The Comey Firing Reminds Us of a Bigger Danger, by Fareed Zakaria

Zakaria’s analysis of Trump’s presidency is excellent.

Fareed Zakaria

By Fareed Zakaria
Thursday, May 11, 2017

I have tried to evaluate Donald Trump’s presidency fairly. I’ve praised him when he has appointed competent people to high office and expressed support for his policies when they seemed serious and sensible (even though this has drawn criticism from some quarters). But there has always been another aspect to this presidency lurking beneath the surface, sometimes erupting into full view as it did this week. President Trump, in much of his rhetoric and many of his actions, poses a danger to American democracy.

The United States has the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, one that has survived the test of time and given birth to perhaps the most successful society in human history. What sets the nation apart is not how democratic it is, but rather the opposite. U.S. democracy has a series of checks intended to prevent the accumulation and abuse of…

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Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Honesty in Public Discourse

A piece from two years ago on a timely subject…

Ordinary Philosophy

You’re likely aware of the backstory to this piece: well-known news anchorman Brian Williams was caught telling stories. A generous interpretation would portray them as exaggerations; a harsher one a series of self-aggrandizing lies. Williams placed himself in the thick of the action while covering certain news stories, like the shooting down of a military helicopter and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he was actually at a safe distance. Since his stories were recently debunked, in whole or in part, by others there at the time, he has been widely criticized, shamed, and mocked, and the public debate over the nature and reliability of modern news rages ever more fiercely.

He’s not the only public figure in hot water right now for playing fast and loose with the truth. Bill O’Reilly is also being called out for his history of adding, ahem, some ‘color’ (my term, not his) to…

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On the Josh Duggar Controversy, Part 2

My recent piece on the Josh Duggar controversy was an especially controversial one for many of my readers, as I expected it would be, and here’s a response in answer to the many objections and questions I received in response to it.

To begin with, what do I mean by ‘child’ anyway? Fifteen-year-olds aren’t children, are they? I mean, it’s not like they’re little kids any more! C’mon, they know what they’re doing!

Well, yes and no, They know what they’re doing much more than younger children; but, like younger children, they’re encountering new and often staggering challenges which their not yet fully developed brains are still learning how to handle, especially when it comes to integrating their newfound sexual needs and urges into socially responsible behavior.

When it comes to nailing down an exact age or age range for the category child, I would leave it to relevant experts to decide this as it relates to policy. I consider a child a person who has not yet reached a stage of development in experience and physical maturity (including and especially of the brain) generally capable of practicing reason, forward-thinking, and self-control to the level that mature persons are generally capable of. I expect this age to be somewhere in the range of 17 – 19, though of course this differs from person to person. This might be better determined by a mental health professional when deciding if an offender should be directed to medical treatment or juvenile court or to the adult justice system.

Disgust is also playing a big role in public reactions to this case. Many are uncomfortable with the fact that children often act on their new sexual urges at all, let alone in ways that don’t respect the rights of others, since they lack the relevant social experience and their immature brains lack the structures that adults rely on for self-control. I was recently listening to a talk by the great Martha Nussbaum on how disgust often leads us to act unjustly towards one another; I think that this is happening here in Josh’s case. We all need to remember that sex is just as much a natural part of life as any other, and that to help them get through their life changes, we must react constructively and help children learn how to deal with it all. There are plenty of childhood misbehaviors that infringe on others’ rights: bullying, stealing, selfish refusal to help or share, and so on and so on. It makes no more sense to react hysterically to one than the other.

To single out sexuality in children as an instinct or set of behaviors to be disgusted at or feared more than others is to my mind not only unreasonable but superstitious, since it’s anti-scientific and anti-naturalistic, even inhumane. And to lump all sexual misbehavior in children together as ‘molestation’ and ‘assault’ is not only inappropriate, it’s absolutely wrong. Not only does it cause the public to treat the person slapped with these labels unjustly, it minimizes the injury of those who suffered real assaults or suffered substantial harm. In this case, people are referring to Josh’s unwanted groping or petting in the same terms that people are referring to the rape of children by clergy, for example: they are all being lumped together as ‘child molesters’. There is no moral justification for equating the forcible rape of a younger person by an older person with unwanted groping of one child by another, yet so many people are getting away with doing this very thing in the public debate right now by referring to them all in the same terms.

And it doesn’t make sense to react to the suffering of one child, the target of the undesirable behavior, by treating the misbehaving child unjustly. Whether or not we like it, the process of growing into our mature sexual nature is uncomfortable, complicated, and riddled with mistakes. Sometimes we need to give sexually misbehaving children a talking-to, sometimes we need to punish them, and sometimes we need to separate violent or dangerous children from others until they’ve learned their lesson. But we need to stop trying to sanitize childhood and adolescence, both on the right side of the ideological spectrum and on the left. Conservatives need to stop screeching about the horrors of teens having sex, the dire consequences of sex-ed, and how making contraceptives and the HPV vaccine available to youngsters will cause them all to be sex-addled reprobates. Liberals need to stop self-righteously acting as if children are simultaneously passive receptacles of adult virtues and perfect little angels whose misbehaviors are products of a corrupt society rather than immaturity, that children who cause discomfort or suffering in others must be ruthlessly tried, convicted, and sentenced in public opinion, and most of all, they need to stop promoting a culture of perpetual victimhood. Like I said before, we all need to grow up!

