Civility

As we rapidly slide into authoritarianism led by a racist vulgarian, the press has oddly become fixated on not the danger to our democracy but on civility and balance. To hear some tell it, we have too much democracy. No, we hear a lot lately, the threat to America is bad manners.

The mainstream media considers it “uncivil” to lob hardballs at a politician or shout “non-responsive!” at his evasive answers. Instead, it steers a safe, middle course, avoiding “controversial” phrases and judgments. The “split-screen” showing both sides of an issue is a fixture of the media, whether in the Op-Ed section of a newspaper or on your favorite cable news show.

Civility is why “nationalist” is the style guide’s choice for Richard Spencer — instead of the more accurate “white supremacist” or “neo-Nazi.” If a Congressman uses the N-word it will be reported as a “racially-charged remark” and not as a “racist” epithet. When reporting climate change there must be “balance” to the 99% of scientists who regard it as fact. Civility means fairness and fairness requires false balance. So readers are obliged to hear from petrochemical lobbyists to provide indispensable new insights into a nonexistent “debate.”

Recently the press began worrying that Sarah Huckabee Sanders was denied a cheeseburger at a Virginia restaurant. The liberal press fretted — is this the end of civility? The Washington Post warned in its best Mom voice, “Let the Trump team eat in peace.” Al Jazeera worried that liberal vexation at a mendacious fundamentalist White House spokeswoman reflected “growing concern about political tribalism” in the United States.

When U.S. Representative Maxine Waters suggested challenging Trump administration figures in public, Politico headed for the bomb shelter: “Waters scares Democrats with call for all-out war on Trump.” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi rebuked Waters, calling for “unity” — even though a recent CNN poll showed that 42 percent of Americans want Trump to be impeached — including a very unified 77 percent of Democrats.

The liberal reticence to vigorously challenge Trump seems based on fears of ridiculous things Trumpistas might say. In a piece entitled “The Left Loses its Cool,” Politico quoted Florida’s GOP Attorney General Pam Bondi: “When you’re violent and cursing and screaming and blocking me from walking into a movie, there’s something wrong,” she said. “The next people are going to come with guns. That’s what’s going to happen.” For Trump supporters having an unpleasant lunch is worse than ICE throwing children into cages or dying because somebody took your healthcare away. Nonsense like this often goes unchallenged.

While the president was busy signing, un-signing, and re-signing executive orders on family separations, the press seemed far less intererested in discovering why sitting U.S. Senators were denied entry to DHS detention facilities. When immigration attorney David Leopold appeared on CNN and pointed the finger for the White House’s inhuman family separation policies at “white nationalist, Stephen Miller,” host Kate Bolduan cut him off: “I don’t know if you want to go as far as to — I mean, let’s not — I just did an entire segment about civility here. I don’t know if you want to call Stephen Miller a white nationalist.”

Thus “civility” ended what could have shed some light on the issue of family separations. Leopold was on the right track: to really understand White House immigration policies you first have to understand its White Supremacists. Yet while the mainstream media pulls its punches, censors guests, and cuts off lines of inquiry, FOX and Sinclair, right-wing radio and conservative papers throughout the country dispense with such niceties and play hardball.

“When they go low, we go high,” Michelle Obama told Democrats shortly before the 2016 election. This was a sweet sentiment. But during that same campaign Donald Trump mocked a disabled journalist and called Mexicans rapists and criminals. This became the new standard of civility. Last March Trump tweeted that Maxine Waters was a “very low IQ individual.” The Tweet was reported but Waters largely had to defend herself in the press.

The stakes have never been higher. We ought to worry less about civility and more about democracy. If we really want to salvage what’s left of it we need to take the gloves off and aggressively confront injustice and untruth.

That goes for both liberals and for a very timid and diminished Fourth Estate.

Thirteen Democratic Senators

I’ve written about this before and it is now closer to becoming law. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S.720) is a piece of legislation promoted by a foreign nation that will violate the civil liberties of Americans. It joins recent laws in Turkey and Poland criminalizing “insults” to a nation. But it is fundamentally a form of thought control that has no place in a democracy.

S.720 is co-sponsored by 51 U.S. Senators. To their shame, thirteen are Democrats: Michael Bennet (CO); Richard Blumenthal (CT); Maria Cantwell (WA); Christopher Coons (DE); Joe Donnelly (IN); Margaret Hassan (NH); Joe Manchin (WV); Claire McCaskill (MO); Robert Menendez (NJ); Bill Nelson (FL); Gary Peters (MI); Charles Schumer (NY); and Ron Wyden (OR).

