Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Posts Tagged ‘accountability

What Do You Want from Your Government?

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Years ago, in The Economist, I saw this list of positive attributes of a government:

  1. Stability: the government has the ability to provide continuous governance over time. This is not to say that the individual people in power stay in power, but that there is a continuity of principle over time even as people doing the governing shift in an out.
  2. Security: the government protects its citizens and their property from violence:
    1. Caused by internal agents, such as criminals and criminal organizations;
    2. Caused by external agents, such as foreign governments.
  3. Predictability: the government provides a legal structure that offers citizens understandable and predictable consequences of their actions. You take this action, you get that outcome. You can know it in advance and plan accordingly.
  4. Accountability: everyone in the government is either directly answerable to the citizens through election or reports up a bureaucratic structure to someone else who is directly answerable to the citizens.
  5. Transparency: the citizens can see into operations of the government. We can find out what the people who govern us are doing so that we can decide whether or not we want that to continue to be done.

This list is a starting point. You may believe something is missing. Perhaps justice leaps out at you; we can discuss that, although we also have to discuss what we mean by justice.

A libertarian minimalist government and a highly paternalistic welfare state could both provide these five attributes. So there is also a need to discuss the degree of scope the citizen has to determine her own life results, and this is not present in the foregoing list.

Nevertheless, we can take these five attributes and get a good argument going by simply trying to prioritize them. They require tradeoffs. For example, security and transparency are inherently opposed. Agents who would do harm to citizens thrive on transparency, so that they can know what the government security apparatus does. However, there has to be enough transparency to support accountability.

Similarly, stability, predictability and accountability often oppose one another because the polity itself is not predictable. So if the government is to offer stable and predictable protections to minorities within the polity, this may aggravate the majority. A government that is totally accountable to the people may not uphold these protections.

Politics

Politics is the process by which we come to enough collective agreement to make decisions that affect everyone in the collective. Nationally, we have to determine how we want to make the tradeoffs among these five attributes. The people in positions of responsibility in the government have their own ideas about them; do those ideas align with ours? If not, what are we going to do about it?

Due to our Enlightenment heritage, the word politics has a smelly connotation. Bill George, who teaches at Harvard Business School and used to run Medtronic, says we ought to put country before politics. This is a common enough sentiment. What would it mean in real life?

If we were all wired the same way, we would all agree on what we ought to do as a country. We would all rank order the five attributes above the same way and set the same tradeoffs. We would all define justice the same way. We would all want the same relationship between the individual and the state.

Many Enlightenment thinkers hoped that progress would reveal optimum answers to these questions. Knowing these answers, there would be no need for politics, because we would rationally agree on how to proceed. In 1878, Friedrich Engels wrote in Anti-Dühring:

The first act by virtue of which the state really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society — the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society — this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not “abolished”. It dies out.

This is the origin of the idea of withering away of the state. We all agree on what to do, so “the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things.” Government is superfluous, because all rational citizens share a common agreement of what the entire collective ought to decide.

However, since we do not observe the promised convergence to a common agreement, this is not achievable. There is not going to be a universally shared understanding of how difficult societal tradeoffs ought to be made. What the rationalist program actually calls for is to take the politics out of politics.

The Rehabilitation of Politics

Instead, I am calling for engagement with politics. I am asserting that there is a right way and many wrong ways to be political, just like there is a right way and many wrong ways to be religious.

A person who walks around all smug and sanctimonious because of religious convictions is doing it wrong. A person who says that any religion is just as good as any other religion is also doing it wrong: in Roman Catholicism, this is the sin of indifference. We are called to believe that we are right in our beliefs, without asserting that all who believe otherwise are necessarily evil.

All they ask, we could readily grant, if we thought slavery right; all we ask, they could as readily grant, if they thought it wrong. Their thinking it right, and our thinking it wrong, is the precise fact upon which depends the whole controversy. Thinking it right, as they do, they are not to blame for desiring its full recognition, as being right; but, thinking it wrong, as we do, can we yield to them? Can we cast our votes with their view, and against our own? In view of our moral, social, and political responsibilities, can we do this?
— Abraham Lincoln, “Cooper Union Speech“, 1860.

