Teach the Controversy

controversy - pyramidOn Wednesday, Glenn Greenwald discussed the media’s tendency to call anyone who supports torture prosecutions the ‘hard left’. He makes the good, and self-evident, argument that those who are calling for prosecutions represent a bipartisan range of Americans; that pro-prosecution arguments are based on principle, not politics.

However, I was struck by this passage quoted from the comments of an earlier post:

I want to point out that the main reason, if not the only reason, for this overwhelming media view is because the only lens through which they can see this issue – like every issue – is the Republican/Democrat or conservative/liberal lens. When one’s entire point of reference for even issues of egregious lawbreaking goes no further than fixating obsessively over the identity of the people and parties to the “controversy” and the issue’s putative effect on partisan politics, whether a leader of one party was informed of the crimes of the other takes on a meaning perversely greater than the evil of the underlying conduct itself.

Our establishment media simply cannot get beyond this stultifyingly narrow framework. It is pathological.

In the face of repeated court-rulings, creationists have been unable to formally inject their beliefs into high school science classrooms, whether as creationism or ‘intelligent design’. Instead, they argue that we should ‘teach the controversy’ – if they cannot teach that God created the earth 6000 years ago, they want to teach the debate over whether God created the earth 6000 years ago. It is a crafty argument and finds some measure of support.

It is easy to see why – ‘teach the controversy’ speaks directly to the core beliefs of a liberal democracy. Through vigorous and unfettered public debate the truth, or the best course for the nation, can be charted. It is the premise behind both the 1st amendment and the principle of academic freedom. So, while the application of this kind of  modern disputatio to high school education is dubious, it is not surprising that a similar principle has wormed its way into the media.

In the interests of ‘balance’, we are told, it is necessary for the media to impartially present both sides of any argument. But this is not an arbitration – the adjudication of the truth is left as an exercise to the reader. This, in an open and intellectually honest debate, would be less objectionable. However, like calls to ‘teach the controversy’, the media now seeks out two-sides to all arguments – even those were no real argument exists. They actively present those among the fringe so as to create balance, giving an open microphone to anyone who disagrees with any position – frequently without providing any context whatsoever. Teaching the controversy is the traditional media’s default position. The effect of this behavior can be seen everywhere: evolution, climate change, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, even vaccine safety. It is the hallmark of the local news promo: Tonight at 11, why some people are questioning whether your children should eat carrots.

There are innumerable legitimate debates in this country and it is the media’s role to cover them. But, it is also the media’s role to help us learn about the important ones. By teaching the controversy, the media opens itself up to manipulation by any unscrupulous or fringe group that wants to bury a story  – by stirring up a fake debate, they turn real news into a petty his-says-she-says distraction. That the controversies come packaged in an easy partisan format is all the better.

And people wonder why newspapers are dying.

Advertisements

Not the Change We Need: Part IV in a Continuing Series

(This is not about the President’s address tonight, which I liked a great deal. I do find his focus on deficit reduction to be a little puzzling given his commitment to Keynesian stimulus, but that is a topic for another time.)

Constitutional Law Professor Jonathan Turley was on the Rachel Maddow Show again on Monday, this time to discuss Karl Rove’s failure to appear to testify before Congress. In the second half of the interview, however, the issue turned to the Obama Administration’s recent decision to adopt the Bush Administration position on a lawsuit over the retention or recovery of White House emails.

The Obama Administration is carrying a lot of water for the Bush Administration. Each day they seem to be taking the position of the Bush White House…He is doing exactly what the Bush Administration tried to do and that is to extinguish this litigation.

Among the carried water, Turley cites: statements supporting the Bush administration on treatment of detainees, the endorsement and adoption of Bush administration rhetoric of the war on terror, and the refusal to investigate war crimes.

He concludes:

These weren’t good arguments before. To argue them in court makes you equally guilty of the types of excesses of your predecessor.

I, and many others, supported President Obama during the campaign precisely because he campaigned against these kinds of executive overreach. It increasingly appears that it was unrealistic to expect that any president would willingly participate in any significant rollback of executive power. This is nevertheless disappointing from a candidate that preached both change and hope. With each decision by this president to continue the failed policies of his failed predecessor, I find it increasingly hard to find the audacity to believe in either.

Glenn Greenwald also has a post discussing other instances policy and practice continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations, citing specifically the approach to press management. It also discusses the highly disturbing reports from The Guardian that Binyam Mohamed may have been tortured while in American custody within the past few weeks.

Mohamed will arrive back tomorrow in the UK, where he was a British resident between 1984 and 2002. During medical examinations last week, doctors discovered injuries and ailments resulting from apparently brutal treatment in detention.

Mohamed was found to be suffering from bruising, organ damage, stomach complaints, malnutrition, sores to feet and hands, severe damage to ligaments as well as profound emotional and psychological problems which have been exacerbated by the refusal of Guantánamo’s guards to give him counseling.

