Should Propaganda Be Penalized?

 

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On March 5, Pastor Frank Pomeroy was sitting in his car outside his church in Sutherland Springs, Texas when a man and woman approached and began vandalizing a poster on the church where a horrific massacre had occurred 4 months earlier.  When he confronted them, they recognized him and began verbally accosting him, calling the bloodbath a fraud and insisting that Pomeroy’s daughter, who was killed in the massacre along with 25 other people before his eyes, never even existed. “Show me her birth certificate”, the man yelled, “show me anything to say she was here.”

Sadly, this incident was not unique. There is a growing army of delusional people out there who believe that every gun massacre or domestic bombing is a “false flag” staged with “crisis actors”. Many of them also believe that astronauts never landed on the moon, that Obama is a Kenyan Muslim, that 9-11 was an inside job, that climate change is a hoax, that the holocaust never happened, that Hillary caused the deaths in Benghazi, and/or that the earth is flat.

In discussing this massive “stupidification” of America, columnist Leonard Pitts asks exactly what, if anything, one should say to such folks. And the clear answer, as he duly concludes, is nothing. These individuals are utterly beyond reason because of a hopeless mental incapacity — whether due to deficient intelligence, disconnect from reality, intellectual laziness, the tunnel vision of ideological fanaticism or some combination of the above. Until they obtain professional help, or experience a paradigm-shifting cataclysm,  there is nothing anyone can do to convince them that black isn’t really white in disguise.

But there is a more vital question that Pitts neglected to pose. The mentally warped have always been with us. But the phenomenon we are now witnessing is peculiar to contemporary America. No matter how mentally incapacitated people are, there would not be such a mass subscription to the same nutty delusions if those ideas hadn’t been planted in their heads by someone else. For the past three decades, there has been a concentrated campaign to deliberately “stupidify” America for the personal profit of the demagogues doing the brain-planting. And the real question is, should those manipulators be held accountable for their actions?

Many people will maintain (at least in reference to propaganda that supports their own beliefs) that such an exercise would be a violation of First Amendment rights.  Horsefeathers, balderdash, poppycock and codswallop.

Freedom of expression is not absolute. Sometimes “expression” crosses bounds of civilized conduct; and it’s generally easy enough to determine when that occurs. There are laws, for instance, against “free speech” that constitutes slander and libel. It’s difficult in the U.S. to win lawsuits for these offenses, but it isn’t because guilt is hard to establish; on the contrary, it’s usually quite easy. But due to a strained reading of the First Amendment, the American legal system heavily skews such cases toward the defendants (particularly since they’re often individuals of power and prestige).

The usual litmus test for slander and libel is whether the false statements are injurious to the subject’s reputation (which quite often translates to whether it might cause them to lose money somehow). Shouldn’t there be at least as stringent a safeguard against someone being subjected to the kind of emotional cruelty that this minister was?

And what about the possibility of bodily harm and even homicide? There are also laws against “free speech” that incites violence. Remember Pizzagate? That little bit of right-wing lunacy almost got people killed. And the next time, we might not be so lucky. How many lives must be lost before we think it’s justifiable to put a damper on this kind of “freedom of expression”? Libel and slander are punishable by fines.  Inciting to violence is punishable by imprisonment. Pizzagate-type narratives often fall into both categories, in addition to being seditious.

But there are other means of penalizing propaganda without criminalizing it.  Recently, Great Britain barred visits by several American promoters of Pizzagate, white nationalism, and theories about “white genocide”. In refusing them entry, British authorities (quite understandably) designated them as potential troublemakers and a corrupting influence on society. Quite predictably, American reactionary pundits took up the torch for these individuals, calling them “reporters” (they were actually bloggers and trolls) and declaring that they had been refused entry merely for being “conservative”. And needles to say, they invoked the ever-handy straw-filled whipping boy of “political correctness”.