Similarly, in politics, there is a balancing act to be done to hit the sweet spot between the strident “We’re right; they’re wrong” and the spineless “Who am I to have an opinion?” The Cooper Union Speech is my favorite Lincoln speech because I find that he did hit that sweet spot. He recognized that there were Americans who believed as fervently that slavery was right as he believed it was wrong, without rendering those who disagreed stupid, evil or crazy, and at the same time without a misguided call to compromise on principle. He was ready to compromise politically as far as leaving slavery in place in the states that already allowed it, because he foresaw secession and civil war if this was not done. But, in principle, there could be no compromise; we were either going to have legalized slavery in this country or we weren’t. In fact, we could not avoid secession and civil war. Four years later, Lincoln would come to see the war as a divine judgement on a nation that had tolerated slavery.

I believe that this is what We the People have to do. We have to be able to have reasoned discussions with those who disagree with us. We can settle our differences with words or with bullets. There is no third option.

We believe that political power is derived from the consent of the governed. If the governed cannot even have an intelligent conversation among ourselves with those of us who differ in our beliefs and priorities, how can we consent to anything?

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Written by srojak

February 3, 2018 at 4:42 pm

Stories of Sex and Power

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Is American society really changing? After Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, John Conyers and all the others, are we really getting to a milestone of cultural change?

I don’t think it is the beginning of the end, but I hope it is the end of the beginning.

Principles

Here is the ideal situation: nobody has to hate going to work because she expects to be groped, fondled or otherwise intruded upon by someone whom she is afraid to confront because he has situational or institutional power. Obviously, we are not there yet.

I would like the current crop of public shamings to lead to the above ideal situation. I don’t believe we are going to wake up on 1 January 2018 and magically be in that place, but we can make substantial progress.

Establishment of Guilt

Roy Moore is our first serious test case. He is accused of making sexual advances on underage girls some decades ago. He has hunkered down and is denying the charges all the way. One America News wants him to have the benefit of due process and be considered innocent until proven guilty.

I completely understand their objection. However, since I wasn’t born yesterday, I also know that he would have been able to exempt himself from due process as a DA and a judge.

One of his accusers claims:

 “I was terrified. He was also trying to pull my shirt off. I thought he was going to rape me. I was twisting, I was struggling, and I was begging him to stop,” she said. “At some point, he gave up. He then looked at me and he told me, he said, ‘You’re just a child,’ and he said, ‘I am the district attorney of Etowah County, and if you tell anyone about this, no one will ever believe you.'”

— Source: NBC News

Even if that didn’t actually happen, how would we ever get to the bottom of it? There have been so many predators who said, “I am ____, and if you tell anyone about this, no one will ever believe you.” And they have been right for all these years. This is not OK.

So a sexual predator with power and influence is not ,likely to be brought to account by normal due process. Now what are we left with? Put up with it?

I am sure that many of Moore’s defenders think he is being picked on because he is hated by both Democrats and establishment Republicans. So what? Did he do the deeds or didn’t he?

We are not going to ever get this into a court and get resolution; certainly not the same way as if a common Alabama plumber or mechanic had been accused of the same offense. Until we can, maybe persons with power and influence have to be brought down under these conditions.

If Moore really didn’t do what he is accused of, I regret the damage of the accusations. We are going to see some excesses before this is over. We are going to see people being falsely accused.

However, if there is no formal venue where such people can be brought to account, then there has to be a messy and informal venue. Allowing this behavior to continue is not acceptable.

People get wrongly accused of crimes all the time. Some of them do not have the power, influence and means to fight the accusations effectively. Take a moment to think about them.

The Appropriate Punishment

Another aspect we have to work out is what the appropriate punishment is for various offenses. In the past, the appropriate punishment was none, and we are not OK with that anymore. So we effectively have no precedent.

Is one incident of a man in a position of power forcing himself on a woman a hanging offense? If not, how many incidents establish a pattern? Does contrition matter? Does the amount of time between then and now enter into consideration?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. We will, as a society, have to answer them.

Written by srojak

November 29, 2017 at 11:13 pm

Personal Loyalty in Government

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CBS News estimates that about one-fifth of the country is solidly behind President Trump. Of this subset of the population, they report that 55% “believe government and law enforcement officials should take an oath of loyalty to the Constitution and president,” as opposed to pledging loyalty to the Constitution alone. Given an adult population of 209 million, by my reckoning, that would be 23 million adult Americans holding this belief. I find this deeply disturbing.

There are about 4,000 politically appointed positions in the administration. Those in the executive branch serve at the pleasure of the president.  Although he can dismiss them at any time, there can be political consequences for doing so. Managing a federal department is not the same as managing a family business. The removal of a highly respected senior staffer can demoralize those who had been working for her, unless there are reasons the survivors can respect and these reasons are communicated well.

