Gen’rals gathered in their masses,
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction,
Sorcerer of death’s construction
In the fields the bodies burning,
As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind,
Poisoning their brainwashed minds
In these interesting times, we all need someone to admire. I have found such a one in Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), the 17th-century rationalist liberal philosopher who advocated freedom of thought and expression, toleration, and simple kindness.
Spinoza lived in what at the time was the most liberal place on earth, the Dutch Republic, his Jewish Portuguese family having moved there after Portugal expelled its Jewish population in 1497. He seems to have been a free thinker at an early age, and it apparently got him into trouble with the Jewish community of Amsterdam. In 1656, at the tender age 23, his synagogue banned him for life from the community for “abominable heresies … and … monstrous deeds.” The excommunication decree — the charem — left no doubt about how the Jews of Amsterdam were to regard the young man:
By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.
It ordered “that no one should communicate with him neither in writing nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits [six feet] in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.”
Spinoza was not upset with this development; he apparently thought his excommunication merely saved him the trouble of leaving the community on his own initiative. So he changed his name from the Hebrew word for blessed, Baruch, to the Latin equivalent, Benedictus. However, he lived in a time and place in which being unaffiliated with any community had its disadvantages.
What had he done to deserve this treatment? No one is really sure because he had not yet written a word, and he would not publish a book for several years. But he must have been talking to friends about the philosophy he was formulating. If so, we should have no problem understanding why Spinoza would have outraged the Jewish authorities, who feared anything that might jeopardize the community’s relatively free status in the Protestant republic. His writings, published between those of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, would reject the immortality of the soul and the divine origin of the Bible, while arguing that God was nothing more than nature, or existence, itself without a consciousness or will with which to command, reward, punish, or listen to human beings. His famous phrase was Deus sive Natura, God or/as Nature. For Spinoza, nothing could be beyond nature and logic; thus, no supernatural being or realm existed.
When I (along with others) nominate Spinoza for hero status, I am thinking specifically of his political philosophy, which he expressed in his anonymously published A Theological-Political Treatise (1670), condemned as “a book forged in hell.” The authorship of the book soon became an open secret, and all but his book on Descartes were banned in the Dutch Republic and elsewhere. Spinoza also lived in interesting times, which were no doubt on his mind as he formulated his political philosophy: the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 and the English Civil War raged from 1642 to 1651.
For Spinoza (alas, no anarchist, but see Daniel Garber’s lecture at 44:00), the socially contracted democratic-republican state had one task: to produce security — full stop. Security enables individuals to 1) live in safety, 2) pursue understanding, which is the key to activeness, power in the sense of efficacy, virtue, and excellence, and 3) enjoy the benefits of cooperation with others through the division of labor. But, properly, number two is neither the state’s direct nor indirect goal. Against the claim that Spinoza looked to the state to promote virtue if only indirectly, Den Uyl refers to Spinoza’s unfinished Political Treatise, where he writes, “The best way to organize a state is easily discovered by considering the purpose of civil order, which is nothing other than peace and security of life.” Virtue is not even an indirect goal? No, because, Den Uyl points out, the failure of people to become more virtuous would not indicate a deficiency in the state. Virtue is a private internal matter.
As an aside, I note that for Spinoza, living actively according to reason (understanding), rather than passively according to appetites and (other) “external” forces, enables one to accomplish more than one’s own flourishing directly; it also encourages others to live according to reason, which in turn further promotes one’s own flourishing.
Another Spinoza scholar who finds this political philosophy especially worth studying today is Steven Nadler. In his 2016 Aeon article “Why Spinoza Still Matters” (from which many of the Spinoza quotes below are taken), Nadler writes:
At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests….
The political ideal that Spinoza promotes in the Theological-Political Treatise is a secular, democratic commonwealth, one that is free from meddling by ecclesiastics. Spinoza is one of history’s most eloquent advocates for freedom and toleration.
In his treatise, Spinoza was quite clear: “The state can pursue no safer course than to regard piety and religion as consisting solely in the exercise of charity and just dealing, and that the right of the sovereign, both in religious and secular spheres, should be restricted to men’s actions, with everyone being allowed to think what he will and to say what he thinks.”
And: “Freedom to philosophise [on all things –SR] may not only be allowed without danger to piety and the stability of the republic, but that it cannot be refused without destroying the peace of the republic and piety itself.”
