Conflating dissent with disloyalty
by Jon Zobenica and Benjamin Schwarz
During the Cold War they were called comsymps, or were accused of being fellow travelers or fifth columnists or maybe just useful idiots—i.e., those who weren’t full-throated enough in their opposition to all things Soviet and whose opinions dared deviate to whatever degree from official American consensus. Senator Joseph McCarthy even referred to them as the “prancing minions of the Moscow party line,” and their deviations from consensus could—and in some cases did—get them accused of treason.
This habit of calling into question the patriotism and loyalty of those who buck consensus is back with full force, only instead of coming from the reactionary right (the likes of Senator McCarthy), such calls are coming from those in the prestige media, academe, and the current White House and State Department—much more liberal players who are merely availing themselves of McCarthyite tactics.
Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson has come in for particular abuse in this area. For questioning the wisdom of America’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict (given a lack of vital national interests to the United States), and for validating Russian concerns about proposed NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia (both former Soviet republics), Carlson has been called “America’s Most Watched Kremlin Propagandist” by Slate contributor William Saletan; has been accused of flirting with treason by Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor (emeritus) and former judicial advisor to President Barack Obama; and has been charged by those too numerous to count with parroting, echoing, repeating, mouthing, and so on “Putin’s talking points.” So plentiful is talk of Carlson being on Team Kremlin that one could be forgiven for thinking the slur has become something of a talking point itself.
Professor Tribe’s comments, made in a since deleted tweet posted on Monday, February 21, were especially regrettable, coming as they did from a person of his position and training. That tweet read:
Led by Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson, the GOP’s Trump wing appears to be throwing its weight behind Putin. If Putin opts to wage war on our ally, Ukraine, such “aid and comfort” to an “enemy” would appear to become “treason” as defined by Article III of the U.S. Constitution.
One is tempted to joke, à la Mary McCarthy, that every word of that tweet is untrue, including and and the. Russia, whatever our prevailing national opinion on it, is not a declared enemy with whom we are at war even now, post-invasion. Ukraine, whatever our prevailing national sentiments toward it, is not an official ally. Domestic deviation from prevailing national sentiments and opinions—however wrong or absurd many might find that deviation—does not come anywhere near the definition of “aid and comfort” as laid out in Article III of the Constitution.
David French—former U.S. Army major in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, Iraq War veteran, Bronze Star recipient, and outspoken critic of the Trump wing of the GOP—had this to say in direct response to Professor Tribe’s tweet: “This is completely false. Constitutional text, history, and precedent say this is false. It’s not even in the same ballpark as the truth.” In his tweet, French linked to a page at the National Constitution Center site, where two of the center’s scholars elucidate the treason clause, Article III:
While the Constitution’s Framers shared the centuries-old view that all citizens owed a duty of loyalty to their home nation, they included the Treason Clause not so much to underscore the seriousness of such a betrayal, but to guard against the historic use of treason prosecutions by repressive governments to silence otherwise legitimate political opposition. Debate surrounding the Clause at the Constitutional Convention thus focused on ways to narrowly define the offense, and to protect against false or flimsy prosecutions.
. . . In other words, the Constitution requires both concrete action and an intent to betray the nation before a citizen can be convicted of treason; expressing traitorous thoughts or intentions alone does not suffice.
Yet just this past Friday, February 25, former New York Senator, former Secretary of State, and former Democratic nominee for the Presidency, Hillary Clinton, was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe parroting Professor Tribe’s flimsy accusations. We need to call out “those people who are giving aid and comfort to Vladimir Putin,” Secretary Clinton thuggishly remonstrated. She criticized those who question the received foreign-policy wisdom, “who are unfortunately being broadcast by Russian media not only inside Russia but in Europe to demonstrate the division within our own country.” (Our diversity is our strength—except, apparently, when it’s not.) “We have to be much more united,” Secretary Clinton admonished us, because our national divisiveness “plays right into the ambitions” of those who would “divide and conquer the west without ever invading us but by setting us against each other.”
Those whom Secretary Clinton excoriated have very different views from hers about America’s role in the world and the motivations behind Russia’s conduct toward Ukraine. Certainly, she should strenuously challenge those views. Instead, however, she attempted to quash debate by pronouncing that her opponents’ views approximate treachery against the nation because, as she reckons, their dissent objectively—an adverb Stalinists were wont to deploy—supports the ambitions of a country she has defined as America’s enemy. This tactic used to be called red-baiting.
Secretary Clinton did bring up a good point, even if she did so unwittingly. Our national divisions have long been exploited by clever and ambitious propagandists from the Soviet Union and then from the Russian Federation. Civil Rights marchers protesting the status quo in the Jim Crow South made for great footage that highlighted American divisions and hypocrisies for Soviet Bloc audiences, all the more so when—with Gandhian sangfroid—the marchers put themselves in circumstances where they were sure to be attacked by the reactionary forces of the status quo. Would that make Martin Luther King a useful idiot or a fifth columnist? (Some on the reactionary right tried to paint him thus. And remember, this all happened during the height of the Cold War, when the great powers were competing globally for potential client states, not least among the newly independent and predominantly brown-skinned nations of the once-colonial Global South.) More recently, Russian propagandists have availed themselves of the words and actions of groups ranging from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, words and actions that have brought to light further divisions within America—economic divisions, racial divisions, etc. Are members of groups like these culpable for the uses to which their (domestic) social and political critiques are put by foreign propaganda mills? Are they to stifle such critiques for fear of finding themselves accused, like Tucker Carlson, of flirting with treason?
Treason, of course, involves waging war against your home nation or providing aid and comfort to an enemy of your home nation in time of war. So what about those who explicitly, vociferously protested our involvement in Vietnam? In that case, American military forces were directly engaged with those of a foreign government, that of North Vietnam. The United States alleged that North Vietnam was the aggressor, having violated the border between north and south (established in 1954) by providing men and materiel to the Vietcong, who were taking up arms against an independent South Vietnam. The United States therefore entered into a military alliance with South Vietnam to repel these attacks, in a fashion that included bombing targets in North Vietnam.
Were kids who took to the streets and campuses to protest the war giving aid and comfort to the enemy? What about their moms who supported them by joining Another Mother for Peace—and such people as the former Miss America Bess Myerson, the celebrated pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, and the actors Debbie Reynolds, Donna Reed, Dick van Dyke, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, and Lauren Bacall, all of whom actively supported those moms—were they giving aid and comfort to the enemy? Many Americans at the time thought so. Many who were alive then still do. But those protesters weren’t guilty of anything like treason, and in fact many Americans celebrated them, and still do, for the stand they took and the divisions they pried open. What, however, of Jane Fonda’s visit to a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery (a weapon used, of course, to shoot down American pilots, many of whom, at the time of Fonda’s visit, were being held as prisoners of war)? This was an act of commission. Unlike civil-rights and antiwar marchers, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protesters, or Tucker Carlson, all of whom might find (or have found) their words and actions put to Russian uses without their intention, Fonda traveled to enemy territory of her own volition and allowed her visit to the gun emplacement to be filmed. The footage shows her—in all her Hollywood fame—seated behind the gun sights and surrounded by applauding North Vietnamese soldiers. She looks as delighted as a birthday girl at Disneyland.
It’s not a good look, which Fonda herself came to realize. It may even have been somewhat comforting to the North Vietnamese, though nowhere near to the degree that it was distressing to Americans. Whatever the case, Jane Fonda was never charged with treason. Many despise her for what she did, just as many despise Tucker Carlson for what he does. But our culture and our society have found ways to coexist with them both, and even to let them thrive. It is by far the better option than dumbing down our concept of treason, the better to set upon each other’s throats. That’s the very divisiveness and national self-destruction that Secretary Clinton, with one breath, claims to fear and, with the other, exacerbates with her loose talk about giving “aid and comfort” to Vladimir Putin.
