On Censorship and Disinformation

W.J. Astore

The best way to combat disinformation is with more and better information.  Censorship isn’t the answer.

The Biden administration has reached a different conclusion, creating a “Disinformation Governance Board” under the Department of Homeland Security. This “board” is headed by Nina Jankowicz, an unelected official and an apparent partisan hack. One example: she dismissed the infamous Hunter Biden laptop story as a “fairy tale” involving a “laptop repair shop”; it’s now been confirmed that Hunter’s laptop was real, and so too was that repair shop.

Democrats, of course, don’t have exclusive rights to censorship. Republicans always seem to be calling for books to be banned or education to be policed. But the real problem is much larger than partisan hackery and bickering. Efforts at censorship are all around us, couched as a way of protecting us from harmful lies and other forms of disinformation. Yet, as the comedian Jimmy Dore points out, the government isn’t that concerned about protecting you from lies; it is, however, deeply concerned with denying you access to certain truths, truths that undermine governmental authority and the dominant narrative.

As a retired U.S. military officer and as a historian, the most insidious lies and disinformation I’ve encountered have come from the government. Consider the lies revealed by Daniel Ellsberg and his leak of the Pentagon Papers. Consider the war crimes revealed by Chelsea Manning, aided by Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Consider the lies revealed in the recent Afghan War Papers. Consider the lies about the presence of WMD in Iraq, lies that were used to justify the disastrous Iraq War. The government, in short, is a center of lies and disinformation, which is precisely why we need an adversarial media, one that is willing to ferret out truth. Instead, we’re being offered a governmental Ministry of Truth in the form of a “Disinformation Governance Board.”

All things being equal, a democratic society thrives best when speech is as free as possible, trusting in the people to sort fact from fiction, and sound theories from blatant propaganda. And there’s the rub: trusting in the people. Because the government doesn’t trust us (remember Hillary Clinton’s comment about all those irredeemable deplorables), even as the government is often at pains to mislead and misinform us. As maverick journalist I.F. “Izzy” Stone said, all governments lie. It’s truly nonsensical, then, to allow the government to police what is true and what is “disinformation.”

But don’t we need some censorship in the name of safety or security or mental health or whatever? Sorry: censorship is rarely about safety, and it most certainly doesn’t serve the needs of the vulnerable. Instead, it serves the needs of the powerful, those who already possess the loudest megaphones in the public square.

But doesn’t someone like Donald Trump deserve to be censored because he spreads disinformation? Which is the bigger problem: Trump or censorship? I happen to think Trump is a divisive con man, but it was a bad precedent for Twitter to have banned him from tweeting. The bigger problem wasn’t Trump’s tweets but the media’s obsessive coverage of them in pursuit of ratings. The way to combat a blowhard like Trump is to ignore him, and to correct him when needed. To combat his lies with the truth. We don’t need a governmental Ministry of Truth to police the tweets of a former president. Not when the government is often the biggest liar.

The solution isn’t censorship but an active, engaged, and informed citizenry, assisted by a fourth estate, the press, that is truly independent and adversarial to power. But the weakening of education in America, combined with a fourth estate that is deeply compromised by the powerful and often in bed with the government, means that these democratic checks on power are less and less effective. Hence calls for quick yet dangerous “solutions” like censorship, where the censors (governmental boards, private corporations) are opaque and almost completely unaccountable to the people.

Unless your goal is to give the already powerful a monopoly on speech, censorship is not the answer.

Dissent Is Needed More than Ever

W.J. Astore

Dissent and critical thought are needed most of all in times of war. Yet it’s precisely the time when people are pressured the most to silence their doubts, to mindlessly conform, and to wave the flag and to cheer for the “good” guys against the “bad” ones.

Dissent is easy to tolerate when it’s about trivial matters that don’t challenge or involve prevailing power structures. Chomsky and Herman famously wrote “Manufacturing Consent,” which is another way of saying that dissent itself is manufactured and controlled, providing us with an illusion that democratic debate is allowed and encouraged in America. But of course dissent isn’t tolerated when it threatens power structures, profit margins, and prevailing narratives.

We see this clearly in the amount of dissent policing and information quashing about the Russia/Ukraine war. Look at what happened to the RT (Russia Today) network in the USA (RT America). It was dropped by DirecTV and forced to layoff its staff and cease operations. It’s easy to cheer something like this if you think or have been told everything Russian is evil, but the loss is considerable to democracy and to free speech.

