory actions, court rulings, or initiatives of the Executive branch are obvious examples of information that is critical to the smooth functioning of democratic processes.  There are also categories of information that need to be carefully evaluated before they are made public; troop movements in wartime and active criminal investigations are obvious examples.  We don’t want to either compromise military operations and put lives at risk or allow crooks to escape before they can be apprehended and put on trial.

There remains, however, a third category of information that causes the most practical and ideological problems in an open and democratic society: that which cannot be revealed under any circumstances without causing perhaps irreversible harm to our nation and its people.  

The very existence of this final category of information is offensive to those who believe in absolute government transparency and deeply distrust the idea of government secrecy.  It must be acknowledged that the United States government—like every government in history—has sometimes tried to drop a veil of secrecy over information that would reveal neglect, malfeasance, or plain stupidity.  The question then arises whether revealing this information serves any public good or just causes further damage by either unnecessarily eroding public trust or politicizing what are, in the final analysis, nothing more than instances of human weakness or misjudgment.

Likely the two most famous examples of closely-held secrets revealed during the course of my own lifetime are the publication of the so-called “Pentagon Papers”, which allowed the general public to read the unvarnished political and military deliberations concerning the conduct of the Vietnam War, and the revelations surrounding President Nixon’s role in encouraging spying upon—and sabotage of—his political opponents, which led to his impeachment and resignation.  

In both of these cases the news media decided that our country and our citizens were best served by revealing the secrets and lies of our government officials.  We saw a long-term drop in our faith in government as a result—which is either healthy or harmful, depending on your point of view—but the issues at hand were clearly pertinent to both public policy and the operations of democratic government, so we needed to know the truth.  However, the facts associated with each case had far-reaching and long-term consequences for our country, so the editorial decisions to publicize this information were made only after long and careful internal deliberations concerning the complex balance between press freedom and our national interests.

That was then—and this is now.

Over the past 30-40 years journalistic standards have joined floppy disks on the scrap heap of history.  Our internet-driven 24/7 news cycle has produced a crazed bazaar of half-truths and one-sided opinions presented as facts.  As articles regarding personalities and perceptions—and snarky reactions to both—have continued to crowd out simple reporting in the quest for clickbait, any sense of proportion and decency has more and more been discarded.  Hence, “news” has devolved into just one more facet of our wacky entertainment culture rather than an enterprise where careful fact-checking and an unbiased presentation—combined with a deeply entrenched sense of reportorial responsibility—are considered normal and laudable.

Imagine, for example, if our current journalistic practices had been in place in the past.  Would the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bombs during World War II, have stayed off the front pages of The Washington Post for long?  Would news websites be breathlessly reporting every twist and turn of the Cuban Missile Crisis based on leaks and the wildest unsubstantiated speculation—thereby driving our world even closer to the brink of nuclear war?  On a less elevated level, would some mistress of President Kennedy be providing a slurp by slurp account of their liaisons to 60 Minutes or The Tonight Show—perhaps while simultaneously hawking her new web store with its own line of “Presidential” lingerie for sale?

We need a responsible and inquiring press in a democracy—and many news outlets are still doing important investigative reporting that provides necessary accountability for government and government officials.  However, the disdain much of the American public feels toward journalism and journalists—which President Trump channels and amplifies for his own political purposes—is a direct outcome of the damage done by reporters who have turned themselves into partisans and provocateurs in order to advance their own careers.

There is an old saying in Washington: “Those who know don’t talk, and those who talk don’t know.”  We can add a codicil to this saying that is both a reflection of today’s reality and a warning: “and the public doesn’t know why so much talk leaves them knowing nothing at all….”

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Who Gets To Vote?

The history of American democracy is also a history of our sloppy, exclusionary, and infuriating system of voting. As much as we might want to paint our elections as some sacred system designed to produce that most perfect of all unions, the plain fact of the matter is that winning candidacies boil down to a very simple and cold-hearted equation: Make certain that my supporters vote and those of my opponent don’t. All the rest is political science theory.