Further: “A government that attempts to control men’s minds is regarded as tyrannical, and a sovereign is thought to wrong his subjects and infringe their right when he seeks to prescribe for every man what he should accept as true and reject as false, and what are the beliefs that will inspire him with devotion to God. All these are matters belonging to individual right, which no man can surrender even if he should so wish.”
Nadler elaborates: “No matter what laws are enacted against speech and other means of expression, citizens will continue to say what they believe, only now they will do so in secret. Any attempt to suppress freedom of expression will, once again, only weaken the bonds of loyalty that unite subjects to sovereign. In Spinoza’s view, intolerant laws lead ultimately to anger, revenge and sedition.”
For Spinoza, it was not enough to have the freedom to think any thoughts. “The more difficult case,” Nadler writes, “concerns the liberty of citizens to express those beliefs, either in speech or in writing. And here Spinoza goes further than anyone else in the 17th century”:
Utter failure will attend any attempt in a commonwealth to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinions.… The most tyrannical government will be one where the individual is denied the freedom to express and to communicate to others what he thinks, and a moderate government is one where this freedom is granted to every man.
Alas, Spinoza was not what we would call a modern libertarian, although (as Nadler emphasizes) he was a far better liberal than John Locke, whose Letter Concerning Toleration did not extend the courtesy to the beliefs, not to mention the public activities, of atheists and Catholics.
Spinoza thought one can be free “in any kind of state.” How so? The free person is guided by reason, he wrote, and reason favors peace; therefore, the reasonable person obeys the state’s laws because “peace … cannot be attained unless the general laws of the state be respected. Therefore the more he is free, the more constantly will he respect the laws of his country, and obey the commands of the sovereign power to which he is subject.” Now Spinoza might have been thinking of a commonwealth in which the laws are perfectly appropriate to rational persons — except that he says we can be free in any kind of state. Does it follow that ignoring unjust statutes really risks general civil strife? I think Spinoza would reply, in a Hobbesian way, that “justice is dependent on the laws of the authorities.” However, while civil strife is not conducive to the good life, neither are unjust statutes that prohibit or regulate peaceful conduct.
Spinoza drew a line between the expression of thoughts and actions. As Nadler points out (in this video), Spinoza thought the secular authority had a right to dictate how religion was publicly practiced in order to safeguard the peace. Practitioners of alternative religions should be free to think and say what they please, but their public rites were to be permitted only within prescribed limits. As one can see, Spinoza is in some respects a Hobbesian though he was more liberal because Hobbes, unlike Spinoza, had the sovereign serving as the arbiter of right opinion in religious and other matters — for the sake of civil peace, of course. The one time that Spinoza mentions Hobbes is in a note in his treatise: “Now reason (though Hobbes thinks otherwise) is always on the side of peace, which cannot be attained unless the general laws of the state be respected.”
The rites of religion and the outward observances of piety should be in accordance with the public peace and well-being, and should therefore be determined by the sovereign power alone. I speak here only of the outward observances of piety and the external rites of religion, not of piety, itself, nor of the inward worship of God, nor the means by which the mind is inwardly led to do homage to God in singleness of heart.
Moreover, Nadler says, “Spinoza does not support the absolute freedom of speech. He explicitly states that the expression of seditious ideas is not to be tolerated by the sovereign. There’s to be no protection for speech that advocates the overthrow of the government, disobedience to its laws, or harm to fellow citizens.”
Citizens should be free to argue for repeal of laws, but that’s about it; they may not rebel or even express ideas that implicitly call for rebellion because it would undermine the social contract and the peace. Nadler acknowledges that, despite Spinoza’s definition of seditious beliefs, the vagueness of that phrase and his notion of implicitly inciting rebellion properly trouble civil libertarians.
Nevertheless, Spinoza ends his treatise on a high note: “The safest way for a state is to lay down the rule that religion is comprised solely in the exercise of charity and justice, and that the rights of rulers in sacred, no less than in secular matters, should merely have to do with actions, but that every man should think what he likes and say what he thinks.” Not bad for 1670.
Spinoza knew he was not entirely politically safe in the world’s freest state. (Friends had been persecuted by the state for their ideas.) Besides not putting his name on the book, which was written in Latin rather than the vernacular, he wrote in his final paragraph:
It remains only to call attention to the fact that I have written nothing which I do not most willingly submit to the examination and approval of my country’s rulers; and that I am willing to retract anything which they shall decide to be repugnant to the laws, or prejudicial to the public good. I know that I am a man, and as a man liable to error, but against error I have taken scrupulous care, and have striven to keep in entire accordance with the laws of my country, with loyalty, and with morality.