I didn’t watch a lot of RT America, but I appreciated the network’s support of informed critics like Chris Hedges and Jesse Ventura. Hedges and Ventura, both freethinkers, were excluded by the mainstream media in the U.S. Ventura’s case is especially revealing. He had a three-year, multi-million dollar contract with MSNBC for a talk show in 2003 that was cancelled when the network realized he was against the Iraq War. The network honored the contract, paying him roughly $6-8 million while keeping him off the air for three years. Millions in hush money for no work sounds like a good deal, but it’s obviously not in the interest of free speech.

Jesse Ventura on RT: An informative, provocative, and often funny show

When I started writing for TomDispatch.com in 2007, posting articles that called into question the official narrative of “progress” in the Iraq and Afghan Wars, there were exactly two TV networks that asked to interview me: Al-Jazeera and RT America. (I turned them down, mainly because I was working in rural Pennsylvania and had no time to travel to New York City for in-studio interviews.) No mainstream media network showed any interest. I’m not complaining here — I’m just stating facts. Ask yourself how many times you’ve seen and heard antiwar voices and penetrating criticism on NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, and similar networks. You won’t see and hear it there because it’s considered bad for business.

Why is it bad for business? Advertisers don’t like it. You know: companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and similar bastions of the military-industrial complex. Those same companies are often part of multi-national conglomerates that own the networks. They are not about to sanction shows or grant airtime to well-informed critics like Hedges and Ventura. Why would they? Profit and power trump free speech every time.

Dissenting voices are still out there, but they are kept on platforms where their reach is often limited by computer algorithms that send people to mainstream sites first. For what it’s worth, I look for alternative perspectives at the Jimmy Dore Show, at Useful Idiots, at Breaking Points, and from journalists like Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Chris Hedges, and Caitlin Johnstone, among others.

I also continue to check mainstream sources like the New York Times, NBC News, and PBS, as well as subscribing to old-fashioned paper magazines like The Nation, The New Republic, and The Baffler. And I’m not above watching Tucker Carlson when he features important voices like former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.

Americans, citizens of what is allegedly a democracy, deserve access to the widest possible range of sources and critics. Denying the same to us is censorship. It limits thought, it stifles debate, and it makes us much less than what we could be as a democracy and as a people.

Censorship and America’s Culture of Treachery

Joe and Hunter Biden in 2010

T.J. Osteen.  Introduction by W.J. Astore

Treachery and politics fit like hand-in-glove in today’s America.  Donald Trump is now calling for a special prosecutor to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden in the next two weeks. Along with blanket support of corporations, big finance, the military-industrial complex, and other privileged elites, the Republican and Democratic parties share a predilection for treachery.  But is such treachery more common today among liberal elites than conservative ones?  Such is the provocative question raised by Tom Osteen in this essay, his first for Bracing Views.  W.J. Astore

T.J. Osteen on Treachery in America

The recent Biden corruption bombshells are not surprising. That Hunter is alleged to have peddled influence on behalf of Burisma, a Ukrainian company, in return for a no-show “job” that paid $50,000 a month, implicating his father, who was then America’s vice president, is disturbing on its face, but it has also served up collateral damage, putting on full display the alarming problem of censorship by the media.

Censorship by the media has increased dramatically in recent years, whether it be by Facebook, Twitter, or the mainstream media. In this case, Twitter and Facebook initially worked to limit the Biden corruption story; other mainstream outlets ignored it or dismissed it as part of a Russian disinformation campaign. This is more than censorship: it is election interference — in a word, cheating. Other examples arrive daily, including (even more recently than the Biden fiasco) Amazon’s rejection of the Who Killed Michael Brown documentary. Per the Wall Street Journal, this was because the documentary did not fit the dominant narrative of White police officers killing young Black men because of systemic racism.

Why the increase in censorship? Because it is a symptom of something even more ominous. Rather than splitting hairs over the definition of censorship, or what Freedom of Speech means, let’s look at the root cause: the new Culture of Treachery in America.

American culture has evolved from honor-based to dignity-based, and more recently to victim-based. Some quick background on those concepts, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“Honour cultures, often called honour-shame cultures are cultures like that of the American West or Europe in the era when dueling was common. In such cultures, honour is paramount and when it is infringed upon the offended party retaliates directly.”

“A dignity culture, according to Campbell and Manning, has moral values and behavioral norms that promote the value of every human life, encouraging achievement in its children while teaching that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’”

“According to Campbell and Manning, victim-based culture engenders ‘competitive victimhood,’ incentivizing even privileged people to claim that they are the victims of, for example, reverse discrimination.  According to Claire Lehmann, Manning and Campbell’s culture of victimhood sees moral worth as largely defined by skin color and membership in a fixed identity group.”