But the transgressions of such people go far beyond merely having or expressing a political viewpoint. Hateful and delusional narratives of the type spewed out by Fox “News” et al are slanderous, seditious, and provocatory. Yet they get away with it all day long, every day. (Bear in mind that this is in the same country where TV personalities can be fined heavily for uttering the f-word on broadcast media even once. ) It’s quite possible that some of the ideologues of Fox and Breitbart and other cesspools actually believe the lies they peddle (see Jones, Alex) — in which case they wouldn’t be guilty of lying themselves. But is that any reason they should be allowed to hawk them with impunity? Should kids be allowed to play with loaded guns just because they imagine them to be light sabers?

Reactionary propaganda is as dishonest as slander or libel — which indeed it often is. It’s as incendiary and dangerous as sedition and incitement — which indeed it often is. Isn’t it time to start treating it as such?

Such a suggestion invariably provokes, especially among Americans, the knee-jerk response that there is something tyrannical and Orwellian about detecting and squelching dishonest and manipulative communication. They declare it to be overstepping by the big bad guvmint that will lead to all kinds of totalitarian consequences. They claim that it reeks of the “thought police”, and of government trying to shut down anyone who has a “dissenting opinion”. But contrary to the official spin in this Age Of Alternative Facts, not all beliefs are created equal. There are clear lines of demarcation between matters of opinion and matters of fact; and while scurrilous opinions may be relatively harmless, scurrilous lies can be very damaging indeed. (There is a middle ground: analysis, which is necessarily subjective. But it’s also clearly distinguishable from mere opinion and belief on one side and blatant falsehood on the other.)

Did we mention that most Americans seem to have no problem with the government imposing six-figure fines for saying “fuck” on TV? They also have no problem with the government regulating vehicle traffic, since the alternative would be chaos, disaster and tragedy. Nor do they object to the government operating a system of criminal justice, since the alternative would be mob rule and vigilantism.  Yet they can’t seem to grasp that propaganda can have consequences just as dire.

Well, let’s humor them and imagine a government crackdown on propaganda extended to its most dystopian extreme. Let’s suppose, first of all, that in instead of, or in addition to, being obsessed with preventing profanity from falling on pristine public ears, the government also took punitive and preventative measures to curb dishonest and defamatory polemic. That would mean, most likely, that Fox, OAN and NRATV among others would close up shop. Oh, the unimaginable horror.

Let’s go even farther and imagine government regulation applied also to social media and the citizenry at large. Imagine, for instance, that Facebook received fines for allowing dishonest and inflammatory memes to be posted. That most likely would prompt Facebook itself to crack down and penalize its users who post such material — by, say, suspending their privilege of use for a few days. And the users, in turn, most likely would start being more conscientious about what they post, and maybe even do some actual research before they hit the Share button. As a result we would end up with a public that is better informed, more cordial to each other, more broadminded, more willing to cooperate with each other, and more prepared to make sound choices at the ballot box. Which is to say it actually would result in a public better equipped to stave off overstepping by the big bad guvmint!

Explain to me exactly how all of this would be such a terrible thing.

 

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Second Amendment Follies, Part 3: “the Security of a Free State”

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So we have seen that the real purpose of the Second Amendment was to guarantee a “well-regulated militia”. Why? Well, continue reading to the next phrase: “being necessary to the security of a free state”. Which is, compared to some of the other amendment’s components, rather straightforward. Which hasn’t prevented the gun fanatics from turning it completely on its ear.

According to them, the real function of this beatific addendum to the Constitution is so “patriots” can be armed to fight against their own government (if the president happens to be a Democrat). Under their logic, they could offer the ultimate demonstration of their “patriotism” and “support for the troops” by killing as many troops as possible.

Never mind that the chances of an armed citizenry successfully fighting an armed government are exactly two: slim and none. No, make that infinitesimally slim and none. The peddlers of this myth like to claim that the American Revolution itself was an example of such a successful campaign. Nope. The Revolutionary War was not fought between civilians and their government; it was fought between armies, supplemented by militia. And that militia, as we’ve already noted, was not merely a gaggle of armed citizens.