Not surprisingly, the methods of winning elections by controlling who votes have run the gamut from the rascally to the outright despicable. Here in my own state of Illinois, the dead have a long and storied history of rising from the grave to cast their ballots. For much of our history women were denied the vote. Long after the passage of the 15th Amendment, African-Americans had to sometimes risk their lives to enter a polling place. Gerrymandered districts have long been used by both major political parties to neutralize the votes of some while amplifying the impact of the votes of others. The limitations of our continued reliance on balky voting machines and volunteer electoral judges perhaps reached an apogee—or nadir—in 2000, when we all had a chance to learn what a “hanging chad” was, and the U.S. Supreme Court abruptly—perhaps too abruptly—ended a Presidential recount in Florida and declared a winner.

Therefore, to blithely celebrate our “free and fair” electoral system requires a least a little willful blindness at times. We cannot discuss improvements if we deny our historic failures.

However, recent discussions about expanding the franchise by permitting felons, sixteen year olds, or even illegal immigrants to vote in some elections veer into territory that goes far beyond simply improving the systems we now have. We are now asked to decide whether felony convictions should be sufficient grounds for revoking a basic right of citizenship, when sufficient maturity to vote responsibly has been attained, or whether unlawful residency should provide voting rights that have historically been restricted to citizens. These are all huge questions that have profound implications for the future of our nation.

The question of whether states should continue to restrict the rights of convicted felons to vote hinges on a very basic question: Do we believe voting to be an irrevocable right or an earned privilege? At least to this point in time we have generally restricted the rights of felons to vote while in prison. The question today is whether voting rights should be automatically restored to felons upon release or there should be additional restrictions until other conditions set by individual state legislatures are satisfied by that ex-convict.

We might also reasonably ask whether the same restrictions should apply to both violent and non-violent offenders, but this often crashes into the question of whether we are giving preferential treatment to white-collar criminals. As regards the right to vote, should we distinguish between the accountant who facilitated a real estate fraud and the purse snatcher who knocked down a little old lady during the commission of the crime? Is the integrity of our voting system more at risk from someone running a marijuana grow house or someone who was stealing cars and stripping them for parts?

Having taught high school, I know my viewpoint regarding allowing sixteen year olds to vote has been affected by my professional experience. Some liberals are, of course, thrilled with this idea in the wake of student protests in favor of more—and more confiscatory—gun control laws because younger people generally skew hard left politically, and this tendency could affect the outcome of many elections. However, although the exuberant idealism of the young can be useful counterpoint to the weary cynicism of older voters beaten down by the eternal gulf between the promises and performances of politicians, bright-eyed ideology unleavened by messy life experience can be problematic.

Anyone who remembers their youthful belief in their own infallibility—which, of course, stood in stark contrast to the blind stupidity of the oblivious adult world—has at least at once grimaced at the utter cluelessness of their younger selves. The French have a lovely aphorism, quoted and re-quoted in various permutations, that ably captures this dichotomy: “If you are not a liberal at twenty, you have no heart; if you are not a conservative at forty, you have no head.” A world run by 16 year olds might by long on energy and short on practicality—or it might resemble The Lord of The Flies. Perhaps there is something to be said for the sagacity that comes with age. In addition, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 years of age in only 1971, so it is likely worth another bit of a wait before we fiddle with the voting age yet again.

The issue of granting some voting rights to undocumented immigrants is a topic of intense discussion in states such as California, Illinois, and New York. Their laws designed to protect the many who reside in those states illegally readily morph into granting this population more and more public aid and benefits of all types—so voting rights seem to some the next natural step. This is also viewed as a way to battle the entrenched “racism” of those who support stricter enforcement by helping to boost the electoral fortunes of those candidates who are friendly to the notion of a world without borders.

However, one would be hard-pressed to find a developed nation where policies that reward lawbreakers are commonplace, and it is reasonable to ask whether open borders and a modern welfare state are a potentially ruinous combination. Although it is certainly true that we are a nation of immigrants, those immigrants almost always arrived under supervision and with documentation—and rules and limitations have been crafted throughout our history to maintain a manageable flow of people into our great nation.

Of course, although our legal immigration policies have historically been quite generous, there is no doubt they have often reflected the prejudices and preconceptions of the people who crafted them. This is sad, and at times it has resulted in injustices that have affected individuals and their families, but we cannot undo the past and now must muddle along from here. Additional domestic and international issues, which are far beyond our ability to predict, will affect our immigration legislation and procedures going forward in ways we cannot imagine, so all we can do is continue to be as welcoming as our economic conditions and security considerations allow. Beyond this, the question of granting some voting rights to those who have entered the U.S. illegally will be a priority for some immigration partisans—but I strongly doubt the vast majority of Americans will endorse this idea because it fails to account for basic common sense.