Whatever his limits, we have much to learn from and admire about Spinoza, especially these days.
In 1912 the pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) published The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, which presented his findings (not without controversy) on primitive clan-based religious culture. Durkheim sought to identify the nature of religion by studying it in what he took to be its pristine form. In the course of his work, he realized that modern secular societies had many important similarities to the societies he was observing. For Durkheim, religion satisfied a need for social solidarity and identification that would also require satisfaction in a secular scientific epoch. His observations are pertinent to the proposition that religion and purportedly secular ideologies like nationalism, rather than being opposites, are actually two members of the same family. One implication of this insight is that the West’s proud determination to separate church and state has overlooked the dangers of joining ostensibly nonreligious worldviews to the state.
The parallels between modern Western societies and the Australian and North American aboriginal societies that Durkheim studied reach to things like public feasts, rituals, sacred objects (totems), and holidays (i.e., holy days). Durkheim thought the similarities stem from the very nature of social living (as least as most people have conceived it). He wrote:
In a general way, it is unquestionable that a society has all that is necessary to arouse the sensation of the divine in minds, merely by the power that it has over them; for to its members it is what a god is to his worshippers. In fact, a god is, first of all, a being whom men think of as superior to themselves, and upon whom they feel that they depend. Whether it be a conscious personality, such as Zeus or Jahveh, or merely abstract forces such as those in play in totemism, the worshipper, in the one case as in the other, believes himself held to certain manners of acting which are imposed upon him by the nature of the sacred principle with which he feels that he is in communion. Now society also gives us the sensation of a perpetual dependence….
[I]t imperiously demands our aid. It requires that, forgetful of our own interests, we make ourselves its servitors, and it submits us to every sort of inconvenience, privation and sacrifice, without which social life would be impossible. It is because of this that at every instant we are obliged to submit ourselves to rules of conduct and of thought which we have neither made nor desired, and which are sometimes even contrary our most fundamental inclinations and instincts….
[T]he empire which it holds over consciences is due much less to the physical supremacy of which it has the privilege than to the moral authority with which it is invested. If we yield to its orders, it is not merely because it is strong enough to triumph over our resistance; it is primarily because it is the object of a venerable respect.
Durkheim went on to observe, eerily, something not entirely strange to American society:
[W]e see society constantly creating sacred things out of ordinary ones. If it happens to fall in love with a man and if it thinks it has found in him the principal aspirations that move it, as well as the means of satisfying them, this man will be raised above the others and, as it were, deified. Opinion will invest him with a majesty exactly analogous to that protecting the gods. This is what has happened to so many sovereigns in whom their age had faith: if they were not made gods, they were at least regarded as direct representatives of the deity…. The simple deference inspired by men invested with high social functions is not different in nature from religious respect.
Also, “we have seen society and its essential ideas become, directly and with no transfiguration of any sort, the object of a veritable cult.”
Durkheim explained that in religious and nonreligious societies alike, venerable respect is projected onto objects, turning something abstract and elusive into something tangible and observable. The object “thus becomes sacred.” He noted that “the cause whose action we observe here is not peculiar to totemism; there is no society where it is not active” (emphasis added).
Many objects have been turned into totems, but among the most common are flags, which are emblems signifying an association with a group and a cause taken to be larger than any individual. (In America, other totems include the Constitution, which presidents pledge to “preserve, protect, and defend,” and the military uniform.) There’s hardly a need to point out how the flag is venerated in the United States — especially these days. People routinely pledge allegiance to it. They are willing to die for it, and they express reverence for those who “defend” it. True, the mere “piece of cloth” is a symbol of something, but as Durkheim wrote, “The soldier who dies for his flag, dies for his country; but as a matter of fact, in his own consciousness, it is the flag that has the first place…. He loses sight of the fact that the flag is only a sign, and that it has no value in itself, but only brings to mind the reality that it represents; it is treated as if it were this reality itself.”