But at the moment, we’re not really concerned about how realistic this bit of dogma is, but rather with how constitutionally grounded it is or isn’t. And the gunsters also maintain that the Founders wanted future citizens to be prepared to fight their own government because that’s what they themselves had had to do. In other words, having overcome a tyrannical regime imposed by a monarch on the other side of the planet, the Founders carefully and meticulously constructed a new republic with a system of checks and balances designed to make certain that its government never became monarchical; yet they had such little faith in this new system they designed that they also installed a loophole to encourage anarchy against it.

To buttress this claim, gunsters often quote the Founders on the topic, or at least so it appears. Here’s one example that’s been making the rounds.

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Seems like an unequivocal pronouncement from an unequivocal Revolutionary authority, no? Unfortunately, this photo is fake, and so is the quote — at least the part of it that really matters to the gun cult.  Washington’s actual statement, in part, was this:

A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end a Uniform and well digested plan is requisite: And their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others, for essential, particularly for military supplies.

The comments about “discipline” and a “Uniform and well digested plan” is a strong indication that the Father of the Country wasn’t talking about the kind of nightmare scenario that today’s NRA has brought to fruition.

Yet there are other quotes from figures of the Revolution that the NRA cult has packed into its arsenal.  For example, there’s this one from Thomas Jefferson:

The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.

That’s definitely a strong case, and Jefferson is definitely a well qualified person to make it, so… um, wait a minute. Turns out that one is bogus too.

Of course, there are many genuine quotations from the Founders and their compatriots that seem to support a citizen’s right to be armed. But it’s important not to take them out of context. And it’s especially important not to take them as an admonition to be armed against one’s own government.  There are at least two major obstacles to such a conclusion.

First, there’s Article 3 of the Constitution, which includes this:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.

In other words, taking up arms against your own government. That’s a very serious offense, traditionally punishable by death. So do you believe that the Founders spelled out what treason is, and then appended a provision to the Constitution that encourages citizens to commit it?

The second obstacle can be found in Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;

And in the Militia Acts of 1792:

That whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by this act, [words requiring notification by an associate justice or district judge were omitted in 1795 revision. The revision gave the President more authority] the same being notified to the President of the United States, by an associate justice or the district judge, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia of such state to suppress such combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed. And if the militia of a state, where such combinations may happen, shall refuse, or be insufficient to suppress the same, it shall be lawful for the President, if the legislature of the United States be not in session, to call forth and employ such numbers of the militia of any other state or states most convenient thereto, as may be necessary…

All of which adds up to the bottom line that the militia is ultimately answerable to the president.  Furthermore, if one state’s militia is unwilling or unable to do his bidding within the bounds of its state, the president is authorized to summon forth militias of other states to do the job. (And note that the mention of different militias for different states is a strong indication that a militia was meant to be more than just an armed populace.) Which means that in order for the gun culture fantasy of bringing down Uncle Sam to be realized, the president would have to mobilize the militia against himself. And while some really kooky happenings are happening at the White House these days, this is not likely to be one of them any time soon.

Still, it’s not inconceivable that the Founders did indeed intend for the militia to be available to combat tyranny. It’s just that, inevitably, it would be marshaled to support the federal government instead of to oppose it.  A classic example occurred in 1957 when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus refused to comply with federal directives to desegregate Little Rock Central High School. Faubus initially mobilized the Arkansas National Guard (i.e., the militia) to impose his own will and resist what many southerners considered the “tyranny” of forced desegregation. This sounds like the gun culture wet dream. No, actually, it would be more like armed civilians marching on Washington and overthrowing the president because of this “tyranny”.

But what happened then was that President Eisenhower stepped in and took control of the Guard, as presidents have the right to do. The tyranny of Faubus was suppressed, and segregation in Arkansas schools was ended. This is the kind of “security of a free state” the Founders had in mind. And it’s the way they intended militias to work. How do we know? Because they clearly said so.

(Next installment: we get to the heart of the matter, the gun culture’s favorite part of the Second Amendment.)