Strangling Dissent, Muzzling Whistleblowers

By Dennis Loo

Two news/story items came across my desk in the last couple of days that share something vital in common even though they look on the surface like opposites. The first concerns a Washington Post Op-Ed by Matt Miller, Senior Fellow with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and ex-Clinton OMB official. The second is news about universities like Penn State and Temple that are encouraging students to lodge complaints against their professors for being “one-sided” or bringing up material not “germane” to the course.

In the Post Op-Ed, Miller calls for the Obama administration to ban any “kiss and tell” books from White House insiders--making serving in the administration the equivalent of omertà, the mafia’s code of silence--for five years after leaving the administration. 

Two news/story items came across my desk in the last couple of days that share something vital in common even though they look on the surface like opposites. The first concerns a Washington Post Op-Ed by Matt Miller, Senior Fellow with the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and ex-Clinton OMB official. The second is news about universities like Penn State and Temple that are encouraging students to lodge complaints against their professors for being “one-sided” or bringing up material not “germane” to the course.
In the Post Op-Ed, Miller calls for the Obama administration to ban any “kiss and tell” books from White House insiders--making serving in the administration the equivalent of omertà, the mafia’s code of silence--for five years after leaving the administration.
The universities in question are inviting, indeed, proudly institutionalizing, student complaints against the universities’ principal employees and the lifeblood of the university, the faculty.
So on the one side we have an attempt to silence and on the other an attempt to get people to speak up.
These two items imperil what still remains of openness in American society. First, some details.
Writes Miller in his Post piece entitled “A Prenup for the West Wing:”
“Barack Obama should simply require key advisers and officials to sign a binding contract of confidentiality as a condition of employment. Aides should pledge not to disclose anything they see until, say, five years after their boss leaves office.”
He goes on to state:
“[T]his [is not] the same as post-White House advocacy urging an administration to change policy direction -- something that I and other White House alums have done, and which has in some cases made sitting officials unhappy. In addition, there are rare but legitimate acts of conscience by officials that led them to resign and speak out (something that did not occur in McLellan's [sic] case, which rendered his appeals to duty unpersuasive).
“No, when top presidential aides [he names George Stephanopoulos or Scott McClellan specifically] kiss and tell, it's uniquely troubling.”
I can appreciate Miller’s disdain for those who have cashed in and his sentiment that the high officials should have resigned and spoken out instead of waiting, for if they had spoken out at the time it much more likely would have made a difference. Scott McClellan’s revelations of the Bush White House manipulating intelligence to justify the illegal war on Iraq would have been much more useful if he’d spoken out when he was being instructed to lie by the White House. Over a million lives wasted that have resulted from our invasion could have been saved.
Better late than never. I am glad that McClellan finally spoke up. It is a good thing, not a bad thing, that his conscience bothered him.
It’s good, not bad, that McClellan revealed dirty secrets, secrets that were no secret to those of us who were saying it all along in the anti-war movement. But the fact that an insider revealed it carries a great deal of weight. It makes this country’s leaders’ deceit all the harder for their ardent defenders to refute and dismiss as the ravings of malcontents. I don’t care whether McClellan made a bundle of money for doing it. I don’t even care what his motives are as long as he’s telling the truth. I’d happily trade the money he made for the hundreds of billions spent on this immoral and unjust war.
As for Stephanopoulos, Miller’s right, the man’s clearly his own biggest fan. But just because he thinks the world revolves him is no reason to lower a wall of secrecy around the White House even thicker than what already exists. Miller’s advocating promised silence as a condition for serving in the White House extends the trend that Glenn Greenwald correctly decries as the increasing non-accountability surrounding the executive branch (and the government more generally).
