The wages of censorship


Self-censorship is not uncommon in today’s world, but it is usually the result of threat by a government, writes William Milam

William Milam

by William MilamMay 17, 2019 in News & Analysis, Comment 0Share on FacebookShare on Twitter

Earlier this week I attended a lecture by the eminent American historian of early American culture, Joanne Freeman of Yale University, in which she talked from her recent book The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to Civil War. It was a fascinating lecture because her book reveals a little-known fact of American history—that in the run up to the Civil War, between 1840 and 1860, over 70 separate violent incidents occurred between members of the US Congress on the floor of the House or Senate. Freeman believes that this is serious undercounting, but all she could find in combing public and private sources; but it seems likely that a great many such incidents took place outside the halls of Congress and never got recorded. Only one of these was known to the public, the 1856 caning on the Senate floor in the presence of many witnesses of the fervent abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by South Carolina Democratic Representative Preston Brooks.

Because this attack was so fierce and so public it has been a factoid of American history that almost all school children learn (or did when American children were still taught history). It took Sumner three years to recover enough to resume his Senate seat. And it caused a sensation in the country and has rightly been viewed as a symbol of the extreme polarisation of the country over slavery. Perhaps the Sumner caning dramatized for the public that extreme polarization that motivated it and led to a feeling that war or separation was inevitable, a binary crisis in which there was no space for compromise.

But one wonders whether that feeling would have been exacerbated if all the other violent incidents that occurred in the previous 16 years, between 1840 and 1856 had been known to the public. Or would public knowledge of the many such violent incidents over the past decade and a half simply have made the Sumner caning just another in a long line of over-the-top actions—though perhaps a little more extreme, though no more so than the death of a Congressman in a duel – by its representatives and not necessarily a marker of an unresolvable political crisis and a forecast of an inevitable disaster. And, how did all those violent incidents which took place earlier escape public attention? Professor Freeman shows that the congressional recorder—the bible of Congressional action and behaviour – deliberately did not mention them in its daily coverage. This was an effort it would seem to cover up the violent behaviour of America’s elected representatives of the time. These unreported incidents were, in most cases, serious altercations which often drew blood. There was one death from a duel (still part of the Southerners’ honour code) some stabbings, a lot of bloody noses and black eyes. These guys were serious in their violent hatred of the other side. After 1850, most members carried weapons when the Congress was in session.

Professor Freeman’s lecture has led me to ruminate on censorship which is the overlooked element in this episode of our history. In this case it was self-censorship, not imposed by the government but done voluntarily by the congressional recorder of the day, and one must believe by the media itself (primarily newspapers in the middle of the 19th Century). Self-censorship is not uncommon in today’s world, but it is usually the result of threat by a government. In Bangladesh, for example, intimidation of the media has been a constant since the one-party government came to power. It worsened in the runup to the election and seems not to have relaxed much despite the election results which only increased the governments power. In Bangladesh, as in many other South Asian countries, the favorite tactic of intimidation is to file ersatz court cases in multiple jurisdictions against an editor or owner. With judicial branches under the control of the government, as in Bangladesh, this harassment and intimidation tactic is easy to arrange.

There is no geographical centre of censorship; it is practiced on every continent by countries of all persuasions—democracies, electoral democracies, autocratizing former democracies, and autocracies—but would naturally arise more often, more easily, and more pervasively as one moves from left (real democracies, in which there are usually institutions that can prevent censorship) to right (autocracies, in which censorship is arbitrary and decided without institutional restraint ) on that political spectrum. It is, therefore, a fact of life. And there are various reasons for censorship, ranging from war, in which nations find it necessary to protect themselves by preventing an enemy from obtaining military and other information that would aid it in the struggle, to attempts by leaders to protect themselves from damaging information so as to remain in power. Thus, some forms of censorship are justifiable in certain circumstances, and most cases are sui generis.

I find myself more interested in the foreseen and unforeseen consequences of censorship. In situations of war, it is very difficult to argue that some censorship is not necessary. How much, and how long is more subjective and when war censorship slops over into peacetime, it would seem corrosive to democracy and likely to nurture authoritarian tendencies in the leaders and the institutions. In the many cases in which a government (led by one person, unelected elites, or freely and fairly elected representatives) is censoring information that it deems inimical to its ability to rule, it is almost always a negative for democratic governance in democracies and a hindrance to democratization in countries which lie on the right side of the political spectrum described above. These are basically foreseen consequences of censorship.

The current struggle in the US between the House of Representatives and the Executive Branch of President Trump looks to me to be an attempt to open the Constitution to more active and perverse forms of censorship. The House led by the opposition Democratic Party is keen  to exercise the oversight authority which is an implied power given it by all the enumerated powers it has in Article 1 of the Constitution, but the President is challenging this by refusing to submit to subpoenas for witness testimony and material. This is an attempted form of censorship as the House represents all the People, and if the President were to win, the executive branch would have an open door to censorship of any information it did not want to divulge for whatever reason. Trump is essentially challenging 243 years of precedent regarding the implied power of the people’s representatives to oversee and constrain the executive branch’s action and behavior. (Our founder’s primary fear—that a President would turn into a King, after they had just rid themselves of George III—may turn out to have been a long-delayed vision.) I have not seen the struggle framed in this context, but it is essentially what is happening. Whether even the far-right Supreme Court justices Trump has appointed would support this radical expansion of executive power is unclear, but it can’t be ruled out.

There is one past episode of censorship in the US which had seriously negative unforeseen consequences on two levels. It is the episode is known best by the document that exposed it, The Pentagon Papers. This episode is so well-known that I won’t waste much space on its background. A top-secret study of the war from 1945 to 1967, done by the Department of Defense, essentially showed the horrible mistake our intervention was. Daniel Ellsberg gave the document to The New York Times for publication. After the Supreme Court ruled against the government and allowed publication, the public learned, essentially, that the government had been lying or withholding information about the war for many years. One tragic consequence of this censorship was that the War would have lost much public support years earlier, the country’s losses would have been much lower, and the nation would have suffered significantly less trauma. A second, ironic consequence is that President Nixon, in his attempt to prove Ellsberg a traitor, formed a group of “Plumbers” to get the goods on him. They failed in that, but the “Plumbers” went on to break into Democratic Headquarters in 1972, and it is this action which began the Watergate cover up which led to Nixon’s near-impeachment and downfall, another unexpected consequence of censorship.

The writer is a diplomat and Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

The article was published in the Friday Times on 17 May 2019