S.720 criminalizes speech and forbids political expression. The Anti-Israel Boycott Act is basically a Sedition Act in disguise which punishes any American joining a boycott to oppose the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinians with a fine of up to $1 million or imprisonment up to 20 years.

S.720 wants to have it both ways — doing the bidding of a foreign nation (Israel) while punishing Americans from following boycotts suggested by a foreign entity (the UN and the still-stateless Palestinian people).

Whether the bill is eventually successful or not, the ACLU notes the harm it has already done:

“On its face, the bill appears to directly prohibit boycott activity that is protected under the First Amendment. Even if the bill could be interpreted more narrowly, as some of its supporters claim, its broad language could still chill protected expression by scaring people into self-censorship. Either way, the bill would impose serious First Amendment harms.”

According to S.720’s subsection (a)(1) the bill criminalizes even gathering information about companies doing business in Israel or in occupied Palestinian territories. You post an inquiry on Facebook — for example, does Sodastream manufacture its products in the West Bank? The next thing you know, you face arrest or a fine.

Besides violating the rights of Americans, S.720 is a perfect example of the sort of foreign meddling that Democrats claim to hate. S.720 is promoted by numerous pro-Israel groups like AIPAC whose single focus on promoting Israeli interests should require it to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Even Canada is obliged to register its lobbyists but no such limitations apply to AIPAC, which literally pays American legislators to work for Israel’s interests.

Imagine if Russian lobbyists did the same — worked through a group we’ll call ARPAC — the American Russian Political Action Committee — to create legislation to criminalize sanctions against Russia and its oligarchs. Or imagine ATPAC — the American Turkish Political Action Committee — buying support to keep Americans from mentioning the Armenian Genocide or protesting Turkey’s treatment of Kurdish people.

What’s especially galling to Americans is that the Senate is telling us we can’t take political action against a foreign country knee deep in corruption — a country with a prime minister about to be indicted for criminal conspiracy. A country in which the former prime minister went to jail for bribery and influence-peddling. The Senate needs to be reminded: Israel is not our 51st state.

S.720 echoes laws in Israel which have already criminalized the BDS movement in “the Middle East’s only democracy.” The Senate bill also joins a growing list of American “gag” legislation written for agribusiness, anti-abortion zealots, and pipeline companies. The Trump administration now seems eager to join its authoritarian counterparts in China, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Poland, the Philippines, and elsewhere in policing the views of its citizens.

And thirteen Democratic senators, including Chuck Schumer, are just fine with that.

The right to boycott

Despite plenty of evidence Donald Trump has a thing for Russian mobsters and Kremlin operatives, we still don’t know if he actually conspired with Russia to throw the 2016 presidential election.

But last week I wrote about some indisputable foreign meddling — AIPAC’s attempts to take away political rights of Americans to protest Israel’s domestic policies with economic boycotts.

And Israel is trying the same thing right here in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts House bill H.1685 and Senate bill S.1689 sound harmless enough (“An Act prohibiting discrimination in State Contracts”). No one would ever admit liking discrimination. And one would hope that any legislator co-sponsoring bills like these would have only the best of intentions.

But these two bills do much more harm than good.

Like cookie-cutter legislation crafted by ALEC, these were pushed by a pro-Israel organization, the JCRC, which regards them as tools to block the BDS Movement. Lobbyists for Israel have introduced similar legislation in 35 states and they have been enacted in 19.

Seekonk Rep. Steven Howitt was crystal clear about the bill’s intent: “This bill clarifies to businesses that either support BDS or who boycott Israeli-owned businesses and products that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not engage in commerce with them.”

In short, this is an attack on the exercise of the Constitutionally-protected right to boycott a foreign nation on political grounds. Not surprisingly, the Massachusetts ACLU opposes H.1685.

The bills’ supporters claim that any criticism of Israel’s occupation and settlements is tantamount to anti-semitism. But the international BDS Movement has specific political goals. And Israel’s domestic policies as well as American foreign policy toward it are political issues. Both bills are opposed by a number of Jewish organizations, including the Boston Workmen’s Circle, Jewish Voice for Peace, over 100 progressive organizations, and also the National Council of Churches.

In 1982 the Supreme Court affirmed the right of Americans to use boycotts for political purposes. After fifty years of occupation and creeping settlements Israel just might need a little economic incentive to stop. But no matter how you feel about Middle Eastern politics, Israel’s problems can not be solved by violating the civil liberties of Americans.

Contact House and Senate sponsors from your district and ask them to kill these bills and withdraw their sponsorship.