As Barbara Bowley reveals at length in her chapter “The Campaign for Unfettered Power: Executive Supremacy, Secrecy and Surveillance” in my book, Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney:
In May 2006 USA Today revealed that since 2001 the NSA has been illegally and covertly collecting a massive database of calls placed by tens of millions of Americans. In May 2006, shortly after this startling revelation, Bush nominated Gen. Michael Hayden to be the new CIA Director. As NSA chief from 1999 to 2005, Hayden oversaw that agency’s massive, illegal surveillance. During his confirmation hearings, Hayden refused to publicly answer any probing questions about this surveillance, continuing to claim against all evidence that he and the NSA were abiding by the law.
As each new revelation of more massive and more intrusive illegal surveillance comes out, the administration concocts a new cover story, only to subsequently have another whistleblower reveal the falsity of the administration’s last rationale. Small wonder the administration is so intent on criminalizing media coverage of their illegal acts and thus strangling the public’s right to know.
            On May 16, 2006 ABC News reported that the administration was tracking phone numbers dialed by major news organizations in order to intimidate reporters and those in government who provide leaks to the press. Furthermore, this tracking can be done without court order, using a “national security letter,” issued by an agent in the field. This letter can require a phone company or Internet provider to turn over the information, and not reveal the act has been done. According to Brian Ross, ABC News’ Chief Investigative Correspondent, the Justice Department’s figures show the F.B.I. issued 9,254 of these national security letters in 2005, aimed at surveilling 3,500 US citizens and legal immigrants. This administration is clearly operating surveillance at a magnitude far greater than it has ever represented. (Pp. 168-169)
If Colin Powell had broken ranks - he claims now that his February 2003 perjured speech before the UN Security Council advocating a war on Iraq is “painful” to remember – this might have single-handedly stopped the Bush White House’s deceitful plans for war from being carried out.
Our government has been carrying out monstrous and patently illegal policies – invasions that, according to the UN Charter, constitute the gravest war crime of all (attacking a country that has not attacked you first, WMD or no WMD); torture; indefinite, “preventive detentions” without recourse to habeas corpus (preventive detentions were a practice that constituted one of the explicit reasons for the American Revolution) - along with unparalleled cynicism and unequalled skill in the manipulation of public opinion, extraordinary violations of fundamental civil liberties such as due process, being informed of the charges against you, being able to confront your accusers in court, protections against invasions of our privacy by government snooping into all of our phone calls, Internet activity, movements, associations, and financial transactions, agents provocateurs dispatched without apology into dissenting groups by government agencies in order to frame such groups, “preventive” arrests of people planning to exercise their freedom of speech and assembly before they get to exercise such rights and charging them as “domestic terrorists,” the classification of massive amounts of information that should be and in most cases was previously public information as government secrets, outing a covert CIA agent in order to punish her spouse for calling out the White House on their pre-war lies, the list goes on and on.
In times such as these we have more need than ever for people of conscience to step up and blow the whistle, hell, set off the factory whistle, blow the damn ship’s horn, bang the drums, yank the rope on the church steeple bells till your ears are buzzing and the whole town’s awake and in the streets.
The fact that a liberal like Miller is calling for muzzling might appear on the surface to be peculiar. But Miller shares some common ground with the people who are celebrating the institutionalization of students’ lodging official complaints against professors delving into areas that some students, expert as these students are about what belongs and doesn’t belong in the courses which they are taking precisely because they don’t already know all that there is to know about a subject, are loathe to tread.
The commentary on this that I want to highlight is by Carolyn Foster Segal and it’s published in the Irascible Professor. Segal writes:
“The online daily Chronicle of Higher Ed contained a news story earlier this year about several public universities, including Penn State and Temple, ‘that have adopted special procedures allowing students to complain. The process lets students file complaints if they think professors are one-sided in presenting course material or if they think professors have introduced subject matter that is not germane to the course.’ Moreover, the vice provost for academic affairs at Penn State ‘said he is proud of Penn State’s complaint policy, which is “far more than most universities have . . . We encourage students to submit complaints” (Robin Wilson, "Using New Policy, Students Complain About Classroom Bias on 2 Pa. Campuses," 23 July 2008.)