Mohamed’s British lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, said his client had been beaten “dozens” of times inside the notorious US camp in Cuba with the most recent abuse occurring during recent weeks. He said: “He has a list of physical ailments that cover two sheets of A4 paper. What Binyam has been through should have been left behind in the middle ages.”

Lieutenant colonel Yvonne Bradley, Mohamed’s US military attorney, added: “He has been severely beaten. Sometimes I don’t like to think about it because my country is behind all this.

The possibility that this abuse may have occurred after President Obama’s inauguration is very concerning, and should be addressed by the administration as soon as possible.

Should John Yoo Teach?

Berkeley Professor Brad DeLong has called for John Yoo to be fired from the university’s law school. He makes a strong argument and I agree that Yoo shouldn’t be teaching law when he seems to have such a flawed understanding of it. I also have a great deal of respect for Professor DeLong in making such a public statement.

However, I have been uncertain whether it is actually worthwhile to fire him. At first, I thought my concerns were over academic freedom and the ethics of firing a professor for legal advice given as a lawyer to a client. However, in the wake of the news surrounding the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility’s unpublished report, those misgivings have more-or-less faded away. Fortunately, that allowed me to uncover the source of my concern – it isn’t big enough.

It isn’t enough to fire Yoo from Berkeley. (He will undoubtedly get another job, either at a law school desperate for attention, like Chapman, or at a conservative think tank). It isn’t enough to disbar him. For the role he has played in undermining the Constitution, the rule of law, and the dignity of man, those actions are insufficient. If he cannot or will not be prosecuted, then the public opprobrium must be so great that his opinions, like Carthage’s fields, are sown with salt so that nothing no policy there may grow. Yoo delenda est.

Despite our pretensions to academic freedom, professors get fired, or denied tenure, for any manner of comments found to be controversial. A 30-second google search found these two on the first results page. With his conservative credentials burnished by being fired by ‘liberal academics’, Yoo will move on to new heights from which he can launch attacks in op-ed pages around the country. This is not sufficient.

But for all that, I’m fairly certain it is necessary.

Update: I got unnecessarily rabid here, and conflated several issues. Yoo should be prosecuted for any crimes, especially war crimes, he committed. His opinions should be forcefully rejected by the public so they don’t form the basis for future policy. Firing him is insufficient for his potential crimes, inappropriate for his opinions, and necessary for his deficient professional ethics and practices. I conveyed this opinion exceedingly poorly.

Published in: on February 19, 2009 at 12:02 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Don’t Investigate Roland Burris

Now that Roland Burris has confirmed that he was solicited for a campaign contribution by Blagojevich’s brother, Illinois House Republicans want him investigated for perjury.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Illinois House Republicans say they want U.S. Sen. Roland Burris investigated for perjury.

State Rep. Jim Durkin told The Associated Press he and GOP leader Tom Cross will ask for an outside investigation into whether Burris perjured himself before a House committee investigating former Gov. Rod Blagojevich‘s impeachment.

This is a mistake. It would be partisan and divisive to investigate a sitting Senator during a time of national economic crisis. Rather than dwelling on the past, we need to move on and look forward. While no one is above the law, we just cannot afford to have our attention taken from the serious problems that face our country. Regardless, even if Burris may have done something improper, he was only acting in the best interests of the state – Illinois could not afford to have left a Senate seat vacant. Even if, in retrospect, he may have made a mistake, at all times he only tried his best to serve the people of Illinois and to do their wishes. Roland Burris never shied away from the tough decisions.

After all, its not like he tortured anyone, right?

Published in: on February 15, 2009 at 3:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Selective Prosecution

Glenn Greenwald has a wonderful post expressing one of the most galling things about the argument against torture prosecutions – the hypocrisy of so many of those making the argument.

Under all circumstances, arguing that high political officials should be immunized from prosecution when they commit felonies such as illegal eavesdropping and torture would be both destructive and wrong… But what makes it so much worse, so much more corrupted, is the fact that this “ignore-the-past-and-forget-retribution” rationale is invoked by our media elites only for a tiny, special class of people — our political leaders — while the exact opposite rationale (“ignore their lame excuses, lock them up and throw away the key”) is applied to everyone else.  That, by definition, is what a “two-tiered system of justice” means and that, more than anything else, is what characterizes (and sustains) deeply corrupt political systems.   That’s the two-tiered system which, for obvious reasons, our political and media elites are now vehemently arguing must be preserved.

While I think the argument is fairly clear, I do nevertheless think a further explanation needs to be made. I believe that  mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws should be eliminated and that the American approach to nonviolent drug offenses and parole violations is massively misguided. More importantly, they are an anchor that is helping to sink the ship of state, especially in California.

This does not necessitate that I correspondingly think that torture shouldn’t be prosecuted. I do not think that sentencing reform needs to occur because we should “forget the past.” I think

it needs to occur because our current system is poisoning the country by slowly undermining our commitment to justice. I believe that letting war criminals go free will do the same.

Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 10:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , ,