It’s Not The Size Of Government That Matters, But How You Use It

May 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

Every so often I feel compelled to write something that has nothing to do with Israel or Turkey, the wider Middle East, or foreign policy in general, and today is one of those days. Instead of my usual fare, let me take a brief moment and use the current controversies engulfing the Obama administration to rant about how the silly debate over the size of government is entirely misplaced. Conservatives look at the IRS targeting Tea Party groups applying for non-profit status and quite naturally take away the lesson that big government is the problem and that the size of the public sector needs to be reduced. Similarly, big government is viewed as the culprit now that news has emerged that the Department of Justice secretly seized phone records from the Associated Press and email and phone records from Fox News reporter James Rosen in the pursuit of leak investigations. The argument is that were the government not so big, such abuses, mistakes, scandals, or whatever one wants to term them would not take place because the government would not have the resources to go after its enemies or people whom it feels like targeting.

This is a nice theory, but not only is it entirely inapt in these particular cases, it threatens to divert attention from a far more serious problem that is literally a threat to our system of democracy (and no, I am not being hyperbolic). To begin with, reducing the size of government would have had no impact on these cases. In the IRS case, the evidence in the New York Times reporting suggests that the problem was a severely understaffed regional office populated by under-qualified employees who were not prepared for the flood of 501(c)(4) applications that came their way, and they thus came up with the highly problematic solution of coming up with a shortcut to isolate applications from groups that they suspected were not truly socially welfare oriented. There is no evidence to date that this was a result of political pressure from above, and in fact the IRS is made up career bureaucrats who work there for years, so it would be odd to suggest that somehow the IRS is populated with partisan liberal Democrats going on witch hunts. Rather than big government being the problem here, the truth is the opposite; were the IRS sufficiently funded and staffed, applications could actually be considered properly rather than be subjected to shortcuts designed to manage an unmanageable workload in a timely fashion. (Full disclaimer here: I work for an organization whose tax-exempt status is right now under consideration by the IRS, and I am furious that it will likely be delayed even further now due to the political uproar taking place.)

Let’s move on to the AP scandal, which is actually a much bigger deal. In this case, the DOJ went on a fishing expedition to determine who leaked information to the AP after the national security threat had passed. In other words, the White House was mad that the information was going to come out at all, and so it engaged in massive overreach in trying to find out who the leaker was in targeting phone records that were likely to be outside the narrow scope that the law permits. Furthermore, the government did not even ask the AP to comply with a request for the records before subpoenaing them, which to me says that it knew that its actions were way over the line of what is reasonable. Now, in this case as well, the problem is not a government that is too big. DOJ does not require massive amounts of funding or personnel to improperly subpoena phone records. The AP case does, however, illuminate the true problem, which is not how big the government is, but what power we allow it to acquire. The AP case is not the only one in the news involving government investigations of leaks. Fox News reporters James Rosen, who reported classified information that he was leaked about North Korea, had his work and personal phone records seized, his work and personal emails searched, his visits to the State Department tracked, and even his parents’ phone records were seized. Perhaps this is not overzealous behavior given that Rosen’s reporting may have put rare intelligence assets in North Korea at risk and so finding the leaker was of paramount importance. I am open to this argument despite having my doubts as to the necessity of casting such a wide net. But even granting that is the case, the government went one step further, and actually named Rosen in a court affidavit as a “an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator.” Placing a reporter who benefits from a leak in one of these categories is literally unprecedented in American history, and if you don’t think this is a big deal that leads to a very slippery slope, then all I can say is that you are simply not paying close enough attention.

For those keeping score at home, the Obama administration has now been the first to claim the right of the government to kill an American citizen without sufficient due process of law by any reasonable definition of the term, and also the first to identify a reporter doing his First Amendment-protected job as a criminal co-conspirator. Neither of these two things have anything at all to do with the size of the government, and everything to do with the powers that we accord the government – or, more accurately in this case, the powers that the government claims unopposed. I frequently take to Twitter, as I did last week, to make a variation of the following point, which is that I do not understand how more people are not up in arms about this, and particularly Democrats. Every single datapoint from political theory and history demonstrates that once the government gains the power to do something, it never gives it back. Are we supposed to trust the White House on these issues because Obama campaigned on maintaining civil liberties despite the national security challenges the country faces, or because he gave a nice speech in 2009 at the National Archives claiming that we did not have to make any trade-offs between security and freedom? While talking the talk, the government has claimed powers under his watch that not even Bush and Cheney asserted that they had. I shudder to think of what the next administration will do given the precedents set by this one, and if you don’t think that the White House knows what a problem this is, recall that a year ago they were frantically trying to set down written legal guidelines (which so far do not exist) for the drone war since they realized how out of control things might become with a potential Romney administration.

The idea that we should trust Obama on these issues because he is a Democrat is ridiculous, and in fact it should make people even more outraged and even more willing to scream and yell and pressure the administration. I keep on waiting and waiting for someone other than Rand Paul to start raising these issues, and it is high time that Democrats do so, because before you know it, the government is going to start claiming powers in the interest of national security that are even more expansive and wider in scope. That may be fine for some people while Obama is in the White House, although I don’t quite understand why, but remember that government powers once claimed live on forever no matter how big or small that government is, and pretty soon someone else is going to be sitting in the Oval Office. Please watch Obama’s speech tomorrow that is supposed to serve as a bookend to his 2009 speech and listen carefully to what he has to say, because anything short of a repudiation of what has gone on under his gaze should be considered unacceptable.