Some words must be said about these Putin talking points people are supposedly parroting; for Tucker Carlson isn’t alone in finding himself so charged. Several weeks ago, President Joe Biden’s White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, accused Republican Senator Josh Hawley, of Missouri, of “digesting Russian misinformation and . . . parroting the talking points of Russian propagandist leaders.” (This came as a result of Hawley’s suggesting that, for strategic reasons, the United States should consider withdrawing its commitment to expanding NATO into Ukraine.) At nearly the same time, State Department spokesperson Ned Price leveled the following remark at an Associated Press reporter (after being rankled by the reporter’s unyielding skepticism regarding a report Price had just made about alleged Russian misinformation): “If you doubt the credibility of the U.S. government . . . and want to find solace in information that the Russians are putting out, that is for you to do.”
The unavoidable takeaway from all this is that parroting isn’t the actual problem in the eyes of officialdom. In fact parroting is preferred, almost insisted on. But you must parrot Us, officialdom asserts. Anything less, and we’ll accuse you of parroting Them. Not only is this incompatible with the principles we presume to stand for at home and abroad (those relating to freedom of speech, an independent and even adversarial press, etc.), but it also betrays an ignorance of the long public debate around foreign policy as it relates to Russia. Working backwards chronologically, here are but a few highlights from that debate.
In 2016, then President Obama said, “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.” He added that “we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for.” One can agree or disagree with these assessments. But at the time they were offered, it probably didn’t occur to those who now find Russian disinformation hidden in every lampshade to claim that President Obama was naught but a Kremlin mouthpiece.
In 2015, John J. Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and one of the two or three most distinguished international relations scholars in the United States (and a West Point graduate), gave a lecture titled “The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine Crisis.”
In that lecture, he cited the 2008 Bucharest Summit (in which NATO pledged to one day incorporate Ukraine and Georgia) as a proximate cause of the 2008 war in Georgia and a contributing cause of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea and its military support of pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine.
The Bucharest Summit Declaration, from April 3, 2008, reads in part: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” Reflecting the Russian foreign-policy consensus, Vladimir Putin has consistently said that he would never allow that to happen, that such an action would be considered a direct threat to Russia. And Professor Mearsheimer doesn’t wonder why, reminding us that the United States has for two hundred years proclaimed the rights of a hegemon within its own hemisphere (via the Monroe Doctrine), that we have spent more than sixty years in a state of pique over the fact that a socialist (and, for a long time, Soviet-allied) Cuba sits just off our southern shore, and that we would never allow, say, Canada or Mexico to enter into a military alliance with Russia or China against us. Ukraine, as both Professor Mearsheimer and President Obama note, is a core interest of Russia’s. It is less obviously of vital national importance to the United States. It was not treasonous for Professor Mearsheimer and President Obama to say so, and it’s not treasonous for Tucker Carlson to do so either.
One is free to agree or disagree with the geopolitical and historical analysis offered by Mearsheimer—analysis largely echoed by such disparate figures as the British historian and sociologist Perry Anderson; the former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock; the historian and foreign-policy expert Ronald Steel; the editorial director and publisher of The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel; her late husband, the historian of Russia Stephen F. Cohen; the British Russia scholar and journalist Anatol Lieven; the former New Republic columnist Robert Wright; the MIT political scientists Barry R. Posen and Stephen Van Evera; the Texas A&M political scientist Christopher Layne; and the Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief David K. Shipler. But plainly such analysis long predates Tucker Carlson’s supposedly treasonous broadcasts on the Fox News Channel. In fact, such analysis long predates Vladimir Putin’s involvement in world affairs.
In 1959, no less towering a figure in twentieth-century American diplomacy than George F. Kennan joined a debate with former Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the pages of Foreign Affairs magazine, on the subject of potential U.S. military disengagement from western Europe. Kennan was one of the architects of America’s containment policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, but as he made clear in Foreign Affairs, such a policy—in his eyes—had been aimed at improving America’s negotiating position, from which containment (and its inherent tensions) might eventually be eased in favor of compromise solutions and a more lasting and stable peace, for both the United States and the Soviet Union, and for the nations of both eastern and western Europe. The policy as he imagined it was never meant to be permanent. “Perhaps the deepest issue at stake in this whole problem of disengagement,” Kennan wrote, “resolves around this point.”