There was once a time in American history when our polling places were in taverns and saloons—and a vote could be had for the price of a couple of beers. Our election procedures have obviously improved a great deal since, but much improvement is still possible—particularly as regards expanded voting opportunities and convenience.

Moreover, we can continue to improve the security and accuracy of the ballot in a variety of ways, and the increased infiltration of dazzling and powerful technology into every facet of our daily lives may someday mean that we will be saying “Siri, it’s time for me to vote for President.” on a Tuesday in early November. That would certainly increase voter participation—and reduce the opportunities for the chicanery and silliness that have marred too many of our elections in the past. In addition, it would be way, way cool.

Code of Silence

It was not a surprise to hear this, but a comment one of my students recently made in class seemed to neatly sum up our anxious and antagonistic national mood: “I really don’t like to express my opinion about anything because people just attack you for what you think.”

Yep. That pretty much nails it.

I am not one of those who believe that our major news outlets are part of some liberal cabal out to subvert America. Watching the sense of shock suffuse the faces of the pollsters and pundits on Election Night in 2016, it was obvious that the results had them completely gobsmacked. Having spent the previous couple of years in animated discussion with one another, they were convinced that anyone with a lick of intelligence thought just the way they did, and all of the national polls served to provide ironclad proof that we would be toasting President-elect Clinton’s landslide victory when the dawn broke.

One of the reasons more and more “experts” are so confused by the current state of our nation is likely that fewer and fewer Americans have any interest in serious discussions that extend beyond a small circle of close friends or immediate family. My student is absolutely correct that talk too often leads to trouble in our hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive environment. I sometimes feel the same way when I receive flaming ripostes regarding my blog commentaries. Principled disagreement based on values, judgment, knowledge, and experience has been relegated to the scrap heap of representative democracy. Now the focus is on “shutting down” those whose views are different from your own. Given the very high probability that your opinions will be misrepresented, misinterpreted, or mischaracterized, many now consider it a mistake to ever express what they think on a topic or issue of the day.

This problem harms our nation in three distinct—and important—ways.

First and foremost, open and fearless debate regarding the issues facing our nation is the very lifeblood of democracy. The moment that citizens start to shut up in order to avoid being “shut down” by angry partisans on either side, the possibilities for discussion leading to consensus are diminished. We may not always like what those who believe differently have to say, but we cheat ourselves and our nation if we do not listen to the doubters and dissenters who may see a problem or flaw that has been overlooked—or simply ignored—by those who are absolutely, positively certain there can be no legitimate viewpoint other than their own.

Moreover, there can be little doubt—particularly after the 2016 election—that silence produces suspicion. All those Trump voters flying beneath the radar resulted in the never ending—and never proven—narrative of Russian collusion that has poisoned our political discussions ever since. Although it is certainly true that the mainstream media chose to ignore the many signals that Hillary Clinton’s coronation was far from assured, it has also been well-documented that many Trump voters kept quiet in order to avoid the ire of family, friends, and co-workers—as well as the scorn of total strangers. In retrospect, more frank and open dialogue would have benefited everyone by perhaps diminishing the shock of Donald Trump’s victory and avoiding the creation of a thriving industry of conspiracy theorists who cling to a self-comforting and self-defeating saga of election fraud rather than doing the hard work of converting more voters to their causes.

Worst of all, any nation in which a few loud and angry voices are allowed to dominate is fertile ground for extremists of all stripes. The eye-rolling, smirks, and sneers that accompany so many of our debates today empower those who present the angriest denunciations of people whose only crime is to hold to a different belief or set of values. Moderation and accommodation is impossible when your opponents are considered twisted, evil, or deluded. Those who vilify others tend to attract a crowd, but that crowd—who are primed for the attack—readily becomes an angry mob intent on driving diversity of opinion down into the dust.

The fragmentation and fulmination of our political sphere today is frightening. Our innate human differences have now become deep and immutable divides that reduce us all to either friend or foe, which leads to yet more insularity and ignorance that will further erode our already damaged and dysfunctional civic culture. We must do better: More listening and less insulting would be a good place to start.

Me Hate You

Another day, another mass shooting. Another day, another sexual abuse scandal. Another day, another corruption scandal. Another day, another random outrage.