Just like the rapid news cycle that we now live with, we are already starting to move into a new cultural phase: the American culture of treachery is upon us. The culture of treachery promulgates a “succeed at all costs” mentality and celebrates the destruction of perceived enemies through power. Traditional values have no place in a culture of treachery. Likewise for liberty and justice. The only value is power: the ability to impose one’s will on another, by any means necessary.

Censorship is just one of the many aspects of a culture of treachery. Others include intolerance, deception, manipulation, and hate. The evidence is all around us now, whether it be “cancel culture” or the Russia hoax embraced by the Democrats in their failed attempt to overturn a presidential election.

So where is the source of the treachery in our society? Often the media focuses on Donald Trump and his circle, but we need look no further than who is doing the censoring. Big Tech, the mainstream media, academia, and Hollywood.

But why? These groups have several things in common. They all lean left, they all deal in power, and they all believe they have the answers. So here is the rub: Treachery arises here because liberals are just as likely to act unethically than conservatives to gain or preserve power. When presented with the opportunity to modify a search algorithm or filter information, a liberal (again in general) will do it just as readily as – or even more eagerly than – a conservative.

A so-called liberal value set makes it acceptable to manipulate search results, indoctrinate young minds toward personal political views, cancel those who have different views, or spin news stories while ignoring the truth. Far too often, it is Fox News and other conservative outlets that are condemned for malfeasance and malpractice when it’s liberal sites and power centers that are the true masters of manipulation.

So it comes down to values. Censorship is cheating. Cheating is treachery. Treachery has become as much a “value” of the Left as it is of the Right, and indeed more so as election day approaches.

The coming election and the divide in our country is not solely about policy and differing points of view. At its core, it is about whether we are going to become a Culture of Treachery or whether we are not. Culture comes from the heart. Only an across-the-board rejection of treachery will allow us to enter a productive new era of American culture and restore America to something approaching greatness.

Tom Osteen is a career technology executive and former military officer.  He holds degrees from the U.S. Air Force Academy and the University of Southern California.  An avid surfer, Tom also writes/speaks on Leading with Honor and Honor in the Workplace.

Military Dissent and the Need to Save Democracy from Perpetual War

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A true hero because he spoke up

W.J. Astore

My latest article at TomDispatch.com focuses on the need for military dissent in an age of creeping militarism and perpetual war.  In my article, I identify some of the key reasons why such dissent is tightly constrained and often severely limited.  This is especially problematic for at least two reasons.  The first is that Americans say they trust the military more than any other societal institution.  If the military censors itself, it misses an invaluable opportunity to educate an attentive public about the disastrous path of America’s wars.

The second reason is that a democracy’s health depends on dissent.  A country in which dissent is suppressed, a country that finds itself engaged in perpetual war, is a country that cannot sustain democratic institutions.  We’re already witnessing the withering away of democracy in America.  That it’s happening in slow motion doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening.

A Marine Corps sergeant and Vietnam War veteran wrote to me in “salty” language that “his damn war [was] fucked up,” but that while he was still in uniform he “spoke little [against the war] and only then about how it was being run.”  We need more honesty from today’s veterans about how America’s damn wars are fucked up.  Maybe then we’ll finally get off our duffs and work to put a stop to them.

Here are a few excerpts from my article; I invite you to read all of it at TomDispatch.com.

The Pentagon has, in a very real sense, become America’s national cathedral.  If we’re going to continue to worship at it, we should at least ask for some minimal level of honesty from its priests.  In militarized America, the question of the moment is how to encourage such honesty.

Call it patriotic dissent.  By “dissent” I mean honest talk from those who should know best about the hazards and horrors of perpetual war, about how poorly those conflicts have gone and are going.  We desperately need to encourage informed critics and skeptics within the military and the [Military-Industrial] Complex to speak their minds in a way that moves the national needle away from incessant bombing and perpetual war.

Yet to do so, we must first understand the obstacles involved.  It’s obvious, for example, that a government which has launched a war against whistleblowers, wielding the World War I-era Espionage Act against them and locking away Chelsea Manning for a veritable lifetime in a maximum security prison, isn’t likely to suddenly encourage more critical thinking and public expression inside the national security state. But much else stands in the way of the rest of us hearing a little critical speech from the “fourth branch” of government …

Leaving military insularity, unit loyalty, and the pressure of combat aside, however, here are seven other factors I’ve witnessed, which combine to inhibit dissent within military circles.

