Indifference to Tyranny
Early in volume 3 of The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes his life as a young recently married schoolteacher in a small town in western Russia. He and his wife had become friends with an older couple, a 60-year-old engineer by the name of Nikolai Gerasimovich Bronevitsky and his 35-year-old wife. Only later does he learn that Bronevitsky had been a political prisoner who had been befriended while a prisoner by the free young girl who would later marry him. In the following reflection, Solzhenitsyn shows how he, of all people, before his own imprisonment and first-hand education in the labor camps, had chosen to look away from the tyranny that had enveloped his homeland:
We were sitting on the steps and talking. We younger people were full of ourselves, of anxiety for the future, but we really had nothing more intelligent to say about it than what was written in the newspapers. We were at ease with the Bronevitskys: we said whatever we thought without noticing the discrepancies between our way of looking at things and theirs.
For their part, they probably saw in us two surprising examples of naively enthusiastic youth. We had just lived through the thirties--and we might as well not have been alive in that decade at all. They asked what we remembered best about 1938 and 1939. What do you think we said? The university library, examinations, the fun we had on sporting trips, dances, amateur concerts, and of course love affairs--we were at the age for love. But hadn't any of our professors been put away at that time? Yes, we supposed that two or three of them had been. Their places were taken by senior lecturers. What about students--had any of them gone inside? We remembered that some senior students had indeed been jailed. And what did you make of it? Nothing; we carried on dancing. And no one near to you was--er--touched? No; no one.
It is a terrible thing, and I want to recall it with absolute precision. It is all the more terrible because I was not one of the young sporting and dancing set, nor one of those obsessive people buried in books and formulae. I was keenly interested in politics from the age of ten; even as a callow adolescent I did not believe Vyshinsky and was staggered by the fraudulence of the famous trials--but nothing led me to draw the line connecting those minute Moscow trials (which seemed so tremendous at the time) with the huge crushing wheel rolling through the land (the number of its victims somehow escaped notice). I had spent my childhood in queues--for bread, for milk, for meal (meat was a thing unknown at that time)--but I could not make the connection between the lack of bread and the ruin of the countryside, or understand why it had happened. We were provided with another formula: "temporary difficulties." Every night, in the large town where we lived, hour after hour after hour people were being hauled off to jail--but I did not walk the streets at night. And in the daytime the families of those arrested hung out no black flags, nor did my classmates say a word about their fathers being taken away.
According to the newspapers there wasn't a cloud in the sky.
And young men are so eager to believe that all is well. (pp. 20-21)
Less Power Abuse; Much Greater Apathy
What are the chances that the average American—or maybe I should ask, any American—young or old, would show any more concern than did the young Solzhenitsyn about despotic government if they were not directly affected?
Consider what happened at the University of Florida in September of 2007 when one of the students at a public forum asked John Kerry why he had not, as a Senator, made any move to impeach President George Bush and if it was true that he, Kerry, was a member of the secret society Skull and Bones. As it happens, both of these are quite legitimate questions. If embarking upon a war of aggression on false pretenses is not an impeachable offense, it’s hard to imagine what is not, and, in fact, both Kerry and Bush are Skull and Bones members. But even if the questions had been foolish and offensive, what happened next was inexcusable. Before Kerry had a chance to answer the question, the police forcibly pulled the student away from the microphone, and when he resisted, they tasered him. The other students looked on with apparent indifference and Senator Kerry, who could have stopped the police action with a word, sat quietly and let it happen. You can see it all on the video.*
Although such police state tactics against dissenting citizens might be more common and more blatant in recent years, they have been going on for quite some time. Consider the ugly scene that I witnessed at George Washington University a decade before the University of Florida incident. Here is the first-person account of the victim of jackbooted thuggery that Hugh Turley posted on Usenet the day after it happened:
POLICE ESCORT MAN FROM GEORGE WASHINGTON
UNIVERSITY FOR ASKING A QUESTION
Living near Washington D.C. I have the opportunity to meet and question our leaders. Very, very few Americans know how our system works. If you have not participated lately here is how our society works in 1997.
In the Washington Times (2/13/97) I read the following announcement: "Discussion of government and the media -7 p.m. - The George Washington University holds a discussion titled 'The 24-hour News Cycle: Governing in the Information Age.' The speakers are Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, George Washington University president, Carl Stern, George Washington University professor: Michael McCurry, White House press
secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to Presidents Reagan and Bush: and Charles Bierbauer, CNN correspondent. Location: George Washington University Marvin Center, 800 21st St. NW. Contact:202/9946460"
I called the number and asked if the public was invited and if questions would be allowed of the panel. The university told me, "yes".