As much as we try to avert our eyes and focus on feel-good stories and videos of adorably cavorting puppies, it is sometimes difficult to avoid the frightening suspicion that a great many facets of our society are breaking down and raining catastrophe upon our heads. As we grope for answers to our problems, the cacophony of competing solutions is enough to make one’s head spin, and most boil down to either exponentially expanding our personal freedoms or rashly restricting them. Therefore, during any given week we will be excoriated for being either intolerant or too tolerant—and those who hold contrary views will present their disagreements in the most derisive and wounding terms possible.

Just this past week we were treated to multiple loud fights. A morning television host compared the religious beliefs of Vice President Pence to a mental illness. Another school mass shooting—this time in Florida—prompted some to liken gun control opponents to child murderers. We were asked to simultaneously celebrate the athletic achievements an Olympic athlete and condemn him for a documented instance of sexual harassment. These and so many other angry and injurious debates are the non-stop, jack-hammering background noise of our daily lives.

The frothing rage generated by President Trump’s proposal to reform the federal food assistance program, still generally referred to by many as “food stamps”, is a useful example of all that ails us today. The program is currently rife with bureaucratic red tape, exceedingly expensive to operate, and does not even meet the basic requirement of ensuring that those who need assistance are receiving the help that they actually need. Today the single largest category of “food” purchased with food stamps is soft drinks. Racing right behind are candies, cookies, chips, and other junk food.

It seems, therefore, completely reasonable to propose providing boxes of nutritious, domestically grown, shelf stable food—real food—to those who cannot provide for themselves or their families. After all, no one is going to be able to live a healthful and happy life on a diet of Pepsi and Doritos, which are food purchase choices supported by the current program. Although some would argue that the poor should have the same opportunity to cram their faces full of empty calories as do the affluent, this seems a perverse twisting of our idea of freedom in order to put hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of grocers and junk food manufacturers that are profiting from a system that actually causes great physical harm to those whom it was meant to help.

However, those who believe that the current program is too tolerant—providing the minimum nutrition at the maximum cost—find themselves hotly criticized by those who feel that insisting food assistance provide actual food is an intolerant restriction of a seemingly fundamental American freedom, the right to eat junk food. That we even find ourselves at loggerheads over common sense reforms meant to both reduce costs and improve nutritional outcomes is a sign of just how destructively—some might say self-destructively—partisan and toxic our political processes have become.

To provide high quality food to the needy seems a no-brainer, but it apparently is not. When reality itself is captive to one political or moral viewpoint or another, there seems little hope for solving many more pressing problems. Moreover, the inevitable result of spinning every bit of information to suit one agenda or another is the echo chamber of insults that we now occupy. It seems there are no longer two legitimate sides to any issue. Today it is that I’m 100% correct and you’re an idiot—who is ugly as well.

These corrosive—and fundamentally intolerant—interactions between those who hold differing views should be a red flag that we are careening toward a final breakdown of our democratic processes. If the word most commonly associated with government over a long period of time by the vast majority of Americans is “failure”, which poll after poll shows to be the case, that is a clear sign that our faith in the system has dissipated to a point that goes beyond worry—panic might be a more apt descriptor.

The collapse of our political and social discourse is not a “canary in a coal mine”. That canary fell of its perch quite a number of years ago and is stiff and cold on the ground. We are no longer disagreeing; everyone is in full attack mode 24/7 and prepared to do whatever is necessary to destroy those with the temerity to hold fast to values or ideas that differ from their own.

The core questions are really no longer ones regarding tolerance or intolerance for others or their ideas. Many of us simply need to look in the mirror and ask what is wrong with ourselves. Why are we so comfortable with denigrating those whose values, experiences, and judgments are different from our own? This is a question that each of us must answer for ourselves if we are guilty of attacking when we might be more helpful by listening.

This problem has been growing worse for decades, and there is plenty of blame to spread around across the political spectrum. Those who are old enough to remember the Clinton presidency might recall the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster in 1993, a man who was widely considered an honest and decent person—perhaps too honest and decent for Washington. A line from his torn-up suicide note perhaps provided a terribly accurately foreshadowing of where we are today: “Here ruining people is considered sport.”

When we reach this point personally and politically, there is no place to go but further down into the muck and slime of personal attacks and sleazy innuendos masquerading as policy debates. We have many huge, difficult, and complex challenges ahead of us as a nation—none of which will be solved by continuing to throw mud balls at one another.