A requirement of personal loyalty to an individual President would take the political appointees in the direction of a Führerprinzip, in that it would communicate that the will of the executive takes priority over the appointee’s concepts of right and wrong. Furthermore, the door swings both ways; an executive politically hostile to your interests as a citizen could also demand such loyalty from political appointees.

Attention, 23 million Americans: rethink this idea immediately. It would represent a significant further step to make politics “a civil war by other means,” and we are far along on that path already. The Constitution was designed to prevent a majority from running roughshod over a minority. It deserves the highest loyalty of those who serve in government.

Written by srojak

May 23, 2017 at 5:10 am

Interviewing Kellyanne Conway

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This video (6:31 long) from Vox was brought to my attention. It raises a number of interesting questions. Laid over with questions about Vox itself and the media in general, we have even more questions. It is a very layered story, and worth some time to dig through the various layers.

Let’s start with the subject at hand, then open the lens to the bigger picture.

Being a Representative

Conway’s role on these shows is to represent the administration. Within a circumscribed, forest-for-the-trees perspective of the role (more on that later), I think she does an outstanding job. She is determined and relentless. When she has a strong hand, she plays it; when she has a weak hand, she bluffs like crazy.

She knows that many of her interviewers want to pin her down. They want to face her. They want to force her to fold, to make concessions. She has no intention of doing that. It’s a test of wills.

I have some experience in representing myself; I represented a software company in sales efforts. Conway is a walking illustration of the very ethos of a successful software sales representative: “They promised you beachfront? You don’t want beachfront. Swampland is the future!”

Being Donald Trump’s Representative

Overlaid on top of this is the fact that she is representing the administration headed by President Trump. I don’t think I am being unfair to Trump by saying that this is no ordinary presidential administration. He consistently promised something out of the ordinary on his campaign, and he is delivering in abundance.

Given the nature of Donald Trump, the person, there are going to be some striking challenges in being his representative. For openers, he pops off at the mouth — or the tweet — much more than the typical organizational leader. Then his representatives have to go forward and try to control the damage.

I believe that Trump did not further his own cause by calling Judge James Robart a “so-called judge”, but he did. I believe that a more nuanced approach to the limitations of the press would have been preferable to calling them “The enemy of the American people.” But Trump doesn’t do nuance. We’ve had years to figure this out. The man is, as of this writing, 70 years old; he’s set in his ways.

So you, the representative, get the task of appearing in front of the press, who are howling like a scalded dog after having been called the enemy of the American people. You can’t unsay his remarks. You can’t disown them. You can’t cut and run. How are you going to navigate this?

So, yeah, Conway “reinvents Trump’s positions into more defensible versions of themselves.” How else would she keep her head above water? Jeff Lord has been doing the same thing as a Trump flack on CNN for the entire 2016 campaign. When Trump made totally outrageous, foot-in-mouth statements that would appear indefensible, Lord simply replaced them with positions from an idealized, Trump-like candidate that existed in his own imagination. What would you do on camera in front of a national audience? Concede the point? That’s not what you’re there for.

Some Perspective on Representatives

None of this is new; it’s just a matter of degree. The British series Yes, Prime Minister contained an episode titled “Official Secrets“, which first aired in 1987. Here is a link to the video. If you’re pressed for time, skip forward to about the 23:00 mark.

Bernard, what made you think that, just because someone was asking you questions, you had to answer them?
— James Hacker, “Official Secrets”

Further on, Hacker instructs Bernard in how to handle difficult questions. He has eight ways to defect questions. The net of his advice is:

If you have nothing to say, say nothing. Better still, have something to say and say it, no matter what they ask. Pay no attention to the question; make your own statement. If they ask the question again, you just say, “That’s not the question” or “I think the more important question is …” Then you make another statement of your own.
— James Hacker, “Official Secrets”

As a representative, you don’t have the option of having nothing to say. So you have to have something to say and force your will to prevail over the will of your questioners. Conway is very good at this.

So Why Invite Her?

The host of the Vox piece says at the end:

Just remember, she’s doing her job. It’s the news shows that keep booking her that are letting you down.
— Carlos Maza

Why do they bring her on? Part of it is the unwritten co-dependency story of how Trump got to be President in the first place. The news networks have 1,440 minutes a day to fill, 365 days a year. They’re crazy for content. They don’t know what else to do.

There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
— Oscar Wilde

Trump has exploited this dependency mercilessly for his entire campaign. By saying and tweeting outrageous things, he dominated his opponents through airtime. While career politicians were cautious and scripted, Trump was spontaneous and outrageous. The received wisdom was that you couldn’t win an election doing that. Evidently, the received wisdom was wrong.

No, having flacks on a news show to evade questions is not helpful to us as citizens. It never was. The extremes of this administration just throw the issue into bright relief. Neither was having teams of opposing flacks to shout at one another and talk over one another during the 2016 campaign. Evidently, it is all the cable channels can think of fill time.

Journalists seem to think that the reporting of peoples’ opinions constitutes reporting facts. It may be a fact that the person you’re interviewing has that opinion, but it’s still an opinion. Postmodern journalism happened long before Donald Trump threw his cap in the ring.

Consider a real issue: last year, there was an announced change in Department of Labor policy that was later blocked by a federal court injunction. How much of this issue did you hear on cable news? How much did you read about it in your favorite print outlet?

Vox

The people at Vox are good at identifying behavior from Conway when it comes from people they don’t like, such as Conway. But do not lose sight of the fact that they have their own viewpoint to push — everybody does.

Some further reading:

What is Truth?

Most of us accept something called the Correspondence Theory of Truth. Simply put, if you accept this theory, than in order for a statement to be true, it has to correspond in some meaningful way to objective reality. This requires acceptance of a bundle of premises:

  1. There is an objective reality;
  2. We can know it;
  3. We can all obtained a shared common knowledge of it;
  4. We can take a statement and measure the correspondence with that shared common knowledge of reality, and therefore the truthfulness of that statement.

A full treatment of these implications is going to have to wait for another post, because this is a subject in itself.

It is clear to me, from his conduct, that Donald Trump does not subscribe to this theory. His truth is more pragmatic in nature: what is useful to me right now? This may seem shocking and even immoral, but it has an intellectual lineage going back to William James and Charles Sanders Pierce:

‘The true’, to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole, of course; for what meets expediently all the experience in sight won’t necessarily meet all farther experiences equally satisfactorily.
— William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Lecture VI (1907)

So something can be true today, because it is expedient, and then untrue tomorrow, because it is no longer expedient.

I direct the interested reader to the entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Pragmatism for further discussion.

It is not necessary for Donald Trump to have read William James for him to think in this way. The notion has been rattling around out there for over a hundred years.

The question of truth introduces a professional challenge to the journalist: what are you reporting? The truth or someone’s truth?

For the journalist who does accept the Correspondence Theory of Truth, it presents also a personal ethical challenge: what do you do about this? Do the standards of journalism require you to refrain from inserting your own beliefs, or do you have an ethical responsibility upon to advocate your viewpoint as to the nature of truth?

It is clear that many of the people trying to get “the truth” out of Conway and those like her are not formally aware of these issues. They sense something is not quite right, but I don’t think they could articulate what the problem is.

 

 

Written by srojak

February 20, 2017 at 12:45 pm

An Election Every Day

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No matter how unsatisfying you think the 2016 election cycle has been or will become — and I think I have been quite forthcoming on how unsatisfying I find it — you can take some comfort in this observation. The election that really matters happens every day.

You vote in this election with your scarce resources: your time, your money and your attention. You vote with what you choose to give to withhold. You vote with what you choose to expect or to tolerate.

Everyone participates in this election. You can’t opt out. Even deciding not to decide is a decision.

The results of this daily election creates the national culture and political climate in which politicians and administrators have to operate. They can push the envelope, but they can’t take it where it doesn’t provide the flexibility to go.

If this were not true, if political leaders could successfully bend a modern industrial nation containing hundreds of millions of people to their will, there would still be a Soviet Union.

Yes, the country can get better or worse. We can go up or down on the Freedom Index, where we are already behind Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, the UK, France, the Czech Republic, Poland and Estonia. We can return to the rule of law or we can have less of it. We have national problems with entitlements and education. We can have politicians and administrators break the economy.

I am not saying the annual elections don’t matter. I am saying the perpetual referendum of 325 million people conducting their daily business matters more.

I never ruled Russia. Ten thousand clerks ruled Russia.
— One of the Tsars Alexander on his deathbed.

We can strive for equal justice under the law or continue to have corruption. But, to give an example, a nation that accepts the precept that “rank has its privileges” has already bought into having corruption. Corrupt public officials will get farther in such a nation than in a nation that demands transparency and accountability.

Here is a historical example:

The conviction that the subordination of the individual to the good of the community was not only a necessity but a positive blessing had gripped the mind of the German army, and through it that of the nation.
— Gen. Paul von Hindenburg, Out of My Life (1920)

At all historical evidence, Hindenburg was speaking accurately. Is it any wonder that Germany turned to the Nazis in 1933 when times got hard? The ground was already prepared for them. Hindenburg himself could and did object to the style of the Nazis, but could not effectively stand against their principles. Ideas have consequences.

Control the controllables. If each of us clean up our own corner of the country, the country would be cleaned up.

Written by srojak

October 30, 2016 at 1:17 pm

Part of the Problem

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Glenn Beck says the current climate of the public square bothers him. In an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday, he said:

Everybody feels like there’s a play going on, and we’re just watching it and looking at each other and shaking our heads in disbelief. And nobody’s listening to the hardworking American who doesn’t feel like they belong to anything anymore. In fact, it’s almost as if we’re being, we’re standing outside and we’re not being invited to this party at all.
— “Glenn Beck: I Warned about the Rise of Nazism in America, and Now with Trump It Is Happening” (link to transcript)

Which I find interesting, because Beck is not just any old pundit. He is the founder of TheBlaze, a media organization that serves as the home for, among others, Tomi Lahren. Yeah, the one who calls herself “a commentator, not a journalist.”

So if Glenn Beck wants to take an active role in increasing the signal-to-noise ratio, he has levers to push. He could start by setting up standards of ethical journalism and demanding that people who have access to his platform adhere to these standards. He could assert that the people who broadcast under his nameplate take responsibility for what they say. He could cut off the use of his airspace to make the situation worse.

If Beck is not willing to do so, then his complaints degenerate into the four most Machiavellian words in the English language: “I told you so.”

Written by srojak

October 3, 2016 at 12:35 pm

It’s a Free Country

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Tomi Lahren is a political commentator working for TheBlaze, a news/entertainment network founded by Glenn Beck. On 8 July, one day after the ambush that killed five Dallas police, Lahren set off an Internet storm with a tweet, which she later pulled down, that equated Black Lives Matter to the KKK.

The next Sunday, Lahren appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources”, in a conversation that also included David Zurawik, media critic for The Baltimore Sun [transcript]. Lahren opened reasonably enough:

I think that the Black Lives Matter started out with fantastic intentions.

They were trying to correct an injustice, real or perceived. And they were seeking equality and to bring attention to the things that they felt in their communities. However, we saw, in the aftermath of Ferguson, that things took an ugly turn.

We saw looting, we saw rioting, we saw burning down of communities. Now we’re seeing — and though it is not all — and I’m very careful to say that — though it is not all of the protesters, we do see some that are holding signs saying “F. the police,” “Kill all pigs.” Social media, though they might not be the first and foremost people of the movement, they are posting with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter horrific and awful things and calls to violence towards the police. So, I do believe that this movement needs to get itself back in check, because it has taken an ugly turn.

The people in the Black Lives Matter protests would likely not agree with Lahren’s summary. It is not my purpose to promote either side in this posting. The point is that Lahren started out with a reasonable tone.

When the discussion came around to the tweet put out by former Congressman Joe Walsh threatening President Obama, Zurawick stood up for a traditional media approach, discussing the issue without offering Walsh a media platform:

My compromise would be, you talk about what Walsh said, but you don’t bring him on. You talk about it with people. You have folks like Jamia. You have a panel like this, and let us talk about it.

And by doing that, you’re somehow saying to the audience, this man is irresponsible in this kind of rhetoric. You need to know it’s out there, but we’re going to try to contextualize it and talk about it and offer a framework for thinking about it.

That might sound paternalistic. That might sound old media thinking. Maybe it is.

Lahren emphatically disagreed, and went right off the rails:

LAHREN: I entirely disagree.

If you disagree with what someone is posting on social media, or you disagree with their voice, you bring them on and you allow them to address it. You don’t talk about them. You allow them to defend themselves. You allow them to clarify. And you have that open and honest conversation, as I have asked to do on many of the platforms that have said I went too far.

You bring that person on. You let them speak for themselves.

ZURAWIK: You did. You did go too far, Tomi. You did.

LAHREN: That is your opinion.

ZURAWIK: No, it’s not — I wish it was your employer’s opinion.

That’s really reckless, that kind of tweet at the situation we’re in. As a journalist, what you did appalls me. That’s the end of it. I’m trying to be civil about this.

LAHREN: And I appreciate it.

A, I’m not a journalist. I’m a commentator. I’m allowed to have my feelings and my opinions. And I stand behind the things that I say, because the thing that hurts people the most is when you’re honest. When you look at someone from an honest lens, from your perspective, and you bring that forth, you’re immediately labeled for it, and you are immediately criticized.