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More On Ambassador Ricciardone and Fazıl Say

April 18, 2013 § 1 Comment

Yesterday I wrote a post taking the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, to task for his comments on Fazıl Say as reported by Hürriyet Daily News. According to HDN, when asked by reporters to comment on Say – who was sentenced to a 10 month suspended prison sentence for comments deemed to be insulting to religious beliefs – Ricciardone quoted his brother as saying, “A very bad piano player hit the wrong key.” I interpreted this comment to mean that Ricciardone believes that Say was out of line and that the Turkish court system acted appropriately in prosecuting and convicting him, and I was accordingly unsparing in my criticism of the ambassador. Since the piece quoting Ricciardone was published in HDN, which is an English language newspaper, the Turkish language version of the same paper – Hürriyet – has run a one paragraph article in which the quote attributed to the ambassador is slightly different. Hürriyet relates the line as, “Çok fena, piyanist yanlış tuşa bastı,” which translated means, “Too bad, the pianist pressed the wrong key.” To me, there is no substantial difference between this iteration and the original iteration, as I interpret this second version in the same way; the clearest and most obvious reading is that Ricciardone is making a joke about the Say case and implying that Say got himself into trouble for saying the wrong thing.

As I noted yesterday, Ricciardone has gotten into hot water with the Turkish government for being critical of crackdowns on journalists, the army, and general violations of freedom of speech. Indeed, I wrote in the last paragraph of my post, “kudos to him for his previous efforts to highlight abuses of democracy by the Erdoğan government.” That element is what makes this situation such an odd one, as given the entirety of his track record, I am surprised that our ambassador would say something so seemingly callous about the Say case and give cover to the Turkish government to defend Say’s verdict. Nevertheless, the quote as reported appeared to stand for itself, which is why I did not hesitate to be harsh with my criticism.

After I posted yesterday’s blog, it was suggested to me both publicly over Twitter and privately that Ricciardone’s comments could be interpreted in another way, which is that he was criticizing the decision rather than Say. In this reading, his reference to the bad piano player or the pianist means the court, and it is the court that hit the bad note. I think this is a stretch based on the actual comment, but I certainly cannot rule it out, particularly given Ricciardone’s recent history of trying to draw attention to Turkey’s more egregious behavior when it comes to violating freedom of expression. I consequently reached out to the ambassador in an effort to see if he was accurately quoted and whether he would like to clarify his comments, since as readers of this blog hopefully have seen, I am not a flamethrower and I do not harbor an ideological agenda but try to be the best and most accurate analyst I can be. I am not a journalist so I am reliant on what is reported by other but if I got this wrong, I wanted to be able to clarify, correct, and apologize for any mistakes I may have made. Following my reaching out, an embassy spokesperson got back to me today and said, ” The ambassador’s remarks were taken out of context.”

Now, is it possible that Ambassador Ricciardone was criticizing the court’s decision and expressing sympathy for Say, and that he did it in a clumsy manner that got misinterpreted? It certainly cannot be ruled out, and as I said, it would make sense based on the sum total of what we know that he would come down on Say’s side rather than the court’s side. On the other hand, interpreting the line that way requires some mental gymnastics, and the claimed missing context to the comments has not been provided, and most importantly the quote itself has not yet been disputed. So those are all the facts as I know them, and I will leave it up to my readers to decide what Ambassador Ricciardone intended when he commented on the Say case. I will say for myself that if Ambassador Ricciardone intended to express his support for Say and to criticize his conviction, then I unreservedly and without hesitation retract my strident and harsh comments from yesterday and personally apologize for maligning the ambassador, although I am not entirely sure that I am convinced of this interpretation of events quite yet. If there’s more on this to come, I will keep you all posted.

A Wonderful Combination of Stupidity and Hypocrisy

March 28, 2012 § 8 Comments

Anyone who knows me at all knows how strongly I feel about my alma mater. I loved every second I was there; it was the place where I found myself intellectually, grappled with complex issues surrounding religion and faith, and most importantly met my wife. My best friends to this day remain the ones I made in college, and I try to stay involved with the university by donating what little money I can afford, getting involved in different alumni committees and groups, and going back to visit any chance I get. I have degrees from three different universities and will soon add another from a fourth, and I don’t feel a genuine heartfelt affinity for any of them save the first. Unfortunately, it turns out that the place I love so much also happens to house an idiotic, hypocritical, shameful group of fools. That’s right Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine, I’m looking straight at you.

Is it because I object to a Palestinian state? Nope. Is it because I want Israel to continue to occupy the West Bank? Certainly not. Is it because I think that Jewish life is more valuable than Palestinian life? Wrong again. It is because I have zero patience at all for a group that thinks the best way to combat anti-democratic behavior, suppression of free speech, and silencing of dissent is to exhibit anti-democratic behavior, suppress free speech, and silence dissent. Please, someone explain to me the logic behind this brilliant tactical disruption of a panel of Knesset members, including Israel’s first Arab cabinet minister, to show that Israel’s alleged intolerance of dissent is best countered by committing the exact same offense yourself. Please explain to me why a protest against discriminatory policies should be carried out by announcing a vigilante-enforced parallel discriminatory policy against any Israeli official with the nerve to want to attend or speak at a Brandeis-sponsored event. I wonder if these paragons of liberal virtue have the basic skills of logic and reasoning to understand that their actions to disrupt the free exchange of ideas are the very antithesis of liberalism. I wonder if they comprehend that the effort to obnoxiously silence others and attempt to exclude an entire class of people from an imagined political or social community not because of anything they themselves have said or done but by virtue of who they are is the real display of fascism here.

The response to objectionable speech is not censorship, but more speech. If you are confident that you are right, then let your argument win the day. If, however, you are a cowardly bunch of simpletons who think that shouting down your opponents and preventing them from expressing their ideas in a public forum is somehow a vindication of any values you profess to uphold, then keep on doing what you’re doing. Time to grow up, Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine, and to think about the meaning of this quote from the man who lent his good name to your group: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

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