I am not optimistic, but I try my best to remain so. Perhaps our very human tendency to seek hope where there seems none will be what finally saves us from ourselves. Maybe.

In the meantime, enjoy your Pepsi and Doritos . . .

Has Big Government Killed Compromise?

I was reading a book the other day that discussed the internecine religious conflict that roiled England during the reigns of Henry VIII, Mary I (“Bloody Mary”), and Elizabeth I. Protestants and Catholics, each convinced their own values and doctrinal interpretations were right and good, fought an unyielding battle for control and supremacy over both government and nation, and neither side was the least interested in even the most basic compromises. Each conflict was filled with hatred and every speech—it would be impossible to call them discussions—was colored by apocalyptic visions of the catastrophic outcomes that would certainly result were the beliefs of the opposition allowed to gain ascendancy. It was brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, and region against region as each side scrambled to vanquish their blood enemies, who were, in point of fact, actually their fellow countrymen.

Does any of this sound familiar?

To say that many of the citizens of our nation seem to have a visceral and implacable dislike for one another is stating the obvious. Worse yet, because so many are convinced that those who hold differing beliefs are inherently immoral—or even just plain evil—the possibilities for thoughtful and reasonable conversations between individuals of good will seem fewer and fewer with each passing day. I am thankful that today we restrict our public burnings to social media, but the outcome remains the same: hearts hardened, hatreds stoked, and minds irreversibly closed.

I like to think that reasonable people can come to reasonable compromises regarding the many issues that divide our nation at the present time, but I am beginning to suspect that this may be impossible more often than I would like to believe for a reason some might find unbelievable: the fantastically expanded powers of American government itself.

The questions of governance that now so bedevil us are inextricably tied to foundational issues of family, faith, patriotism, and the balance between rights and responsibilities—each jostling against the other and further complicating the next. Thankfully we can still (most of the time) decide where to put a highway off-ramp. However, now that government has grown to control almost all of our daily activities, we are crashing headlong into the problems inherent in allowing legislators, judges, and bureaucrats—today’s kings and queens—to monitor and control so many deeply personal facets of our lives. Any government that holds absolute power—even if many believe this power is being used for the greater good—creates a lot of problems, and this is where the analogy to Tudor England really takes hold.

Four hundred or so years ago perfectly sane English men and women were willing to imprison, torture, and slaughter one another because government held absolute power over an aspect of their lives as fundamental as their form of worship. Not surprisingly, every conflict was fought to the death—or nearly so—because to lose any battle was to lose every bit of freedom to live according one’s values and choose one’s own life path. American government has now amplified this power to control individual human choice to a degree that perhaps even the Tudor royalty would have found objectionable—and we should not be surprised by the results.

Most of us want government to provide basic services that ensure our health and safety, maintain critical infrastructure, and defend our borders—although even these can be subject to intense debate regarding principles and practices. However, when we inject the nearly limitless powers that government can grant itself into every aspect of our personal behavior and interpersonal interactions, we should not be overly surprised at the divisive results.

Just as the Tudor royalty discovered saving souls and creating a heaven on earth backed by the power of the crown turned out to be a fairly unpopular and ugly business, so do our Washington “royalty’s” many decrees that punish attitudes deemed unacceptable to the elite cause political, cultural, and social discord that fragments our nation and stymies even the most reasonable political compromises. Our leadership could take a lesson from Elizabeth I, the last of the great Tudor monarchs. Her true genius, which transformed her broken and divided nation into a world power, was to abandon state-mandated orthodoxy and tolerate a range of inherently conflicting beliefs during her long and successful reign.

The lesson of human history is clear to any who cares to look: Nations typically flourish when they allow their people to believe as they please with only minimal common sense restraints on their behavior. If you want to understand the root cause of our inability to cooperate, you need only look inside the confines of Washington, D.C. for the answer. A great many Americans would be very pleased if those now occupying that dysfunctional zip code would just leave us alone and focus on delivering those basic services they have neglected while busying themselves with telling everyone how they should think and live.

We’re just fine with figuring it all out for ourselves, thank you. In fact, we’ll probably do a much better job at the fraction of the cost—and with a fraction of the anger. We folks in flyover country are a lot smarter and more sensible than the Washington crowd of social engineers and scolds, and we could probably teach the D.C. royalty a lesson or two—if they ever bothered to listen to what the peasants have to say.