In the United States, at least, it would be hard to distinguish the flag from the sacred objects of any traditional religion. Yes, the flag is a symbol, but of what? It symbolizes more than the country’s institutions, history, population, or land. “Venerable respect” extends to something regarded as transcendent and quasi-mystical: the Nation, whose corporeal representative is the government. What else explains why flag-burning as political protest — even if the flag is the protester’s property — incites such wrath? Perhaps a flag, because of what it symbolizes, cannot really be private property — even if you just bought it at Walmart. While we’re fortunate the Supreme Court has ruled that flag-burning is protected expression under the First Amendment, let’s not forget that Donald Trump called for imprisonment and loss of citizenship for flag-burners. A constitutional amendment to prohibit flag desecration would likely have significant if not majority public support today, although in the recent past such an amendment could not get through the Senate after passing the House.
No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America; the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing. Regimental colors, State flags, and organization or institutional flags are to be dipped as a mark of honor.
(a) The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.
(b) The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.
(c) The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.
(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker’s desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.
(e) The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.
(f) The flag should never be used as a covering for a ceiling.
(g) The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.
(h) The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
(i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.
(j) No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart. [Emphasis added.]
(k) The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.
During the ceremony of hoisting or lowering the flag or when the flag is passing in a parade or in review, all persons present in uniform should render the military salute. Members of the Armed Forces and veterans who are present but not in uniform may render the military salute. All other persons present should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hand over the heart, or if applicable, remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Citizens of other countries [!] present should stand at attention. All such conduct toward the flag in a moving column should be rendered at the moment the flag passes. [Emphasis added.]
Apparently, the drafters tried to anticipate every situation. We find, for example, in section 7:
The flag of the United States of America, when it is displayed with another flag against a wall from crossed staffs, should be on the right, the flag’s own right, and its staff should be in front of the staff of the other flag. [Emphasis added.]
The code states that this “codification of existing rules and customs pertaining to the display and use of the flag of the United States of America is established for the use of such civilians or civilian groups or organizations as may not be required to conform with regulations promulgated by one or more executive departments of the Government of the United States.” In other words, these rules are not just for government employees.
Incidentally, section 10 states, “Any rule or custom pertaining to the display of the flag of the United States of America, set forth herein, may be altered, modified, or repealed, or additional rules with respect thereto may be prescribed, by the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States, whenever he deems it to be appropriate or desirable; and any such alteration or additional rule shall be set forth in a proclamation.” (Emphasis added.)
Remarkably, this power is given to the president not as the civilian ruler, but as head of the military.
Violating these rules apparently carries no penalty. Nevertheless, how can we explain this bizarre code without using terms usually found in a religious context? We can explain it by saying that nationalism is a religion, or that nationalism and religion are both members of a wider family and thus have important features in common. The government is analogous to the church, the nation-state to the deity, and the president to something like the supreme head of the Church of England.
If it is true … that nationalism exhibits many of the characteristics of religion — including, most important for our purposes, the ability to organize killing energies — then what we have is not a separation of religion from politics but rather the substitution of the religion of the state for the religion of the church.
Perhaps we should read the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” — not as a mandated separation of religion and state but as a non-compete clause.
Secular and religion-based political systems can bear an uncanny resemblance. Observing their respective dogmas, catechisms, and sacraments, we might even wonder, with William Cavanaugh, whether the divide is as sharp as we commonly think. Recent events certainly call the distinction into question. We see that a secularist can be as much a fanatic who is willing to denounce heresy and impose his will through violence as any religionist. As Cavanaugh writes in The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict:
I argue that there is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion and that essentialist attempts to separate religious violence from secular violence are incoherent. What counts as religious or secular in any given context is a function of different configurations of power. The question then becomes why such essentialist constructions are so common. I argue that, in what are called “Western” societies, the attempt to create a transhistorical and transcultural concept of religion that is essentially prone to violence is one of the foundational legitimating myths of the liberal nation-state. The myth of religious violence helps to construct and marginalize a religious Other, prone to fanaticism, to contrast with the rational, peace-making, secular subject. This myth can be and is used in domestic politics to legitimate the marginalization of certain types of practices and groups labeled religious, while underwriting the nation-state’s monopoly on its citizens’ willingness to sacrifice and kill. In foreign policy, the myth of religious violence serves to cast nonsecular social orders … in the role of villain. They have not yet learned to remove the dangerous influence of religion from political life. Their violence is therefore irrational and fanatical. Our violence, being secular, is rational, peace making, and sometimes regrettably necessary to contain their violence. We find ourselves obliged to bomb them into liberal democracy….
In the West, revulsion toward killing and dying in the name of one’s religion is one of the principal means by which we become convinced that killing and dying in the name of the nation-state is laudable and proper….
