Orwell hadn’t even heard of Facebook

This week Donald Trump tweeted that his administration was “looking into” the “banning” of conservatives on “liberal” social media. With a conservative stranglehold on talk radio and powerful news outlets like FOX and Sinclair effectively functioning as mouthpieces for Trump’s policies, on the face of it Trump’s charges seem ridiculous. But Trump’s criticism hit an unexpected nerve with friends of free speech. Censorship in social media may not exclusively target conservatives, but it’s a very real thing.

A while ago I taught a citizenship class. If you read though the one hundred official U.S. citizenship questions, only one amendment — the First — gets any love. Not one question mentions any of the other amendments to the Constitution — and for good reason. It would be tough to explain school prayer, bowing to Evangelicals on abortion and adoption, stop and frisk, illegal wiretapping, blanket surveillance, cruel prison punishments including death by mystery cocktail, violations of habeus corpus, excessive bail, the lack of speedy trials, voter suppression, systemic racism, Constitution-free borders, limited “free speech zones,” and prosecutorial practices that effectively deny an accused person the right to a jury trial.

And what would be the point? Many of my students came from places where American “democracy” has propped up dictators and taught genocide and torture to their militaries. Or maybe these prospective Americans just looked around and noticed that, around here, civil liberties don’t really apply to immigrants or people of color.

Nevertheless, the citizenship questions give star billing to the First Amendment, which “guarantees” freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, and the right to petition the government. The First Amendment is clearly the beating heart of American democracy — for the writers of the citizenship test — and it’s almost an article of their faith that it grants us rights found nowhere else on earth.

But in truth the First Amendment is a completely toothless piece of text that does little to stop abuses arising from telling people what you think.

Read the fine print. The Constitution promises that the government won’t go after you for your views or interests — although it certainly has and does. Donald Trump, for example, tried to go after 1.3 million people who may have clicked on a website dedicated to disrupting his low-attendance inauguration. But besides attacking the First Amendment, the president’s sweeping demand for ISP data was also a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Reporters sans Frontieres ranks the United States 43rd in press freedom, a sign it’s pretty much on life support. And when Trump began targeting the Black Lives Matter movement, it was only the most recent example of a government that has always done expressly what the First Amendment forbids.

Now while the First Amendment theoretically keeps the government from silencing you, there’s absolutely nothing to stop an employer, a social or political organization, a business, or a school from censoring, expelling or punishing you. Adjunct professor Lisa Durden found this out when she was fired for defending Black Lives Matter on FOX News — not because the popular teacher had done anything wrong at her community college. White supremacist Richard Spencer lost his gym membership because of his views — not because of any specific behavior at the gym. Juli Briskman was canned by her employer for a third party photo showing her giving Donald Trump the middle finger as his motorcade sped past her while she was bicycling. The excuse given by Akima, a federal contractor — Briskman “violated” the company’s social media policy.

Americans regard China’s Great Firewall — which censors what Chinese citizens can view online — as a significant feature of authoritarian rule in that country. Yet the only difference between Chinese and American censorship is that here in the United States it’s been outsourced to corporations and employers — and, increasingly, internet service companies.

Twitter censored Politwoops, a group exposing backtracking and lying by politicians who delete or alter their ill-considered Twitter posts. Facebook censors content for both China and for the United States. When activist Mary Canty Merrill penned an open letter, “Dear White People,” she was censored by Facebook. Conservative Google employee James Damore wrote an internal memo criticizing his company’s diversity programs and was immediately terminated.

Some think the Internet is open and free. But remember — the Internet began its life as a defense industry (DARPA) project, and U.S., European, Chinese, Saudi, and other laws actually compel service providers to monitor and censor content while also delivering personal data (either lawfully or under secret programs like PRISM) to spy agencies. The U.S. government even forces ISPs to lie about it after the fact.

The internet, also as a consequence of the many lunatics who post on it, has become a gratuitously censored place. Social networks go out of their way to sanitize “offensive” or “upsetting” content. Google, Facebook, and Twitter — for all the hate speech they manage to monetize — feel obliged to protect us from beheadings, nursing mothers, the aftermath of terror attacks, radical manifestos, and “harmful” or “dangerous” hyperbole from both right and left. Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning are both sitting in jail now because they posted proof of U.S. war crimes, including a video of the 2007 murder of two Reuters reporters by the U.S. military.

A dangerous consequence of overt censorship is self-censorship. With enough positive or negative reinforcement people simply stop telling you what they really think. Or, if they persist, someone will censor them for simple lack of “civility.” In the aftermath of the 2016 election I observed this phenomenon as Bernie and Hillary people duked it out. One moderator of an Indivisible group decided to shut down debate by insisting on acceptable views, acceptable discussion, acceptable tone, and acceptable news sources.