“Students need encouragement to complain?  With or without such a questionable 1984-like policy and a coach like David Horowitz, who ‘worked with the Penn State students in shaping their complaints,’ students need no invitation to complain.
“They complain about grades of F and D and B+ and A-. They argue about the unfairness of attendance policies, rules on plagiarism, and being called upon in class (‘the teacher picked on me’). They find fault with their mattresses; the food in the café; the color of the walls of their classrooms; guest speakers; and their instructor's creed, nationality, suspected sexual persuasion, and tone of voice, the last because most of them don't understand irony. They object to assignments: ‘novels are too long,’ ‘have confusing plots,’ or ‘use too many words.’ They file grievances about grading systems and course content.
“The campus atmosphere is already a culture of criticism….
“At my own college, an English/Education co-major wrote a letter to the then-chair of the English department explaining that she would neither read nor submit to testing on Beowulf because its Paganism was in opposition to her Christian faith; she also requested substitute readings.  My department didn't give in to her demands; several people did try to suggest that she might find it helpful and educational to consider a work outside what she already knew, but she wasn't buying it, and she ultimately left the school.”
The problem with the culture of criticism that Segal cites isn’t that there is too much criticism. The problem is that there isn’t enough criticism - of the right kind. Criticism originating from an overblown sense of entitlement and/or from a sense of certainty about what is true and right (the kind of smug, ignorant, uncurious certitude that Sarah Palin so exemplifies) based on faith or unquestioned authority and/or a sense of close mindedness that refuses to entertain ideas contrary to one’s own, is the source of criticism that there is far too much of.
Criticism, however, that is based on a passion to find out what’s true, on systematic doubt, on insisting on evidence and rigor of argument and logic, criticism that calls out injustice, deceit, and unfairness, that discomforts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, this is the kind of criticism that we need much, much, more of. For that is what education, and especially higher education, should be about: the pursuit not of credentials per se, and not turning university education into the academic equivalent of Staple’s big red EASY button, but knowledge and a heightened capacity to learn and to analyze.
That this kind of criticism and this sort of education is under fire from an unholy alliance between David Horowitz - who has made his career a la good ole Joe McCarthy going after people he doesn’t agree with and trying to get them fired rather than engaging in open and principled debate with competing ideas – and “liberal” (or even in some instances “radical” academics), indicates the perils of the landscape we see before us today.
On one occasion a few students told me that they think it is my job as their professor to be “fair and balanced.” I told them that it’s not my view of my job that I provide equal time to all sides, even though I try to provide the different sides as much as possible and where useful, not because it’s obligatory, but because vigorous contention between ideas is much more pedagogically effective than presenting ideas as if in a hothouse, cradling them with trembling hands lest those precious ideas wilt in the face of the elements. No, it’s not my job as their professor to protect them, to provide a long-past post-partum womb.
I think here of Billy Collins’ poem, The History Teacher, in which the teacher, in order to protect his students’ innocence, tells them nonsense such as that “The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more/than an outbreak of questions such as /’How far is it from here to Madrid?’/’What do you call the matador’s hat?’” and that the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki consisted of dropping but one tiny atom, and so on. The children, given this sanitized history, run off to the playground “to torment the weak and the smart.”
It is my job, as I see it, to do my best to help students learn, to teach them things that they don’t already know. This is quite different from allotting half of class time to the conventional perspectives that they hear all, or nearly all, of the time, and half the time to competing perspectives that they never or very rarely have heard. If I was teaching someone how to become a Thai cook, would I feel obligated to devote half of the time to teaching him or her how to make American comfort food?
Max Weber, one of sociology’s founding figures, called this process of bringing people to seeing things they didn’t know and probably don’t want to know “inconvenient truth” – exposing people to things that are true, yet inconvenient.
