Friday, August 25, 2017

A free-speech rally, minus the free speech

Jeff Jacoby

IF ONE LINE captured the essence of Saturday's Boston Common rally and counter-protest, it was a quote halfway through Mark Arsenault's Page 1 story in the Boston Globe:

"'Excuse me,' one man in the counter-protest innocently asked a Globe reporter. 'Where are the white supremacists?'"

That was the day in a nutshell. Participants in the "Boston Free Speech Rally" had been demonized as a troupe of neo-Nazis prepared to reprise the horror that had erupted in Charlottesville. They turned out to be a couple dozen courteous people linked by little more than a commitment to — surprise! — free speech.

The small group on the Parkman Bandstand threatened no one. One of the rally's organizers, a 23-year-old libertarian named John Medlar, had insisted vigorously that its purpose was not to endorse white supremacy. "The rally I'm helping to organize is about promoting Free Speech as a COUNTER to political violence," he had posted on Facebook. "There are NO WHITE SUPREMACISTS speaking at this rally."

Indeed, nothing about the tiny rally, whose organizers had a permit, seemed in any way connected with bigotry or hatred. One of the speakers was Shiva Ayyadurai, an immigrant from India who is seeking the Republican nomination in next year's US Senate race. As Ayyadurai spoke, his supporters held signs proclaiming "Black Lives Do Matter."

But he and the others who gathered at the Parkman Bandstand had never stood a chance of competing with the rumor that neo-Nazis were coming to Boston. That toxic claim was irresponsibly fueled by Mayor Marty Walsh, who denounced the planned rally — "Boston does not want you here" — even though organizers were at pains to stress that they had no connection to Charlottesville's racial agenda and intended to focus on the importance of free speech.

What happened on Saturday was both impressive and distressing.

A massive counter-protest, 40,000 strong, showed up to denounce a nonexistent cohort of racists. Boston deployed hundreds of police officers, who did an admirable job of maintaining order. Some of the counter-protesters screamed, cursed, or acted like thugs — at one point the Boston Police Department warned protesters "to refrain from throwing urine, bottles, and other harmful projectiles" — but most behaved appropriately. Though a few dozen punks were arrested, nobody was seriously hurt.

But free speech took a beating.

The speakers on the Common bandstand were kept from being heard. They were blocked off with a 225-foot buffer zone, and segregated beyond earshot. Police barred anyone from approaching to hear what the rally speakers had to say. Reporters were excluded, too.

Result: The free-speech rally took place in a virtual cone of silence. Its participants "spoke essentially to themselves for about 50 minutes," the Globe reported. "If any of them said anything provocative, the massive crowd did not hear it."

Even some of the rally's own would-be attendees were kept from the bandstand. But when Police Commissioner Bill Evans was asked at a press conference Saturday afternoon whether it was right to treat them that way, he was unapologetic.

"You know what," he said, "if they didn't get in, that's a good thing, because their message isn't what we want to hear."

No, Commissioner Evans. It was not a "good thing" that people with a right to speak were effectively silenced by the operations of the police. The ralliers did nothing wrong. They followed the city's rules. They did what police asked of them. They absorbed the slanders flung at them by the mayor and others. They didn't try to shut their critics down, and they weren't the ones hurling "urine, bottles, and other harmful projectiles."

All they were guilty of was attempting to defend the importance of free speech. For that, they were unjustly smeared as Nazis and their own freedom of speech was mauled.

Boston was kept safe on Saturday, for which city authorities deserve great credit. But in the course of preventing a riot, those authorities rode roughshod over the free-speech rights of a small, disfavored minority. That is never a good thing, whatever the police commissioner may think.



The hysteria over Russia is hurting democracy

When it comes to Russia, Trump is often more rational than his critics

President Donald Trump signed a Senate bill last week designed to enforce sanctions on Iran, North Korea and, most significantly, Russia. Unusually, the bill also specifically limits any executive measures the president could take to get around the sanctions, requiring him to go first to Congress. The sanctions’ impact on Russia may be fairly limited, but what’s important is what they symbolise; namely, Congress’s determination to stop Trump from softening relations between Russia and the US. Which is why American and Russian pundits claimed that, as a result of the bill, any possible Russia-US d├ętente had just been thrown into the deepest part of the ocean.

However, the sanctions bill is not just about Russia, or indeed Iran and North Korea. The real story here is the crisis within the US. It is going through a process not entirely dissimilar to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when the entire political elite was in meltdown, and had lost contact with its own citizens. Yuri Andropov is purported to have said to the 1983 Soviet Communist Party plenum that the Soviet ruling elite no longer knew its own society. The same can be said of America’s ruling elite today. It bears repeating that a collapsing American establishment has even chosen the extraordinary path of arguing that its own democratic system has been taken over by a foreign power in preference to engaging with its estrangement from vast swathes of the public.

The level of hysteria in the US over Russia is incredible and it has ominous consequences for free speech. For instance, the long-established think tank, the German Marshal Fund of the United States, has just set up a project to ‘track Russian influence’ in the US. As an article in the Nation noted, it looks as if any outlet critical of anything in America can be classified as Russian propaganda, including not just the Moscow-backed Russia Today or Sputnik, but The Atlantic and Fox News. Remember, this is not the work of Trump and his supposed ‘fascist’ administration, but the so-called Resistance. As the old saying goes, with friends like these, American democracy has no need of enemies.