In the preface to one edition of Animal Farm, George Orwell noted that popular opinion is often a greater threat to freedom of thought and expression than authoritarian government, and that anyone who chafes against prevailing orthodoxy often “finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness” by his own friends.

… the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves

Any fairminded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines – being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

And Orwell hadn’t even heard of Facebook.

Vindication!

Despite Donald Trump’s initial celebratory Tweets, he has not been vindicated by the Mueller report. If anything, the stench of corruption is now even greater — now that the cover has been taken off the reeking dumpster that is his administration. As CNN reported, the “vindication” victory lap didn’t last long before Trump started calling the Mueller Report “total bullshit.”

But there was a vindication to be celebrated. It turns out, the press, doggedly following leads and numerous felons who once worked for Trump, and despite some notable screw-ups, had been generally pursuing the truth all along. Despite constant whining from the White House that it was all “fake news,” and despite the spin that Trump’s personal lawyer James Barr tried to give it, the press was largely vindicated by the Mueller report.

After years of bald-face lies and embarrassingly transparent prevarication, few believe a word that comes out of Kellyanne Conway’s smirking mouth. But it was also quite the revelation that spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders — whose religious hypocrisy was on full display — actually lied to the press about James Comey’s firing.

It was disappointing that Robert Mueller’s findings did not establish presidential criminal conduct, but Mueller left plenty of bread crumbs for Congress should it wish to pursue impeachment. Yet even if the House impeaches, the Senate must convict with a supermajority — an almost impossible hurdle to overcome for ridding the nation of a corrupt, mentally unfit, white supremacist. Equally disappointing, centrist Democrats with short attention spans have apparently lost the nerve to pursue impeachment — time to move on, national healing, campaigns to run, money to raise.

But the House must begin impeachment proceedings. And here’s why.

For one thing, Mueller’s report did not uncover everything that will ever be known about Trump’s corrupt dealings and his obstruction of justice. There are at least a dozen ongoing investigations that will eventually yield more insight into Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice and commit (or have others commit) criminal acts. While Office of Legal Counsel rules gave a sitting president a prosecutorial pass like Jessie Smollett’s, declining to prosecute is not the same thing as finding no wrongdoing.

Second, the greatest casualty of Donald Trump’s administration has been the truth. Impeachment proceedings will make it difficult for Americans with even partially open eyes and ears to maintain that it’s all been “fake news.” Impeachment proceedings will keep the Mueller report from fading from public consciousness and will make it difficult for Trump to ride out his crimes and lies, even with the invention of new national “emergencies.”

Painful and stressful as impeachment proceedings may be, it will do the nation good to dwell in the truth for a year after steeping in Trump’s lies for two.

Patience

On March 24th Trump’s Attorney General — and we should take the phrase literally, since William Barr has even less integrity and closer ties to Trump than Jeff Sessions — issued a four-page summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. In it, Barr quotes Mueller: “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Barr also writes: “The Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, consired or coordinated with the Russian government [to influence the election].” Trump took a victory lap, claiming “complete and total exoneration.

Did not establish. Did not find. Despite the fact that a large number of close Trump associates — including Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos, Richard Pinedo, Roger Stone, and Alex van der Zwaan — were convicted (or in Stone’s case, indicted) for crimes related to collusion with over 30 Russians and 3 corporations that meddled in the 2016 election.

From the kid gloves applied to the president, one must conclude that ours is a broken legal system designed primarily to incarcerate and kill brown people with broken tail lights — but one that provides concierge service to rich white men — to the point that even treason can be overlooked.

I am always a bit suspicious of other people’s summaries, preferring to read an original myself. If you have ever read a Yelp review, you know what I’m talking about. If you have ever read an Amazon review, you recognize a fake when you see one — for example, as this Fakespot analysis of Trump’s “Art of the Deal” shows. Or, if you have actually read American history, you would be surprised to learn that the Cliff Notes version of American slavery says that “slaves sometimes had better physical living conditions than poor whites.” Or you might have seen James Agee’s gushing review of D.W. Griffith’s KKK film “Birth of a Nation.”

And we should be especially suspicious of any summary from an underling of Donald Trump, a pathological liar who will shortly celebrate his 10,000th lie.

But William Barr’s summary also notes that “the Special Counsel therefore did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other — as to whether the examined conduct constituted collusion.”

In fact, Barr adds: “For each of the relevant actions investigated, the report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the Special Counsel views as ‘difficult issues’ of law and fact concerning whether the President’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction. the Special Counsel states that ‘while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.'”

For this reason I am patiently waiting for the actual 380-page Mueller report — though I hope it doesn’t look like Michael Flynn’s sentencing document:

In the end, it will be up to the House of Representatives, with its slim centrist Democrat majority, to decide whether to rake the president over well-deserved coals and, if necessary, to compel Robert Mueller to discuss his findings and explain any redactions. I am not hopeful Pelosi will rise to the occasion.

But I will try to be patient.