government

"Blundering Toward War," and the Willing Suspension of Belief

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote of the “willing suspension of disbelief” required by someone who reads a story they would ordinarily (in real life) discredit for being unbelievable - for example, tales involving fantasy. But in recent times we as a people have too often willingly suspended belief (not disbelief) in true stories we don’t want to believe are true. And believed things we shouldn’t.

In “Blundering Toward War,” an article in the June 3-10, 2019 issue of TIME Magazine, David French warns that the U.S. may be stumbling into “its worst war in more than a generation — without the congressional authorization required by the Constitution.” The threat of war with Iran is exacerbated by “a Chief Executive so erratic even his closest advisers feel the need to ignore his orders.”

If this is not enough to keep you lying awake at night, consider that North Korea is still on the radar screen and still poses a major threat to national security.

In his “speculative novel” titled The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States, foreign policy scholar and arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis presents a nightmare scenario in which decisions by unpredictable leaders playing Russian roulette with nuclear weapons lead to the deaths of 1.4 million American citizens. The novel takes the form of a report by a commission charged with investigating what led to the 2020 war, posing questions including, “Did President Trump and his advisers appreciate the dangers of provoking Kim Jon Un with social media posts and military exercises? Was conflict inevitable, or did America’s leaders have the opportunity to avert it?”

I don’t believe either French’s article or Lewis’ book constitute fear-mongering. This administration has not earned our trust, and the consequences of erratic decisions (not to mention “mercurial” communications) could be catastrophic.

First, the Good News. Then the Bad. And the Importance of a Free Press.

Years ago, when Tylersville Road Christian Church in Mason, Ohio, held it’s annual Live Nativity, our pastor, George Reese, dressed as a shepherd, would begin his monologue with “Have you heard the good news?” The good news, of course, was the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps George should have asked whether we’d heard the best news. There has never been better news than this!

At the end of a calendar year it is customary to look back and consider what’s happened over that year. The year 2018 was marked by many noteworthy things, many of which could be labeled “bad news.” As news consumers, we have an interesting relationship with news producers. In a 1979 study titled Changing Needs of Changing Readers, author Ruth Clark speaks of a social contract between news consumers and producers. This is an implicit relationship based on what consumers expect from the news and what producers pledge to their viewers and readers. While much is always said about a desire to see more good news on TV, it is important that we not be shielded from bad news. It would be impossible to address the negative things that happen in the world if we were never to learn about them. News producers not only have responsibilities in educating us about events in our communities, our country, and around the world, but also for objectivity and truthfulness and fairness.

I recently watched the movie The Post, starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, which is based on the exposure of secret government policies about the war in Vietnam by Daniel Ellsberg, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. This information, nicknamed The Pentagon Papers, was leaked to the public to inform the country of the true facts of the involvement of the U.S. government in Vietnam. The news, of course, was far from good. But news organizations felt they owed it to the American people to share the news, even if it meant journalists risking incarceration and the collapse of The Washington Post to make it happen.

The controversy over the Pentagon Papers presaged the exposures of government secrets by WikiLeaks, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. It is not my intent to dive into the pro’s and con’s in each of these cases. But I do support the concept of a free press. The press comes under attack on a daily basis, it seems, because it presents news that is not always favorable to people in power. Is every news item truthful? Is the press infallible? Of course not. Do we see a subversive infusion of “fake news”? Yes, we do, and because of that, citizens have a responsibility for carefully examining the veracity of news stories, particularly those that are inflammatory in nature. (See Bruce Bartlett’s The Truth Matters: A Citizen’s Guide to Separating Facts From Lies and Stopping Fake News in its Tracks.)

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Nothing could be more patriotic than defending this freedom, and all the others spelled out in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

On Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth CenturyOn Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It has become a cliché to quote George Santayana's dictum that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It is unfortunate - if not tragic - to hear history as an important part of school curricula spurned. Worse yet, as author and Yale historian Timothy Snyder tells us in his new book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017), democracy is in danger if we do not take historical lessons to heart.

"The Founding Fathers," writes Snyder, "tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from the experience."

On Tyranny is a short book but is one which the reader should reread again and again. Snyder packs a lot of warning into his words, words that need to seep in for us to become fully awake to our clear and present danger. There are twenty chapters, or "lessons," each of which is titled with a maxim: "Do not obey in advance." "Take responsibility for the face of the world." "Believe in truth." "Listen for dangerous words." And, perhaps the most chilling, "Be calm when the unthinkable arrives." Each chapter is introduced with a few remarks about how to put that chapter's maxim into action.

We must learn from the mistakes of the twentieth century, Snyder admonishes us. We must not take democracy for granted, or fall victim to naïve optimism that because democracy is so important, it is not vulnerable. Wake up, says Snyder. The wolves are at the door.

It would be impractical to comment on every one of Snyder's lessons, so allow me to select one as an illustration: "Investigate." Snyder encourages us all to investigate. "The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant." And truth? Snyder does not mince words: "Like Hitler, the president used the word lies to mean statements of fact not to his liking, and presented journalism as a campaign against himself." What is our responsibility as citizens? "Since in the age of the internet we are all publishers, each of us bears some private responsibility for the public's sense of truth." Snyder says to verify information ourselves, and carefully choose trustworthy journalists.

Snyder's message is loud and clear: we must defend democracy, we must do it now, and there are ways to accomplish that. I can't imagine how anyone could not take this to heart.

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