Saturday, April 08, 2006

Broken Democracy Watch

Now that we know the President authorized members of his administration to selectively leak portions of the NIE which supported his case for going to war with Iraq, the White House is offering the defense that it is impossible for the President to leak information because he can declassify anything he feels necessary to declassify. Perhaps anticipating this defense, Alzono Fyfe at the Atheist Ethicist wrote

First, with this crack down on leaks, what is the Administration going to do the next time it wants to reveal the identity of a covert CIA operative where it is useful in embarrassing a critic of the Administration?

This Administration that is cracking down on leaks is also an administration that leaks information when it serves a political purpose. Yet, it is doubtful that this crackdown will include those within the administration who has authorized or participated in these leaks.

This suggests that the Bush Administration is not actually interested in a crackdown against leaks. "Leaking information to the press" and “receiving leaked information” are not the crimes that this administration is actually seeking to punish. Rather, the crimes it seeks to punish are "revealing and/or receiving information that embarrasses the Administration". Those who leak information in ways that benefit the Administration will get an instant get-out-of-jail-free card. Only those who give information opposed to the Administration will be tracked down and punished.

This means that reporters, when they receive information, are going to have to make an evaluation. After hearing classified information, they will have to ask themselves, "Does this benefit the Administration?" If it does, then they will be able to receive the information and print it without repercussions.

If, however, they see the information as damaging to the Administration, they should take this as evidence that they are taking their freedom into their own hands if they should let the information out.

From this, we can rest assured that we, the public, are going to hear more pro-Administration information and less anti-Administration information. From this, we are somehow supposed to make an informed decision as to the quality of the work that this Administration does.
In a post in which I wrote about the Bush administration's efforts to restrict the public's access to information I stated, "a functioning democracy is predicated on the notion that the public has the information neccesary to allow them to fulfill their civic duties, yet the public is now being denied access to information at an unprecedented rate," and concluded by asking:

How can the public hold its representatives accountable for their actions if the public does not know what they are? How can citizens participate in the democratic process if they do not know what is going on?
Alonzo also expanded on this theme (bold emphasis mine)

Second, there is a fundamental conflict between a secret government and a democratic nation. In a democracy, the people decide what type of government they want. It is axiomatic that the people cannot make an informed decision unless they have information. Controlling information is a way of controlling the voter. It is a tool in an attempt to undermine democracy by depriving the people of the most important thing they need to make democracy work.
In the comments section of Alonzo's post you'll notice I express frustration that there seems to be no public outrage over this and ask what might be the reason. Alonzo suggested that it might have something to do with the President's strong ties to religion, an answer that I find totally unsatisfying.

I'm sorry to say, I think the answer is that people just don't seem to mind that much, maybe because many have forgotten how a democracy is supposed to work in the first place.

Which brings me back to something I've been thinking about all week. A little over a week ago, the New York Times ran a story (which I blogged about here) about Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announcing "the first net increase in wetlands since the Fish and Wildlife Service started measuring them in 1954" despite there actually being a net loss of 523,500 acres of swamps and tidal marshes. The reason they did this is because they counted 715,300 acres of "shallow-water wetlands" aka ponds and man-made ponds, including golf course water hazards.

In this story, we have a clear and undeniable instance of the administration trying to conceal a factual truth and replace it with a deliberate lie in an effort to create a false reality. Such an action is antithetical to and incompatible with democracy. In a liberal democracy, we are supposed to make decisions about policies based upon consideration of their real world consequences. Regardless of whether or not you care if the wetlands are decreasing, one should care about our leaders lying to us in an effort to subvert the democratic process.

Think about what the purpose of this lie is. Its purpose is to fabricate a reality that will allow officials to institute policy that suits the ideological interests of this administration, while hiding the consequences of that policy from the public, who might not agree to it if they were aware of what the truth of the situtation was. If you consider that for a moment, you can see the germ of every thing that is wrong with this adminstration.

Yet there will be no consequence for this action. No one will be held accountable. Indeed, the public will likely never know, or care to know. But that's the absurdity of it. In a democratic society, shouldn't lies like this be simply intolerable? Shouldn't any individual in government who is caught engaging in such a blatant deceit be shamed into contrition or resignation?

If we tolerate lies that we catch, what kind of incentive does that give people in power to tell the truth? In a previous post about gov't secrecy I quoted Walter Lippman writing in 1919 that "there can be no liberty for a community which lacks the information by which to detect lies." Well, how much liberty can there be for a society which doesn't care about being lied to in the first place?


Alonzo Fyfe said...


Alonzo Fyfe said...

Regarding my statement that Bush can get away with immoral acts by involking the word "God", I suggest that if a Democratic leader had committed the same attrocities Bush has committed, the Republicans would have been able to raise a sufficient level of moral outrage against it to have put an end to it. They would have mentioned the curse of big government and the irrationality of trusting a President who lacks judicial oversight, and people would have listened and agreed with them.

It is not that people are not capable of moral outrage. It is that, with too many people there can be no moral outrage without God and no moral outrage against those who claim to have a personal relationship with God.

Republican leaders have found how to exploit this fact in order to try to direct society's moral outrage in ways that do them the most good -- in ways that help them to acquire more and more power.

Fortunately, this is a disposition, and not a law. Republican immoralities are starting to cause people to question where the Republican leadership is asking them to direct their moral outrage. Just keep asking them why Republicans are not making torture, rendition, imprisonment without trials, war under false pretenses, jeopardizing national security for political gain, and the lies and hypocrisy like those you described above the objects of moral outrage?

Should we listen to these people when they tell us what deserves our moral outrage?

Hume's Ghost said...

I agree that if a Democratic leader did the same things as Bush he would not be able to get away with it, but I tend to agree with Dave Neiwert that this is because there is a growing base within the Republican party and conservative momemvent for whom their politics has become or is becoming the equivalent of a political religion.

The reason I said that I found the God issue unsatisfying is that the problem seems to be that the American public, in general (and regardless of level of religiousity), just doesn't seem to care that much about what's going on. Like we're distracted or ambivalent as a culture.

Anonymous said...

frustrating as hell.