Free speech, fake news and flawed heroes

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No mention of the more-than-240lb orangutan in the room but no one listening could fail to think of Trump

For journalists covering the Trump White House the pressure to ‘get it right’ all the time is beyond exaggeration. Not unlike the life-and-death pressure on NASA’s scientists and technicians to ‘get it right’. Or on airline pilots and ground maintenance crews to make their work 100% accurate.

Unlike my last two examples, a mistake by a journalist would not normally cause any immediate loss of life. Rather, any error, no matter how small, buttresses the false narrative the fabricator-in-chief is spewing that undermines our democracy and its foundational principle that an objective, responsible US press, protected by the First Amendment, is vital to the health of the republic.

Journalism, we like to think, is the first draft of history. Yet too many citizens, oblivious or ignorant of our nation’s past follies, blind themselves to their own responsibility to think clearly and seek truth.

In a recent interview, the author and Harvard professor Graham Allison suggested that the USA might be more aptly named the ‘United States of Amnesia’ because we collectively forget what has transpired just a few years past, much less decades ago.

It is a line of reasoning to which I subscribe, with one important elaboration: I believe most Americans are ignorant of details of our heritage because their education failed to instruct them properly in an attempt to burnish patriotism and gloss over any shortcomings in our national story.

Rightfully, present day progressives pooh-pooh attempts by the Trump Administration to expel undocumented aliens and to restrict entry by Muslims from seven predominantly Muslim countries. But how well known was the forced removal of up to two million Mexicans during the presidencies of Herbert Hoover (above) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (top) on the pretext it would ease benefits rolls? Many were American citizens; so much for constitutional protection!

As for restricting access to the USA, we have a sordid history of denying entry to Chinese, Eastern Europeans and southern Italians, the latter ethnic the subject of a compelling Op-Ed in The New York Times recently. Eugenics was an accepted theory in America, discredited only after Nazi Germany employed it to the extreme.

I recall learning about the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in the first decade of our republic during the presidency of John Adams. But how many learned about the Sedition Act signed by Woodrow Wilson as recently as 1918? I know my teachers never discussed it, never taught that during World War I you could land in prison for up to 20 years if you criticised the war effort or interfered with the sale of government bonds.

Imagine how full our penitentiaries would have been if the law had been in effect during the Vietnam War!

President Wilson, furthermore, was hailed for his WOr towards world peace, for conceptualizing the League of Nations. Wilson, we learned, was a visionary; only isolationists rejected US entry into the League.

But only recently I learned that Virginia-born Wilson was a racist who had countless Afro-Americans cast out of federal jobs. He originally opposed extending voting rights to women. He was not an unblemished progressive.

For as much as I am revolted by the actions taken by Trump, I cannot claim to be surprised. He is doing what he campaigned upon. My anger, my disappointment, my anxiety are with the American public and with Republican politicians who are enabling a backward march, an American retreat from the values and global leadership that made our country the envy of the world for the last 100 years.

In backing out of the Paris climate agreement, Trump lumped the United States with Nicaragua and Syria . . . Syria!! A blot on our standing in the world, but what does it matter to Trump?

While in Saudi Arabia he linked our values with those of the leaders in Riyadh, never mentioning its repression of non-Sunni Islam religions, its anti-Semitism, its adherence to sharia law, the second class status of its women, its lack of freedom of assembly and the press, its rule by an oligarchic monarchy. Shared values? Ha!

Wall Street reacted favourably to Trump’s decision. Not surprising, given the Street’s myopic, short term allegiance versus support for long term strategies. Traders care only for immediate gratification, not for the quality of life 50 or 100 years hence.

These are perilous times for truthsayers, for the so-called ‘fake news’ outlets. As Trump demonises the media, attacks like the one in Montana by a GOP congressional candidate on a Guardian reporter who sought the candidate’s views on the proposed health care bill will become more common.

Trump is dehumanising reporters. And anyone who has studied the Holocaust or any genocide knows that before the knives come out the intended victims must first be made to appear sub-human.

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