Truth in Politics Now

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East German border guards on the Berlin Wall, circa 1978: representatives of an iron-fisted Communist regime that nominally guaranteed a free press. 


This book review appears in the Winter 2015 issue of  The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom
By Joel Simon
248 pp. Columbia Journalism Review $27.95
Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature
By Robert Darnton
304 pp. Berrett-Koehler Publishers $27.95
935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America's Moral Integrity
By Charles Lewis
392 pp. PublicAffairs Books $28.99

No one has ever doubted,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.” In her essay “Truth and Politics” Arendt probed a series of questions that are every bit as relevant today as they were when she raised them in 1967. How much honesty should we expect from politicians? Can we trust that clear-cut facts will be believed in an age of mass media and ubiquitous public relations? How should we understand the differences between closed and open societies?

An easy answer is that democracies need truthful information for self-government to work. But Arendt’s essay made clear that there’s more to it. Truth isn’t found as easily as we suppose. Though by no means a relativist, Arendt pointed out that the detached “truth telling” that we seek from philosophers and scientists, scholars and judges, isn’t something we should expect or want from politicians. On the contrary, she notes, politics inherently entails a form of lying—or, to phrase it less provocatively than she does, politics requires denying or negating existing realities in order to envision and articulate alternative ones. Thus the simple incantations such as “speak truth to power” or “information wants to be free” that we often invoke in discussing free speech issues don’t really get us very far.

A trio of new books grapple with the relationship of truth and politics in different ways. How are we to understand the contests going on today over the control of information, the freedom to report and argue, and the truthfulness of political rhetoric? Demanding that we seek out the truth is a start—but it is nothing more than a start.

Journalists at Mortal Risk

Among those Arendt classified as “truth tellers” are reporters. Since ancient times, the figure who made it his mission to dispel falsehoods faced mortal danger, she noted, quoting Plato to the effect that if the wider community “could lay hands on [such a] man … they would kill him.” The need to protect the lives of journalists, who face danger when seeking to report on repressive governments or bloodthirsty militants, has never been more pressing. Last fall we saw ISIS’s brutal beheadings of Western war correspondents; as I write, we are learning of the death of photojournalist Luke Somers, who had been kidnapped by al-Qaeda jihadists in Yemen, and The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, who languishes in an Iranian cell.

Looking out for such truth-seekers is the mission of the Committee to Protect Journalists, whose executive director, Joel Simon, has just written The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, a thoughtful, if dry, tour d’horizon of the threats to free expression in the so-called digital age. Simon’s book is at some level a publicity brief for his association, and a trace of self-promotion clings to his project. But The New Censorship isn’t a memoir, and it’s much more than organizational shilling. It’s a case for why the goal of upholding “press freedom” needs to expand, in the digital age, to defending “freedom of information.”

Some of Simon’s arguments are straightforward. He details the strategies of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, which have taken to killing journalists to enhance their mystique of ruthlessness and deter journalistic exposure. He also looks at China’s nakedly totalitarian regime, which remorselessly regulates what its billion-plus citizens can see online. And he calls our attention, too, to lesser-known danger spots, such as the Philippines, where the weakness of the criminal justice system allows the murder of journalists to go unpunished.

But Simon realizes that infringements on journalistic freedom aren’t always a straightforward business. He is most penetrating on the regimes that he calls “democratators”—quasi-dictators who gain and retain power through semi-free popular elections while clamping down on individual freedoms. Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela have all enjoyed widespread support in their countries. But in each case, the façade of democracy has concealed ruthless domination, including the control of news. Putin notoriously cracked down on two hostile television networks, prosecuting their owners on ginned-up charges, while also rounding up and harassing small-time bloggers and independent writers. Erdogan has set records for jailing reporters and last year shut down Twitter when mass protests destabilized his rule. In Venezuela, Chavez turned the airwaves into his personal megaphone and gutted critical television outlets like Venevision.

Simon does not spare the United States. He chides the Obama administration for seeking to prosecute Julian Assange of WikiLeaks under the Espionage Act because Assange published hundreds of thousands of classified State Department cables. But Simon has seen too much of the world to lapse into moral equivalency, and his take on the Assange affair is appropriately nuanced. He criticizes Assange for blowing the cover of human rights activists working in repressive societies, including an Ethiopian journalist who was driven into exile. Simon also notes the deep ambivalence among journalists toward Assange, who, despite calling himself a journalist, is more properly understood as the head of “an anti-secrecy advocacy group that uses journalistic strategies.” But even though groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists hesitated to support Assange, Simon ultimately insists that in this new era, even morally dubious activists deserve protection from prosecution when they breach classified information. After all, the very arguments used against Assange, he argues, would also undermine the ability of “real” journalists to carry out their work. For these and other reasons, Simon argues that “journalists have to recognize that their rights are best protected not by the special realm of ‘press freedom,’” but by embracing the fight for a more capacious freedom of expression the world over.