Kennan’s article was written against the backdrop of, among other things, ongoing tensions over West Berlin and the crushed Hungarian uprising of 1956—events that in the eyes of Kennan’s opponents militated against his proposals for disengagement. Kennan made sure to note, however, that it was also written against the backdrop of ongoing U.S. military presence in West Germany, of West Germany’s then recent (1955) admission into NATO, and of the absence of any agreement regarding the diplomatic status of nations that might manage to extricate themselves from the Soviet Bloc. “The sharpness of the challenge which was presented to Soviet interests,” Kennan wrote,
was heightened by the fact that any Soviet withdrawal in the face of the respective pressures would have had the nature of a forced unilateral retreat unattended by any comparable concessions, or indeed by any concessions at all, on the Western side. Not only would a yielding to pressures of this sort have been immediately humiliating, but there was the further danger, against which Moscow had no visible protection, that territories thus released from participation in the Warsaw Pact might end up by joining the Atlantic Alliance [i.e., NATO], thus effecting a major alteration in the world balance of power. [Emphasis added.]
One didn’t have to be sympathetic to Soviet designs to see how unacceptable such a lopsided eventuality would be to the Kremlin. Yet, as Kennan noted, Soviet behavior in response to such proposed lopsidedness was characterized by many as mere Soviet aggression. Nor was it realistic, Kennan continued, to assume that the Soviets would view their own interests and security in precisely the terms the United States conceived of those matters for them. Ergo, the Soviets “will be unlikely to regard as a fit subject of negotiation a mere retraction of their power in favor of the extension to . . . Eastern Europe of the international military, political and economic arrangements now prevailing, under American aegis or encouragement, in the western half of the continent.”
Replace the word Soviet with the word Russian in the following, and you have a perfectly melancholy comment on the current crisis in Ukraine: “We may be paying, here, a bitter price for our tendency over the whole span of Western-Soviet relations to dismiss all Soviet ideological statements as ‘just propaganda,’ and to discuss with Soviet leaders everything but the main thing.”
Given his perspective and reasoning, it’s no wonder that four decades later Kennan characterized America’s push to expand NATO eastward—a policy, contrary to repeated U.S. pledges made to Russian officials at the end of the Cold War forswearing such a move, that Russia today sees as prompting the current crisis in Ukraine—as “the most fateful error of American policy in the post cold-war era. Such a decision may be expected . . . to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”
Once again, wise people can disagree—and have disagreed—with such analysis as Kennan’s. One could argue that it is misguided or even dangerous. It is certainly not truth beyond questioning. But neither is it disinformation or misinformation. It is intelligently conceived and articulated information, of the sort that is vital to informed debate and an informed citizenry. And an informed citizenry is never more important than in times of national and even global tension, when prudence and the consideration of complex realities must not give way to Manichaean passions and simple if stirring invocations of “values.”
As Kennan wrote in Foreign Affairs, “National interest, not sentiment or emotion, forms the normal basis for policy; and nations must not be expected to ignore the most vital of their own interests.” It is a view that has been expressed as well by everyone from President Obama to Charles de Gaulle, who famously remarked, in essence, that no nation has friends, only interests.
Cold and unsentimental that may be, but it is not a new idea, and again, it has been voiced by people all over the political spectrum, including—yes, more recently—Tucker Carlson. That such an idea is now being recast as treasonous indicates a great and alarming degradation of American discourse, and an even more alarming instinct to stifle debate when debate is most needed. That such degradation and such instinct to chill speech are emanating from high officialdom, the prestige press, and academe bodes ill for free and informed expression in the United States right now. Alas, our history is replete with instances—from the Alien and Sedition Acts through the wholesale destruction of civil liberties during the First World War, from the witch hunts of the early Cold War to President George W. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleisher’s warning that “people should watch what they say” when questioning the Global War on Terror—of a pathological tendency to suppress dissent and to demand conformity by conflating criticism of national policy with disloyalty or treason. That we presume to embody values that must be defended abroad but that we can’t tolerate at home reveals something fraudulent—willfully blind and potentially dangerous—in our amour propre.