What is implied in the conventional wisdom is that there is an essential difference between religions such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism, on the one hand, and secular ideologies and institutions such as nationalism, Marxism, capitalism, and liberalism, on the other, and that the former are essentially more prone to violence—more absolutist, divisive, and irrational—than the latter. It is this claim that I find both unsustainable and dangerous. It is unsustainable because ideologies and institutions labeled secular can be just as absolutist, divisive, and irrational as those labeled religious. It is dangerous because it helps to marginalize, and even legitimate violence against, those forms of life that are labeled religious. [Emphasis added.]
I submit that Cavanaugh’s point is verified by the widespread reaction to anyone who dares doubt the CIA’s narrative in the alleged Russian hacking of the Democrats’ email accounts. Woe betide anyone who would question the “intelligence community’s [sic]” infallibility or honor. More broadly, observe the treatment accorded anyone doubting that bureaucrats are selfless disinterested guardians of the public weal.
But those are not the only signs of our secular dogma. One can also detect it in the hysterical denunciation of anyone who expresses skepticism toward the scientific priesthood in the matter of climate (formerly climate change; formerly global warming). Climate denier, sinner: recant or suffer excommunication! (It’s no coincidence that the priesthood provides support for measures that would expand bureaucratic power over our lives.)
And the invective aimed at those who believe that American-flag burners ought not to be imprisoned, much less stripped of citizenship, or that people ought to be free not to stand for the national anthem or Pledge of Allegiance (to a flag!) certainly demonstrates that at least one secular democratic republic is no stranger to sacred rituals and objects, or the concepts heresy, blasphemy, and infidel.
These examples demonstrate that both progressives and conservatives each have their secular dogmas, and they occasionally overlap. One cannot always predict how one side or the other will come down in any given case because shifting occurs under the pressure of politics. One who questions “American exceptionalism” is likely to be branded a heretic — but branded by whom? In the recent campaign, President Obama and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton invoked American exceptionalism, but Republican President-elect Donald Trump distanced himself from the idea. (“I don’t like the term.”) Normally Republicans are the heresy hunters on this matter, but this was not a normal year.
Recall how Ron Paul was treated when during his campaign for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination he put the 9/11 attacks in context: “They’re over here because we’re over there.” Rudy Giuliani and others demanded that Paul recant.
At any rate, as Alex Nowrasteh shows, the right indeed has its “own, nationalist version of PC, their own set of rules regulating speech, behavior and acceptable opinions. I call it ‘patriotic correctness.’ It’s a full-throated, un-nuanced, uncompromising defense of American nationalism, history and cherry-picked ideals. Central to its thesis is the belief that nothing in America can’t be fixed by more patriotism enforced by public shaming, boycotts [excommunication?] and policies to cut out foreign and non-American influences.”
Let’s look closer at the heresy that the CIA may be neither honest nor free of error. Here’s another area where Trump has shaken things up. In the past, Democrats and progressives were liable to be the ones expressing wariness about the CIA, and Republicans and conservatives were the ones to defend it. Today it is Trump who dismisses the CIA allegations against the Russians (which not all government spy agencies believe), while Democrats act appalled that anyone would doubt “our 17 intelligence agencies.” They feign incredulity that Michael Flynn (of whom I am no fan), Trump’s choice for national security adviser, would say that the CIA has been politicized. They seem to forget that their beloved President John F. Kennedy came to despise the CIA and threatened to destroy it after it misled him about the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion. Despite Trump, however, most establishment Republicans are sticking to the old script.
The outrage against those who cast aspersions on America’s spy bureaucracy is ludicrous. Do people really forget that in 2013 Director of National Intelligence James Clapper publicly lied — there is no other word — when he flatly denied to a Senate committee that Americans were being spied on en masse? (Edward Snowden soon exposed Clapper’s shameless lie.) Do they also forget that the CIA was politicized during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq? The Bush administration wanted a reason to invade, and the agency was told to come up with evidence of WMD and of involvement with al-Qaeda. There was no evidence, but that did not matter. Counter-evidence was ignored or ridiculed. That was hardly the first instance of politicization.
Defense of the CIA in the email disclosures is a massive exercise in question-begging — that is, in assuming what is disputed. When skeptics demand evidence, apologists (including many “news reporters”) respond by asking why the skeptics are unconcerned about a foreign power’s attempt to undermine American democracy. Some have gone so far as to accuse skeptics of being Vladimir Putin’s useful idiots, if not actual agents. McCarthyism lives.