University President Trachtenberg left after introducing the panel. I listened to the panelists talk and joke for an hour about how quickly the news gets out to the public 24 hours a day, non-stop. Carl Stern acted as moderator, and called on me to ask the first question.
I rose to my feet in the front row and addressed the packed room of about 200 people. "I have a serious question about news suppression." I stated, "A man I know who lives a few blocks from here was the victim of witness intimidation and harassment. Last November he filed suit naming two dozen men including two FBI agents assigned to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. The next day the American people were told it snowed in Cleveland, and I would like to ask..."
Mr. Stern cut me off and quickly polled the panel, "Do you know anything about that? We don't know anything about it." He turned to take another question.
I continued, "I am not surprised you don't know anything about it, that is my point, the news has been suppressed. I would like to ask a question about news suppression..."
I was cut off again this time from a man several rows behind me who said, "You can't ask a question. This event is for the students."
I responded, "Well, you have suppressed the news; now you are suppressing my question." I took my seat and told the students nearby, "Welcome to the Soviet Union."
At no time during the meeting or my question was I loud, rude, confrontational or impolite in any way.
The man who was behind me left the room, and I saw him in the hall by the door. He was pointing me out to a police sergeant whom he had summoned. Two more policemen arrived, and I was pointed out again before they took positions by all of the exits.
I began to wonder if I was about to be arrested for something they would accuse me of doing. As the meeting was closing I told some of the students near me that I thought I may be arrested and I would appreciate any of their names as witnesses that I had done nothing wrong. They turned and walked away. One of them said, "Hey, I'm just a student; I don't want to get involved." One young man did step forward and give me
his name. God bless him.
When I left the room the police let me pass, but they all followed me down the hall, rode down the elevator with me and escorted me until I was out the door and off the campus.
Mr. Stern was formerly the press spokesperson for the United States Department of Justice when the witness intimidation and harassment occurred. He knew that the witness I was talking about has alleged that FBI agents assigned to Kenneth Starr have obstructed justice in the death investigation of Vincent W. Foster.
The heavyweights of the Washington press scene were afraid to hear my question or engage in a discussion with me. That is why they cut me off and called the police. They are afraid because I am armed with the truth. The truth must be suppressed.
Last year in a similar public forum, Sanford Unger the Dean of the School of Communications at American University threatened to have me "thrown out of the hall" for asking a question about news suppression. This time they called the police. Next time I may be arrested and unable to provide a report to my fellow citizens. It is unlikely the American press would report the arrest of a citizen under such circumstances.
"Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God ! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death !" -Patrick Henry March 23, 1775
Hugh Turley, February 14, 1997
Two postings that I made to Usenet several months later further flesh out the description of the ugly scene that transpired at George Washington that night. The second is in response to a familiar Net nemesis of mine:
Excerpt from "Hate-Crime Conference Doesn't Feel Good at
article on front page of November 10, 1997, The Washington Times:
Actually, the mere act of name-calling—without smashing anyone over the head—is already enough to meet the Justice Department's definition of a hate crime. Indeed, the single largest category of reported hate crimes is not murder or rape or even assault, but rather "intimidation."
This is defined as words or actions that frighten people or deprive them of their ability to enjoy themselves in a public setting, such as a bar or restaurant. That means that calling someone a jerk, and adding a racial or ethnic slur, is criminal behavior. --- The conference, which will be held at George Washington University in the nation's capital, will include more than 300 civil rights activists, police officials, religious leaders and homosexual groups.
There are several layers of irony here. It was at George
Washington U. that I watched Professor Steven
Livingston go summon police when Hugh Turley asked an unwelcome question at a
public journalism conference. As I accompanied Turley off campus, trailed
by policemen, I can attest to the fact that he was quite well intimidated.
The unwelcome question concerned the suppression of the news about the intimidation of the Foster-case witness, Patrick Knowlton, which took place within a few blocks of the GW campus. The panel, which included Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry and GW journalism prof Carl Stern, who was Justice Department spokesman at the time the Knowlton intimidation took place, blew Turley off, claiming no knowledge of the matter. At that point, conference organizer Livingston got up and left the room to go summon police. Shortly afterwards, Turley saw Livingston pointing at him from the front entrance, flanked by several uniformed cops. It was through that gauntlet that Turley had to walk upon the conclusion of the conference.