1. Careerism and ambition: The U.S. military no longer has potentially recalcitrant draftees — it has “volunteers.”  Yesteryear’s draftees were sometimes skeptics; many just wanted to endure their years in the military and get out.  Today’s volunteers are usually believers; most want to excel.  Getting a reputation for critical comments or other forms of outspokenness generally means not being rewarded with fast promotions and plum assignments.  Career-oriented troops quickly learn that it’s better to fail upwards quietly than to impale yourself on your sword while expressing honest opinions.  If you don’t believe me, ask all those overly decorated generals of our failed wars you see on TV.

2. Future careerism and ambition: What to do when you leave the military?  Civilian job options are often quite limited. Many troops realize that they will be able to double or triple their pay, however, if they go to work for a defense contractor, serving as a military consultant or adviser overseas.  Why endanger lucrative prospects (or even your security clearance, which could be worth tens of thousands of dollars to you and firms looking to hire you) by earning a reputation for being “difficult”?

3. Lack of diversity: The U.S. military is not blue and red and purple America writ small; it’s a selective sampling of the country that has already winnowed out most of the doubters and rebels.  This is, of course, by design.  After Vietnam, the high command was determined never to have such a wave of dissent within the ranks again and in this (unlike so much else) they succeeded.  Think about it: between “warriors” and citizen-soldiers, who is more likely to be tractable and remain silent?

4. A belief that you can effect change by working quietly from within the system: Call it the Harold K. Johnson effect.  Johnson was an Army general during the Vietnam War who considered resigning in protest over what he saw as a lost cause.  He decided against it, wagering that he could better effect change while still wearing four stars, a decision he later came deeply to regret.  The truth is that the system has time-tested ways of neutralizing internal dissent, burying it, or channeling it and so rendering it harmless.

5. The constant valorization of the military: Ever since 9/11, the gushing pro-military rhetoric of presidents and other politicians has undoubtedly served to quiet honest doubts within the military.  If the president and Congress think you’re the best military ever, a force for human liberation, America’s greatest national treasure, who are you to disagree, Private Schmuckatelli?

America used to think differently.  Our founders considered a standing army to be a pernicious threat to democracy.  Until World War II, they generally preferred isolationism to imperialism, though of course many were eager to take land from Native Americans and Mexicans while double-crossing Cubans, Filipinos, and other peoples when it came to their independence.  If you doubt that, just read War is a Racket by Smedley Butler, a Marine general in the early decades of the last century and two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor. In the present context, think of it this way: democracies should see a standing military as a necessary evil, and military spending as a regressive tax on civilization — as President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously did when he compared such spending to humanity being crucified on a cross of iron.

Chanting constant hosannas to the troops and telling them they’re the greatest ever — remember the outcry against Muhammad Ali when, with significantly more cause, he boasted that he was the greatest? — may make our military feel good, but it won’t help them see their flaws, nor us as a nation see ours.

6. Loss of the respect of peers: Dissent is lonely.  It’s been more than a decade since my retirement and I still hesitate to write articles like this.  (It’s never fun getting hate mail from people who think you’re un-American for daring to criticize any aspect of the military.)  Small wonder that critics choose to keep their own counsel while they’re in the service.

7.  Even when you leave the military, you never truly leave: I haven’t been on a military base in years.  I haven’t donned a uniform since my retirement ceremony in 2005.  Yet occasionally someone will call me “colonel.”  It’s always a reminder that I’m still “in.” I may have left the military behind, but it never left me behind.  I can still snap to attention, render a proper salute, recite my officer’s oath from memory.

In short, I’m not a former but a retired officer.  My uniform may be gathering dust in the basement, but I haven’t forgotten how it made me feel when I wore it.  I don’t think any of us who have served ever do.  That strong sense of belonging, that emotional bond, makes you think twice before speaking out.  Or at least that’s been my experience.  Even as I call for more honesty within our military, more bracing dissent, I have to admit that I still feel a residual sense of hesitation.  Make of that what you will.

Bonus Reason: Troops are sometimes reluctant to speak out because they doubt Americans will listen, or if they do, empathize and understand.  It’s one thing to vent your frustrations in private among friends on your military base or at the local VFW hall among other veterans.  It’s quite another to talk to outsiders.  War’s sacrifices and horrors are especially difficult to convey and often traumatic to relive.  Nevertheless, as a country, we need to find ways to encourage veterans to speak out and we also need to teach ourselves how to listen — truly listen — no matter the harshness of what they describe or how disturbed what they actually have to say may make us feel …

And I conclude my article in this way:

Some will doubtless claim that encouraging patriotic dissent within the military can only weaken its combat effectiveness, endangering our national security.  But when, I wonder, did it become wise for a democracy to emulate Sparta?  And when is it ever possible to be perfectly secure?