The Censor’s Subtle Hand

Simon’s insight that censorship is often achieved through methods subtler than brute force is given historical and theoretical grounding by Robert Darnton’s Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature. Darnton is one of America’s most influential historians of European thought and culture, probably best known for his 1984 book The Great Cat Massacre, which helped launch a “cultural turn” among historians who drew upon anthropological methods to understand other societies. Most of his books have themselves been about books, as he has teased out the ways that writing, reading, and publishing have shaped cultures and subcultures, mainly in Enlightenment France. His new study compares three far-flung societies—pre-revolutionary France, British colonial India, and communist East Germany—and looks at the rules, norms, and practices that governed what was published and suppressed.

Though probably too recondite for most non-expert readers, Censors at Work ought to be of interest to anyone who studies today’s battles for the control of information. Darnton opens his book by gesturing at the difficult questions citizens and policymakers face in setting the rules that govern the flow of information in cyberspace—efforts to balance, for example, freedom of expression against security from cyberattacks; or access to information with refuge from pornography. But history offers no clear lessons for the present, and Darnton comments on contemporary problems in information regulation only indirectly. That is precisely what makes his book interesting.

Darnton provides a different picture of censorship from the one most of us have. We typically imagine a top-down process of commissars who green-light or red-light individual publications. But when seen up close, Darnton argues, it’s a lot more intricate. In all societies, censorship amounts to a cultural practice in which different players—writers, editors, lawyers, bureaucrats, political officials—interact to shape the decisions about what the public gets to read. In Bourbon France, he finds that censorship frequently approached a kind of literary collaboration. Far from humorless philistines, censors were men of letters, concerned with maintaining a high caliber of published literature, and their reports on books resembled reviews, addressing not just their subjects’ fidelity to church or state doctrine but also the merits of their arguments and the charms of their prose style. Authors, moreover, strove to address censors’ concerns, engaging in an almost stylized dance in order to get their books to pass muster. The vetting of books, in short, turned on questions far more complex than just whether ideas traduced official orthodoxy.

A different set of rituals and relationships shaped Britain’s regime in colonial India. Fancying themselves civilizing forces, the British encouraged native literature in a spirit of paternalistic tutelage. But after the so-called Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, when Indian soldiers revolted against their British officers, the colonial rulers came to fear nationalist stirrings and used the courts to clamp down on seditious writings. Again Darnton finds not outright redaction but an elaborate set of laws and practices employed to justify the repression of books.

Most revelatory is Darnton’s mapping of the labyrinthine world of East German censorship, which he examined at the time the Berlin Wall fell. Officially, the Communist regime guaranteed a free press, though everyone knew this was a lie. But even under the iron-fisted East German government, censorship was hardly straightforward, with writers sometimes challenging censors’ decisions and haggling over passages, and at other times acquiescing in their own repression by internalizing the state’s demands.

Darnton’s purpose with these closely analyzed case studies is to show how censorship works in practice and is bound up in the particularities of culture and politics. Censors at Work may suggest thinking about censorship as merely the ritual that any regime’s cultural authorities use to maintain their power, yet Darnton stops short of endorsing such radical claims. “Although I would agree that power is exerted in many ways,” he writes toward the end, “I think it crucial to distinguish between the kind of power that is monopolized by the state … and power that exists everywhere in society.” Under the Raj, military force stood ready to enforce court rulings if necessary; in East Germany, the Stasi loomed everywhere in the background, maintaining constant surveillance of journalists. Like Joel Simon, then, Darnton ultimately appreciates that the use of state power to silence or chill belongs in a special category of threats to freedom.

Truth or Lies
and Nothing In Between?

Where Simon has given us a work of advocacy, and Darnton a work of history, Charles Lewis has written a polemic. As a longtime reporter and TV producer and the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, Lewis has made valuable contributions. In 935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity, he laments that the federal government routinely lies to take us into war; that private corporations lie to sell us even toxic products; and that journalists have been largely feckless or complicit in the face of these deceptions.