The Russian political establishment, given its statements and actions, is well aware of the internal American crisis. Hence Russian retaliation to the new sanctions has been low key, affecting mainly locally hired Russians, rather than Americans. The Kremlin has also said that despite the sanctions, it is still open to dialogue with the White House.

This latest White House-Kremlin drama obscures other changes in US relations with Russia and the rest of the world. Look at the EU’s criticism of the sanctions, for instance. This is because the bill gives the president the ability to impose sanctions on any company (including European) that contributes to the development or operation of energy export pipelines not just in Russia, but in Europe, too, or involves itself in oil ventures with Russian companies – a power that certainly affects the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

The EU has said that the US is acting in accordance with its own economic interests, and promised retaliation against the US if necessary. We’re a long way from a trade war, but the EU’s stance towards the US is more aggressive than it has been for decades.

Meanwhile, in other spheres, Russia and the US are actually cooperating – in Syria, for example. Until recently, Syria had been a site of major potential conflict between Russia and the US. Contrary to some commentary, this was not because American and Russian airforces were in the same airspace. That there was never an incident between the two suggests very effective military-to-military communication since Russia entered the war at Assad’s invitation in 2015.

Rather, the point of potential conflict was the extent to which the US, under the Obama administration, was pushing for regime change in Syria. Russia has explicitly said that it would not permit another Iraq to unfold in Syria. As a result, it did appear that the US, in conjunction with the UAE and others, was preparing for war with Russia in Syria.

It seems, however, that the current US administration really is going to follow through on Trump’s original promise to disengage from Syria. Despite the Trump administration’s decision to bomb a Syrian airfield in April, after last month’s Trump-Putin meeting, it was announced that several ‘de-escalation zones’ had been agreed.

It is notable that unlike the US-Russia announcements of various ceasefires and deals that took place in 2016, this deal was worked out behind closed doors rather than conducted in public. These agreements seem to be working and ISIS is now being rolled back in both Syria and Iraq. Trump has also announced the end of the CIA programme of funding of Syrian anti-Assad Islamists.

While some pundits ludicrously called this a sop to Moscow (as if arming radical Islamist jihadists was not in any way problematic), this particular CIA programme was actually losing support under Obama. As one observer pointed out, Trump’s decision was partially motivated by a video of fighters from one of the West-backed anti-Assad groups, the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, beheading a little boy. This should be mandatory viewing for pro-interventionists.

On the flipside, NATO-Russian relations are at their worst since the end of the Cold War. We are seeing a remilitarisation of the Baltics and Poland and supposedly neutral countries such as Sweden. Several American newspapers have reported that the Pentagon has just made public a proposal to arm Ukraine with anti-tank missiles, a plan drawn up under, but rejected by, the Obama administration, although the Pentagon has been training Ukrainian soldiers since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. There is no information yet as to whether the White House will consider the plan.

However, within NATO there are backstage dramas, too. Turkey for example may still be a NATO member in principle, but whether it is in fact is another question. Disagreements over funding ISIS (Turkey, along with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has been a key funder and supporter of ISIS in Syria), and claims that the US was behind the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016, and a recent Turkish purchase of billions of dollars’ worth of military hardware from Russia, suggest that all is not well in the NATO family.

Last year, the German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said NATO was playing a provocative and destabilising role in relations with Russia. Several EU countries, including Germany, although not the UK, are understandably hostile to the idea of arming Ukraine on the grounds that it will inevitably lead to more conflict.

The sanctions bill, then, is about more than the US-Russia relationship. It is about what is going on within the US itself. The confusion and collapse of the American political elite is accelerating geopolitical trends that have been developing since the 1990s. The sanctions bill certainly will not help relations between Russia and the US, but for all the claims that it will destroy the relationship for good, the relationship is probably more complex than it has been since the Second World War. Cooperation and conflict now exist in so many different areas and it is changing all the time.



Democrat leaders fail to denounce violence in Phoenix

Commentary on the speech itself here

Americans for Limited Government President Rick Manning today called on leaders in the Democrat Party to denounce the violence on the streets of Phoenix, Ariz. after President Donald Trump’s speech there last night:

“Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren should all denounce the attempt by the violent political wing of the Democrat Party known as Antifa, Black Lives Matter and Resist to shut down a speech by the President to his supporters. The effect of these Democrat Party surrogate groups is to attempt to stifle and intimidate Americans from being able to attend an event featuring the duly elected President of the United States. Democrat Party leaders face a crossroads of whether to embrace violence as a legitimate means of political protest or to denounce it.

“There is no place for the kind of hate displayed on the streets of Phoenix last night in a civilized nation and anything less than a complete shunning by leaders of the violent Antifa, Black Lives Matter and Resist movement’s actions in Phoenix is acceptable, disqualifying them from serving in office. Anyone who fails to condemn political violence in all of its forms is not fit to serve.”



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