Taibbi: The Democrats' Disastrous Miscalculation On Civil Liberties
Authored by Matt Taibbi via Racket News (emphasis ours),
Civil liberties have officially gone out of style, a phenomenon on full display at the Weaponization of Government Hearing at which I just testified.
The circus-like scene featured a ranking member calling two journalists a “direct threat,” a Stanford-educated former prosecutor who confused accusation with proof, and a Texas congressman, Colin Allred, who proudly held up the results of an adjudicated criminal case to argue against due process in another arena. When I asked Allred’s permission to point out that he’d just demonstrated that a proper forum for dealing with campaign abuses already existed in the court system, he basically told me to shut up.
“No,” he said, “you don’t get to ask questions here.”
I then had to keep my mouth shut as an elected official shifted to Dad mode to admonish me to “take off the tinfoil hat,” because “there’s not a “vast conspiracy,” by which he meant he apparently meant my last three months of research.
Allred then went on MSNBC, where my former friend Chris Hayes with a straight face suggested he didn’t see a “government angle” in either the Twitter Files or our testimony — both of which were more or less entirely about that issue — and Allred beamed in agreement, saying the discovery of Truthout and Ultra Maga Dog Mom on federal blacklists was just the FBI “pointing out that certain actions are probably Russian disinformation ops.” He also offered the ironic criticism that some people are “stuck in an information loop, in which you’re not allowing outside information in”:
At the hearing, Pee-Wee’s words of the day were clearly cherry-picked, money, and Elon Musk. Nearly every question asked of Michael Shellenberger and me involved our associations or motives. Florida’s Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said “being a Republican witness certainly casts a cloud over your objectivity” (only a Democratic witness can be trusted), while Dan Goldman tweeted that only someone who signed his version of a loyalty oath — a question about whether or not we “agreed” with Robert Mueller’s two indictments of Russian defendants — can “belong” in the public conversation:
It is a complicated issue. But if you (and the GOP) won’t accept that 1) Russia interfered in the 2016 election through social media and 2) preventing that is a legitimate goal of the FBI, then you don’t belong in the nuanced convo on the balance between NATSEC and lawful speech. https://t.co/BfIZInqDgb— Daniel Goldman (@danielsgoldman) March 11, 2023
These are behaviors we associated with Republicans in the War on Terror years, when Democrats howled over accusations that John Kerry “looks French.” That the roles have been reversed is old news, but the big question remains: why did this happen?
In the coming days you’re going to see a new release of Twitter Files material, about the creation of a multi-agency working group to address what experts described as vaccine “disinformation and misinformation.”
This cross-platform group looked for people who were just “asking questions,” which they viewed as a rhetorical trick for introducing misinformation. They took aim at people who “framed” ideas like vaccine passports as compulsory or authoritarian, as opposed to emphasizing their utility and necessity, which they interpreted to mean a tendency to more generally negative opinions about vaccines. Moreover, as disclosed last week, they saw a threat in people who wrote about “true stories of vaccine side effects” or “true posts which could fuel hesitancy.”
Most disturbing was a letter to a long list of academics, tech executives, and communications specialists from a staffer for the non-profit Institute for Defense Analysis. It referred to a new type of online influencer, “some of whom enjoy reach commensurate with mass media channels”:
In an age of declining trust in media, government, and institutions, influencers occupy a position of trust and enjoy a perception of authenticity. In addition to the rise of influencers, now-prevalent online crowds have been transformed into a significant force in shaping narratives; they are persistent and can be leveraged to achieve amplification of particular messages in the battle for attention.
“Online crowds have been transformed into a significant force in shaping narratives” is just another way of saying, “independent groups now have politically effective ways to organize,” which the authors clearly saw as a problem in itself.
The digital age has produced an almost involuntary general disrespect for personal boundaries. Probably all of us are guilty of it on some level. We peek, poke, and prod in ways that would have made us ashamed in the pre-Internet years.
We see a more ominous form of it throughout the Twitter Files, where content moderators are forever taking short cuts to judgment by blithely entering the minds of users, to make snap calls about intent. If people transmit true or possibly true stories that conflict with approved narratives, from human rights abuses in the Donbass to first-person accounts of “breakthrough” vaccine cases, these acts are algorithmically detected as intended to deceive and thrown in thoughtcrime baskets: undermining Ukraine, promoting hesitancy, etc.
The campaign against “disinformation” in this way has become the proxy for a war against civil liberties that probably began in 2016, when the reality of Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination first began to spread through the intellectual class. There was a crucial moment in May of that year, when Andrew Sullivan published “Democracies End When They Are Too Democratic.”
This piece was a cri de coeur from the educated set. I read it on the way to covering Trump’s clinching victory in the Indiana primary, and though I totally disagreed with its premise, I recognized right away that Andrew’s argument was brilliant and would have legs. Sullivan described Plato’s paradoxical observation that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy,” explaining that as freedoms spread and deference to authority withered, the state would become ungovernable:
Family hierarchies are inverted… Animals are regarded as equal to humans; the rich mingle freely with the poor in the streets and try to blend in. The foreigner is equal to the citizen…
And it is when a democracy has ripened as fully as this, Plato argues, that a would-be tyrant will often seize his moment.
It was already patently obvious to anyone covering politics in America that respect for politicians and institutions was indeed vanishing at warp speed. I thought it was a consequence of official lies like WMD, failed policies like the Iraq War or the financial crisis response, and the increasingly insufferable fakery of presidential politics. People like author Martin Gurri pointed at a free Internet, which allowed the public to see these warts in more hideous technicolor than before.
Sullivan saw many of the same things, but his idea about a possible solution was to rouse to action the country’s elites, who he said “still matter” and “provide the critical ingredient to save democracy from itself.” Look, Andrew’s English, a crime for which I think people may in some cases be excused (even if I found myself reaching for something sharp when he described Bernie Sanders as a “demagogue of the left”). Also, his essay was subtle and had multiple layers, one of which was an exhortation to those same elites to wake up and listen to the anger in the population.
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