Bigotry and the Symbols of Freedom

Source: Ian Buruma, Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, Project Syndicate, June 29

The most sickening irony for a European of my age and disposition lies in the way narrow-minded and dispiriting nationalism is so often expressed. Bigotry against immigrants is cloaked in the very symbols of freedom that we grew up admiring, including film clips of Spitfires and references to Churchill’s finest hour.

The wilder Brexiteers – shaven heads, national flag tattoos – resemble the English football hooligans infesting European stadiums with their particular brand of violence. But the genteel ladies and gentlemen in the shires of Little England, cheering the lies of Farage and Johnson with the kind of ecstasy once reserved for British rock stars abroad, are no less disquieting.

Many Brexiteers will say that there is no contradiction. The wartime symbols were not misplaced at all. To them, the argument for leaving the EU is no less about freedom than World War II was. “Brussels,” after all, is a dictatorship, they say, and the British – or, rather, the English – are standing up for democracy. Millions of Europeans, we are told, agree with them.

It is indeed true that many Europeans take this view. But most are followers of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and other populist rabble-rousers, who promote plebiscites to undermine elected governments and abuse popular fears and resentments to clear their own paths to power.

The EU is not a democracy; nor does it pretend to be one. But European decisions are still made by sovereign – and, more important, elected – national governments after endless deliberation. This process is often opaque and leaves much to be desired. But the liberties of Europeans will not be better served by blowing up the institutions that were carefully constructed in the ruins of the last calamitous European war.

Journalistic Ethics and the Reporting of the U.S. Election Campaign

Source: Paul Krugman, in The New York Times, July 18

Edited version.

When Donald Trump began his run for the White House, many people treated it as a joke. Nothing he has done or said since makes him look better. On the contrary, his policy ignorance has become even more striking, his positions more extreme, the flaws in his character more obvious, and he has repeatedly demonstrated a level of contempt for the truth that is unprecedented in American politics.

Yet while most polls suggest that he’s running behind in the general election, the margin isn’t overwhelming, and there’s still a real chance that he might win. How is that possible? Part of the answer, I’d argue, is that voters don’t fully appreciate his awfulness. And the reason is that too much of the news media still can’t break with bothsidesism – the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that distorted news coverage is the whole story, that nobody would support Trumpism if the media were doing their job. The presumptive Republican nominee wouldn’t have gotten this far if he weren’t tapping into some deep resentments. Furthermore, America is a deeply divided country, at least in its political life, and the great majority of Republicans will support their party’s nominee no matter what. Still, the fact is that voters who don’t have the time or inclination to do their own research, who get their news analysis from TV or regular news pages, are fed a daily diet of false equivalence….

And Mr. Trump is far from being the only current political figure who benefits from the determination to find balance where none exists. Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, has a reputation as a policy wonk, committed to fiscal responsibility, that is utterly incomprehensible if you look at the slapdash, fundamentally dishonest policy documents he actually puts out. But the cult of balance requires that someone on the Republican side be portrayed as a serious, honest fiscal expert, so Mr. Ryan gets slotted into that role no matter how much a con man he may be in reality.

Still, there are con men, and then there are con men. You might think that Donald Trump, who lies so much that fact-checkers have a hard time keeping up, who keeps repeating falsehoods even after they’ve been proved wrong, and who combines all of this with a general level of thuggishness aimed in part at the press, would be too much even for the balance cultists to excuse.

But you would be wrong.

To be fair, some reporters and news organizations try to point out Trump statements that are false, frightening, or both. All too often, however, they still try to maintain their treasured balance by devoting equal time – and, as far as readers and viewers can tell, equal or greater passion – to denouncing far less important misstatements from Hillary Clinton. In fact, surveys show that Mrs. Clinton has, overall, received much more negative coverage than her opponent.

And in the last few days we’ve seen a spectacular demonstration of bothsidesism in action: an op-ed article from the incoming and outgoing heads of the White House Correspondents’ Association, with the headline “Trump, Clinton both threaten free press.” How so? Well, Mr. Trump has selectively banned news organizations he considers hostile; he has also, although the op-ed didn’t mention it, attacked both those organizations and individual reporters, and refused to condemn supporters who, for example, have harassed reporters with anti-Semitic insults.

Meanwhile, while Mrs. Clinton hasn’t done any of these things, and has a staff that readily responds to fact-checking questions, she doesn’t like to hold press conferences. Equivalence!

Stung by criticism, the authors of the op-ed issued a statement denying that they had engaged in “false equivalency” – I guess saying that the candidates are acting “similarly” doesn’t mean saying that they are acting similarly. And they once again refused to indicate which candidate was behaving worse.

As I said, bothsidesism isn’t new, and it has always been an evasion of responsibility. But taking the position that “both sides do it” now, in the face of this campaign and this candidate, is an act of mind-boggling irresponsibility.