As we all now know, with the withholding of the news of the attachment to the Starr Report of the comments of Knowlton's lawyer John Clarke, the news suppression around the Knowlton intimidation has recently intensified.
If those who intimidate
Are deemed to be fueled by "hate,"
They can do serious time
For the thought behind the crime,
But shouldn't we much more decry
Such deeds by the FBI,
Those bully boys of the state?
p.s. What if the name-calling is "anti-government conspiracy theorist"?
To which Ray Heizer responded:
-- Since you were there, DC, please don't try to glamorize the facts and confuse the newcomers who may have joined us since February.
-- Hughie's breathless report, sent far and wide across the net that very evening, is reprinted below (I've moved it above. ed.) to jog your memory.
-- As you will see, Hughie did not just ask a question. He says, "I rose to my feet in the front row and addressed the packed room of about 200 people..."
-- Hughie states Livingston went for the police only after Hughie had attempted to push his agenda onto the audience and panel three times and finally sat down grumbling "welcome to the Soviet Union."
-- Hughie was there to provoke a confrontation and was successful in getting one. Longtime members of this forum will recognize the pattern.
-- While I do not necessarily disagree with Hughie's hardball tactics or agenda, I also cannot disagree with the organizers of the event whose actions were in response to what no doubt appeared to them to be a rude attempt by someone to take over the discussion and convert their privately sponsored event to his own agenda at their expense.
-- my $.02.
Here is my response to Heizer:
Is it not so very appropriate that the totalitarian-minded enthusiastic applauder of the banishment from a discussion group of two who raise discomfiting issues should rush to the defense of campus jack-boots who call the police to intimidate one who, at an open forum, would have the temerity to ask a question not pleasing to the authorities? And is it not exactly appropriate to the man's personality that he would defend his position by twisting the truth beyond all recognition from his 3,000-mile-distant vantage point?
Those who followed the original series of postings will recall, contrary to the assertion above, that I quickly weighed in with my eyewitness account of the shocking occurrence, and I even identified the professor who summoned the cops as a man with the Orwellian title of Professor of Political Communications, Steven Livingston (Dr. Livingston, I presume).
I was not exactly with Hugh. I arrived after he did, actually coming up on the elevator with the late-arriving McCurry party. There were no more seats by that time and I stood by the back door. As I have explained previously, there is no essential difference between "standing and addressing" and asking a question in this context. Questioners from the audience are always asked to speak so they can be heard by others, obviating the need for the moderator to repeat the question. Turley was on the front row near the far right. The podium and speakers table were, for some reason, over near the left side of the room (maybe political preference). Hugh turned about 90 degrees to the left as he asked his well-formulated question so that he could be heard clearly by both panelists and audience. Of course it made the panelists squirm. Isn't that how you get at the truth, by asking the questions that those with authority over us would rather you not ask? And his question was thoroughly germane to the topic of the evening, the 24-hour news cycle and how it affects policy-makers. The assorted high media muckamucks were peddling the snake oil that politicians and political leaders now have their feet eternally held to the fire by the almost over-aggressive press. A question about the suppression of the news of a very important local event of surpassing national importance drives a dagger into the heart of the propaganda being peddled from the podium. That, and that alone, is why they summoned the police, and you would have the temerity to try to twist things around to make that a defensible action anywhere in this once-great democracy! I would say "Shame on you," but I am afraid the concept has been lost with the sort of leadership we tolerate these days.
Private property, you say? Do you really think that fact justifies such a naked police-state-like action? It was a public forum advertised and open to the public at what should be a center of free discourse, a university, for Pete's sake. Are you really at ease with the idea of professors at American universities summoning the police to intimidate people who ask probing questions?
I was indeed glad I was there, though I did not have the chance to ask my question which was to be, "The family of Martin Luther King today called for a new trial for James Earl Ray and expressed their belief in his innocence. Would you not say that there is a very good chance that that fact will not be reported at all in tomorrow's newspapers?" In fact, it was reported in the "conservative," limited circulation Washington Times, but it was blacked out in the powerful, massive-circulation "liberal" Washington Post.
I was glad I was there because as the gathering broke up, I walked up the hallway and through the gauntlet of police to meet a thoroughly frightened-looking Turley as he emerged from the large room. Perhaps when they saw we were together they dropped their plan to take him into custody, which Turley thought was a real possibility when he saw the professor pointing him out to the police from the doorway.