Apologies for the CIA has taken another illegitimate form: identifying skepticism exclusively with Trump and his supporters. By this route apologists imply that the only people who reject the CIA’s narrative are special pleaders with a vested interest in the legitimacy of Trump’s election in the face of Russian “interference.” What about the skeptics who did not support Trump? We’re supposed to believe that no such persons exist. This is obvious nonsense. Serious critiques of the CIA’s anonymously leaked conclusions exist, and they have nothing to do with helping Trump.
The effort to sanctify the CIA requires the suspension of common sense. Judges instruct juries to take their common sense into the jury room. We should not let the technical aspects of cyber-security breaches lull us into leaving ours behind.
To hear the U.S. government tell it, Russians, under Putin’s direction, left their “fingerprints” all over the place when they hacked the email Democrats’ email accounts. (WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and a close associate, Craig Murray, say that Russians were not the source.) But we’re also told that the Russians are as sophisticated as Americans in all things cyber. But aren’t those two claims inconsistent?
As a fan of mystery shows, I know how the great TV detectives would react to a crime scene overflowing with obvious “evidence” that a well-known professional criminal had done some devilish deed. “It just doesn’t add up,” Frank Columbo or Tom Barnaby might say. Why would Putin leave a calling card? (Andrew Cockburn asks similar questions here. Read more here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) As Sam Biddle writes at The Intercept, “It’s very hard to buy the argument that the Democrats were hacked by one of the most sophisticated, diabolical foreign intelligence services in history, and that we know this because they screwed up over and over again.”
Doesn’t it sound as though someone framed the Russians? I have not heard this question asked on CNN, but that’s probably because the media have no interest in giving time to informed skeptics.
Another thing: in what way did the Russians — assuming for the sake of discussion that they did it — “destabilize” or “interfere with” American democratic institutions? After all, according to the official narrative, all the Russians did was disclose some embarrassing — but hardly devastating — undisputed facts about the DNC and the Clinton campaign. It’s hard to believe that making it impossible for Debbie Wasserman Schultz to chair the DNC dealt a major blow to American democracy. It’s equally hard to take seriously the claim that the election was “disrupted” by revelations that Hillary Clinton holds both private and public decisions on issues or that her campaign was worried that the private email server in her basement might be a problem for voters. What might the Russians reveal next, that water is wet?
Does anyone seriously believe that such revelations changed the outcome of the election? Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of almost 3 million. Are we to believe that the revelations only did their damage in rust-belt swing states? Let’s get real. She started out her campaign widely distrusted.
Say what you will about the hacking (or perhaps leaking), but let’s not pretend that when voters learn the truth about a candidate, an election has been disrupted or that democracy has been attacked. Do the people who say these things listen to themselves?
If the Russians were serious about sowing confusion and disillusionment, why wouldn’t they have planted disinformation, as the Soviets were accused of doing? (I have not heard it alleged that “Pizzagate” was the work of the Russians. Now there’s disinformation.) Does former KGB agent Putin not know how to meddle in an election?
The whole damn story fails the laugh test. Here’s the comforting part: if Russia did it, then Putin must be the head of the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. So what are we worried about? It hardly seems worth going to war over. (See Jack Shafer’s “Who’s Afraid of a Little Russian Propaganda?”)
Finally, it is amusing to see the priests of the pundit class and political officialdom rush to the fainting couch at the thought that “a hostile foreign power” might have attempted to meddle in “our” election. They surely know that the U.S. government has been doing such things for decades, even in Russia — and worse, since the U.S. government also has helped oust elected leaders in, among other places, Iran, Chile, and most recently Ukraine. (See Ishaan Tharoor’s “The Long History of the U.S. with Elections Elsewhere.” For more, see Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq.) American exceptionalism apparently means the U.S. government can do whatever it wants because it’s good, but others may not — especially Russia because it’s evil. That’s why no media discussion of Russian actions may mention the many bipartisan U.S. provocations since the Cold War ended (if it actually ended), such as the expansion of NATO to the Russian border, incorporating former Soviet allies and republics, in violation of President George H. W. Bush’s pledge not to do so.
President Obama now threatens to retaliate. But if Russia really committed the hack, maybe that was in retaliation for persistent U.S. interference in its sphere. Preferable to war would be a sit-down and a pledge by both sides to quit fooling around.
So heretics and blasphemers unite! Considering that Russia, a nuclear power, is now accused of committing an act of war, we have nothing to lose and much to gain.
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