What those on the other side wants to do is criticize, label and silence those that disagree with them. I don’t play that game.

ZURAWIK: There’s no room for the kind of ignorance that your tweet put out there at this time in our history.

LAHREN: I agree with you that there’s divisive language out there that needs to be tamed. And I agree that some things that I may have said come from a place of anger and come from a place of being truly heartbroken at what happened in my city of Dallas.

But make no mistake. The First Amendment applies to everyone. And the best way to combat speech you don’t like is not to silence others. It’s more speech. It’s more conversation.

When I was about ten years old, my classmates and I used to say, “It’s a free country.” It was our justification for saying or doing anything we wanted to do. But we’re adults now, and we recognize that this is not an adult approach to life.

In less than five minutes, Lahren delivered an argument so wrong that it should be studied in schools. Lahren went wrong in these ways:

  • Evasion: Lahren said, “I’m not a journalist. I’m a commentator.” What does that even mean? She has a media platform for her comments. What is the distinction between a journalist and a commentator? Is a commentator free to make any sort of comment, no matter how ill-informed, inflammatory or irresponsible, without risk of being called on it?
  • Bogus Justification: Lahren continued, “I’m allowed to have my feelings and opinions.” So is every bully, manipulator and professional victim. Some of them ought to be kept to yourself.
    • Feelings are personal and private. They can’t be wrong. They also can’t be justification for actions.
    • Opinions can be wrong. A person having the opinion that the earth is flat is scientifically wrong. A person having the opinion that it is morally acceptable to own slaves is, in contemporary Western culture, wrong.
  • A substantial misreading of the First Amendment. More on this later.
  • Expansive approach to honesty: “When you look at someone from an honest lens, from your perspective, and you bring that forth, you’re immediately labeled for it, and you are immediately criticized.” We have way too much of this kind of self-described “honest” behavior in our daily life already. It is possible to be honest without being obnoxious.
  • Hasty generalization: “What those on the other side wants to do is criticize, label and silence those that disagree with them. I don’t play that game.” Tomi, aren’t you doing exactly that by saying this?

Freedom of Speech

There have been many idiotic invocations of First Amendment rights lately, so this is a good time to review. Always start with the primary source:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The key word here is Congress, that being the body given the lawmaking power in Article I of the Constitution. We extended this restriction to the several states, requiring them to grant the same rights to citizens as are granted by the Federal government.

The First Amendment is a restriction on government. It does not give a person the right to say anything without:

  • risk of being challenged over what the speaker is saying;
  • risk of consequences for speech whose content is inflammatory;
  • risk of ruining the speaker’s own credibility.

Lahren put out a tweet that was irresponsible and ill-advised. She realized that — or was made to — which is why she later deleted it. I understand that, in contemporary society, nothing is a mistake as long as you don’t admit it, but her attempts to justify herself on First Amendment grounds are pathetic.

Standards Cramp My Style

Despite her assertions to the contrary, Lahren is a journalist. In writing this blog, so am I. We face challenges on factual reporting, information reliability and time to prepare. I certainly don’t have formal training in journalism, but I have sense enough to be responsible for what I say. This piece waited all week while I found source material, found an uninterrupted block of time to write and organized my thoughts. I can’t just burn these off in a few minutes before dinner. I have scrapped some ideas because, when I examined the source material, the story just did not stand up to scrutiny.

Practicing bodies of journalists have developed standards and codes of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics featuring four organizing principles:

  • Seek Truth and Report It;
  • Minimize Harm;
  • Act Independently;
  • Be Accountable and Transparent.

When I was growing up and there were three major networks and major city newspapers, access to communicate came with strings attached. One of these strings was adherence to a set of journalistic standards. In order to get an audience, a journalist had to conform to the standards of the house. Here, for example, are the standards for National Public Radio.

Now, with the Internet, many of us have access to be heard that we would never before had. With that access comes responsibility. If we carry on as if we had no ethical standards, we will squander the opportunity before us. We won’t encourage more conversation, as Lahren said she wants to do, but more shrill screaming by partisan polemicists. We will eventually be ignored because people won’t trust us to be accountable for what we say.

David Zurawick was speaking from knowledge. His position was more than his opinion; it was grounded in the hard lessons of two hundred years of journalism, compressed into standards that journalists agree to operate within. It behooves all of us who address the public to take these principles seriously.

Written by srojak

July 16, 2016 at 9:22 pm