It still astonishes me that there are people on the Net who would actually try to defend such actions by the university authorities. What have we come to? Heaven help us if the Ray Heizers of this country should ever come into power. Oh, but wait, they have.
My purpose my critics corrupt.
My goal is not to disrupt,
But reactions are often instructive:
To suppressors real news is disruptive.
(All exchanges, November 10, 1997)
But let us return to the main topic of the article. The young Solzhenitsyn would have easily recognized himself in either the Florida or George Washington student audiences. They were apparently interested enough in public affairs to go hear the celebrity presentations, but completely apathetic about anything that might be a bit more unsettling than what they get in the daily mainstream news fare. One would think that at least one student would have been interested in whatever it was that was so provocative as to cause a faculty member to summon the campus police, but no one in the large, packed room approached Turley afterward to inquire about the question that he was prevented from asking.
The experience of the 1960s has raised too much hope in the idealism of young people, I fear. My disillusionment came early, when, as an Army veteran anti-war activist in graduate school, I saw the wind go out of the sails of the student anti-Vietnam-War movement virtually the moment President Richard Nixon introduced the draft lottery. The direct threat had been eliminated for all those who drew high draft numbers, and suddenly the great concern over the bloodshed half a world away was out the window.
My education about the apprentice careerists who fill the student ranks of America's colleges and universities proceeded apace in my own years of experience in the halls of academe. A substantial percentage of the students I encountered seemed outright hostile to important information that was not directly related to their advancement toward a degree. It's a sad thing to say, but perhaps the students at George Washington, and other places like it, are getting just what they want and what they deserve in the information imparted by henchmen for the state like Professors Steven Livingston and Jerrold Post, the subject of a previous article.
David Martin, October 19, 2008
* A reader has called my attention to a longer video of this student incident that gives a much more complete picture of what transpired that night. The student, who was Kerry's first questioner, began by recommending the book, Armed Madhouse, by Greg Palast, and Kerry quickly offers that he has already read it, but the student then launches into his first question--also a very good one--, which is, "Why did you so quickly accept that you had lost when Palast has lots of evidence that you won?" or words to that effect. The impression created by the student--with Kerry's help in the disdainful manner with which he treats the book recommendation--is largely a negative one, particularly with people who don't know what he's talking about. The contrast with Hugh Turley, in the episode I witnessed some ten years before, could hardly have been greater. As Turley tells us in his report, "At no time during the meeting or my question was I loud, rude, confrontational or impolite in any way." He is exactly right about that. The student, in his excitement and relative inexperience, particularly compared to the polished public speaker and veteran professional entertainer, Turley, was, unfortunately, all of the above. That does not mean that the police were justified in any way in what they did. By the time the cops laid hands on him and dragged him away from the mike, it was evident that the student was through with his questions and was ready to hear Kerry's answer. That should have been evident even to the police, but, if not, all Kerry had to do the moment the police approached the student was to tell them to leave him alone and begun to answer the questions, and there would have been no incident. All in all, Kerry did nothing to elevate my impression of him since the days when he was the Democratic presidential candidate.
October 22, 2008
Recently, Cass Sunstein, President Obama’s Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, his “Information Czar,” if you will, has publicly suggested that it would be a good thing if the government were to engage in the sort of tyrannical actions that most of us know have already been going on for a long time. Here he muses, about midway through the paper on what should be done about citizens’ questioning of frankly questionable goings-on that he has dismissed with the hackneyed catch-all term of “conspiracy theories.”
II. Governmental Responses
What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses.
(1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing.
(2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories.
(3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories.
(4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech.
(5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help.
Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions.
However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).
Sunstein’s “policy idea,” which Glenn Greenwald of Salon has duly savaged, reminds us of nothing so much as the public admission this week by the Obama administration that this country is engaging in drone attacks all over the place as a matter of ongoing policy, when it was already an open secret. You would think that this man on the right arm of the president had just run across my “Seventeen Techniques for Truth Suppression,” completed more than a dozen years ago, and had a “Eureka!” moment upon arriving at #17.
But there is reason for hope. Recently one of the young people at WeAreChange.org, Luke Rudkowski, confronted Sunstein about his proposals at a public forum. Maybe it was because he was armed with his own microphone and accompanied by his own cameraman, but Rudkowski was neither arrested nor tasered. The Soviet Union did eventually collapse, after all.
May 4, 2012