Looping back and forth across the last 50 years, mingling personal accounts of his own segments for 60 Minutes and ABC with capsule summaries of familiar moments in journalism history, Lewis wants to show how journalism, which in the era of Vietnam and Watergate produced a second age of muckraking, has degenerated. Some of the many examples Lewis cites do represent failures of journalism. But in many other cases, he fails to observe, include, or elaborate upon the details that might render his account less clear-cut—but also more interesting. For example, Lewis rehearses several famous cases of TV networks shamefully capitulating to the tobacco companies’ pressure to kill or mute critical stories. But he never addresses the irony that journalistic crusading against the cigarette firms continued apace, and that the dramatic reduction in smoking in the last half-century owes a lot to the high quality of American investigative journalism (including by the major news networks that could fund it thanks to their lucrative commercials). Even Vietnam is a more complicated story than he suggests: Early on, journalists bought into official deceptions, but by the late 1960s the war had helped spawn an invigorated adversarial journalism.

The story that Lewis tells both about his own life and the nation’s history follows familiar lines. He describes John F. Kennedy’s assassination as the fall from innocence—for himself and for the nation—and then Vietnam and Watergate, and it was all downhill from there. Classic episodes in journalism history receive the usual treatment. Moments like Edward R. Murrow’s tough pieces about Senator Joe McCarthy or The Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers are recounted with the customary heroic gloss; Lewis doesn’t so much as mention the well-known revisionist arguments that hold that Murrow was a laggard in targeting McCarthy, waiting until the erratic senator was past the peak of his popularity.

In the epigraphs to some of his chapters, Lewis quotes Arendt’s 1967 essay “Truth and Politics.” But Lewis seems not to have grasped Arendt’s key point that politics is not the natural home of the truth-teller. In democratic politics, it’s necessary to live with competing claims to truth, since different interpretations of reality are often what give rise to political disagreement in the first place. To hold oneself out as a truth-teller can lead us to equate our opponents’ arguments with lies. Politicians do lie, making statements they know to be false, and sometimes brazenly deny clearly established scientific facts—in recent years, most infamously on the subject of climate change. None of us would accept the sort of relativism that treats any set of claims as being as valid as any other. But often what we’re tempted to call lies turn out on closer inspection to be something more like rhetoric or spin—the opposition’s best persuasive case for its position. Thus throughout his book, Lewis categorizes as “lies” statements that do not really fit the category; they’re just advocacy for positions Lewis doesn’t like.

Let’s take a difficult case. Lewis says—and many liberals would agree—that the Bush administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2002 were “official lies.” In advocating an invasion of Iraq, Bush and his aides did mislead the public, using the slippery term “weapons of mass destruction” to include chemical weapons (which they knew Iraq had) and nuclear weapons (which they only suspected it had). It turns out Iraq did literally have WMDs in the loose sense that Bush used. As The New York Times reported this past year, between 2004 and 2011, American troops discovered thousands of chemical weapons around Iraq—not recently manufactured, but left from the wars of the 1980s—in many cases causing medical harm to the soldiers who found them. Does this make Lewis a liar for saying that numerous reports had “definitively shown that no such weapons existed”? Of course not. Like Bush, Lewis was laboring under a mistaken belief, and in trying to make his case as persuasively as possible, he used language that was shorn of nuance. This isn’t to equate Bush’s misleading rhetoric about the Iraqi threat, which led to a disastrous war, with Lewis’s imprecision in using the term “lie.” It serves, rather, to underscore that most of the journalistic lapses or official deceptions chronicled in 935 Lies, however deplorable, cannot be dismissed simply as outright, knowing falsehoods.

Joel Simon’s and Robert Darnton’s books are intellectually stimulating because the authors approach their subjects with humility. In trying to understand how rulers and regimes control information, they are sensitive to complexities and (without extending a moral pardon) strive to understand the opposing view, even if it belongs to an East German commissar or a Venezuelan caudillo.

In the emerging world of globalized information, in which societies will have once-unimagined access to the news, opinions, ideas, and viewpoints of other societies a half a world away, the monolithic “truth” that Lewis believes to be under assault will be even harder to uphold. The reason isn’t that American journalists are falling down on the job, or that strongmen (the Putins, Chavezes and Erdogans notwithstanding) are better at keeping their publics in the dark. Just the opposite. The reason is that on more subjects than we sometimes care to admit, “truth” is shaped by cultural assumptions, ancient traditions, political predilections, national interests, and personal views, and the more we are brought into contact with one another, the more we’re going to have to argue it out. 

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