Sometimes people get riled up or feel uncomfortable when they confront an inconvenient truth. Encouraging people to think and to question is our job as educators and it should be the job of journalists and opinion-makers. The once proud profession of journalism has become increasingly a world of stenographers to power and, on radio and TV, a world of pundits and yelling contests. There was a time when the iconic newsman or woman as investigator, digging for the truth, was not merely a comic book hero. Watergate and Bob Woodward before he sold himself for access to the corridors of power seems a distant memory now.
Today, the Washington Post that dared to antagonize the Nixon White House and breached a barrier that the New York Times wouldn’t continues to attack Joseph Wilson as if he’s to blame for the Iraq War and syndicates the horrid ideas of Michael Kinsley who on November 8 claimed without a trace of irony that Lawrence Summers, Obama’s appointment for heading up the White House’s Economic Council, was right to assert in a memo that he signed that “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”
Says Kinsley, who used to play the “liberal” on CNN’s Crossfire: “If an industrial plant that causes pollution is going to be built somewhere, it ought to be built where life is worth less. This sounds brutal, but it isn't.”
Kinsley is not a liberal. He is a neoliberal. Look around you at the world that neoliberalism has wrought: tens and hundreds of billions being disbursed like candy from Santa’s sleigh to the leaders of the capitalist corporate world who have driven us collectively into the gulch, while the average person wonders how they’ll pay their medical bills, worries that they can’t find a job or are about to lose their job, millions of them losing their homes, and through relatives or friends, finding out firsthand how cheap their lives are as soldiers from the lofty “homo economicus” perspective of the Kinsleys and Summers of the world.
Encouraging students to complain about being brought face to face with truths that they didn’t know - and/or truths that they find discomforting or annoying or personally affronting of their lifestyle or belief systems - sabotages what education is all about. It creates, as Horowitz intends, an atmosphere in which faculty are afraid to offend students’ sensibilities, lest they lose their jobs.
What are you being educated in, if you’re not being educated? Who’s in charge if the full-grown adults don’t take charge?
Opposite Poles of the Same Stupidity
What these two stories have in common – Matthew Miller’s OpEd and the institutionalization of student complaints against professors who “stray” - is the preservation of privilege and insularity by attempting to muzzle those who have truths or at least alternative ways of considering things to reveal. On the one hand, Miller wants the prerogatives of high office to be protected against criticism by former officials and on the other hand, several universities want to preserve the insularity of their students who might – lord save us - be exposed to material that is “one sided” or not sufficiently “germane” to the course subject matter. Anything but that!
It’s alright if our country’s leaders and our nation’s newspapers, radio stations and television channels tell us and the world over and over and over again that Iraq had links to Al-Qaeda, for this wasn’t a one sided account – not at all – and it was certainly germane that Iraq be linked to Al-Qaeda. But of course!
But have a university or college professor say in class that Al-Qaeda and Iraq were enemies and that Al-Qaeda had issued a fatwa against Hussein--in other words, speak some truth--and well, that’s one sided and not germane and students should complain! God forbid that academics stray too far from their course subject matter into issues that might relate to our lives collectively. Far better that they talk in political science classes about how the separate branches of government are supposed to work rather than how they are actually working (e.g., that the executive branch has usurped power). Better that classes on statistics don’t cover topics such as the unaccounted for discrepancies between the exit polls and the official election tallies, resulting in the wrong people taking office in 2000 and 2004. Better that psychologists stick to talking about mental health in the abstract than broach the subject of PTSD among veterans from the Iraq war.
It’s okay for the media to repeatedly minimize torture by calling it  “abuse” and for those like John Brennan - who Obama was considering for the new CIA chief  - to be said to be “allegedly” involved in rendition and torture, but not okay for teachers to call it torture or point out that there is no alleged here any more than 1+1 allegedly = 2.
Facts are facts and truth is truth. There isn’t anything alleged about it. 


Main Reports on Protest & Resistance Strangling Dissent, Muzzling Whistleblowers


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