Even in the cases of extreme misbehavior, the future of the offending child should not be ruined by exposing them to a lifetime of media scrutiny, or placing them on a publicly accessible criminal registry for life, or otherwise lynching their reputation. The situation is never helped by heaping injustice upon suffering. And imagine what a society would look like, what a huge and oppressed underclass we would create, if we were to actually punish all children who were caught misbehaving in ways that caused other children suffering, or infringed on others’ rights, by publicizing their misdeeds for life. Today, I’m finding it quite funny (not ‘ha-ha’ funny) how many of the same people who’ve jumped on the ‘Josh Duggar is a child molester’ bandwagon are upset, as they absolutely should be, by Kalief Browder’s unjust punishment for allegedly stealing a backpack as a child of 16. Yet they’re treating Josh as a pariah since he ‘should have known better’ and Kalief as a tragedy because ‘he was just a kid’. Of course, Kalief’s treatment was far more unfair, and had far more dire consequences, than Josh’s. But many lives are ruined forever because of how society sometimes unjustly punishes people for life for offenses they commit as children, by the courts and in the media, and many people are driven to despair and even suicide because of it. And as Human Rights Watch and many other criminal justice reform organizations have found, people treated as Josh is being treated now are often driven to the same desperate lengths as Kalief.

Another thing: it doesn’t matter a tiny bit what Josh Duggar believes as an adult, what his religious or political opinions are, and especially, what his parents’ beliefs are, when it comes to how he misbehaved as a child and how we treat him because of it. I don’t like Josh’s religion, I don’t like the indoctrination brand of homeschooling his family promotes (which I experienced myself, to the detriment of my early education), and I don’t agree with the Duggar clan’s message overall. None of that matters. Neither I nor anyone else has license to do the wrong thing just because we don’t agree with someone’s opinions, even if we think they are being hypocritical. In Josh’s case, if he now promotes Christian moral values and believes we should deal with sexual misbehavior harshly, it has nothing to do with whether he failed to live up to those principles before he was old enough to maturely formulate them. An adult can oppose bullying (rightly!) even if they themselves bullied others as a child, or promote stricter laws against theft even if they stole things as a child. The one has nothing to do with the other when it comes to one’s beliefs; every single one of us have convictions that our childhood behavior doesn’t reflect. We should criticize Josh’s beliefs on their own merits, and not on anything else.

In fact, we all learn right from wrong precisely because we’ve made mistakes: we do the wrong thing constantly as we grow up, and learn not to do it again because of the consequences. Sometimes it’s because we’re corrected or punished by an authority figure, sometimes it’s because we hurt others and feel ashamed, or because our peers strike back or shun us, and so on. It’s not until we’ve had ample opportunity to learn these lessons, and for our brains to develop enough to process and implement them, that we should begin to be held fully responsible for our actions.

One more thing: I would ask my fellow liberals and progressives who are jumping on the ‘Josh Duggar is a child molester’ bandwagon to consider this: would you accept this brand of character assassination based on childhood misdeeds from people on the other side of the ideological divide?

Let’s imagine ourselves in a counterfactual (make-believe or what-might-have-been) world in which Peter Singer, influential philosopher and founder of the modern animal rights movement, was suddenly embroiled in controversy. Suppose an angry neighbor convinced the local police to publish a report revealing that Singer has thrown rocks at the neighbors’ cats when he was fourteen or fifteen, sometimes injuring them a little or causing them fear and distress; sometimes, the rocks missed and the cats didn’t even notice what happened since they were asleep at the time. Then suppose conservatives who oppose animal rights’ legislation started splashing this story all over the press, saying things like: ‘Look what a hypocrite Peter Singer is, that animal abuser!’ and ‘See, I told you so-called liberal values are no good, look how Peter Singer behaves, that just shows what all those animal-rights bleeding-heart liberals who support him are really like!’ If you were not outraged at that injustice, and amazed at the unconscionable behavior of conservatives who reacted to the story this way, I would be just as appalled at the lack of critical thinking, and the willingness to betray ones’ principles to score political points, as I am with the ‘Josh Duggar is a child molester’ crowd. Peter Singer’s principles and beliefs he espouses as an adult has nothing to do with whether or not he misbehaved as a child in that counterfactual world.

In sum: we all need to deal justly with one another, and not stoop to assassinating one another’s characters for bad reasons just because we disagree. If we really believe in truth, justice, tolerance, and the rightness of our cause, we should hold ourselves to the discipline of never taking the moral low ground, because, ultimately, we all lose by doing so.


Sources nad Inspiration:

Nussbaum, Martha. ‘Same-Sex Marriage and Constitutional Law: Beyond the Politics of Disgust’
Talk at Cornell Law School, Nov 11, 2009

Schwirtz, Michael & Michael Winerip. ‘Kalief Browder, Held at Rikers Island for 3 Years Without Trial, Commits Suicide’. New York Times, June 8, 2015

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. Random House, New York, 1975

‘US: More Harm Than Good: Exempt Youth Sex Offenders From Registration Laws’. Human Rights Watch, May 1, 2013.

Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Honesty in Public Discourse

You’re likely aware of the backstory to this piece: well-known news anchorman Brian Williams was caught telling stories. A generous interpretation would portray them as exaggerations; a harsher one a series of self-aggrandizing lies. Williams placed himself in the thick of the action while covering certain news stories, like the shooting down of a military helicopter and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he was actually at a safe distance. Since his stories were recently debunked, in whole or in part, by others there at the time, he has been widely criticized, shamed, and mocked, and the public debate over the nature and reliability of modern news rages ever more fiercely.

He’s not the only public figure in hot water right now for playing fast and loose with the truth. Bill O’Reilly is also being called out for his history of adding, ahem, some ‘color’ (my term, not his) to his news stories. He’s repeatedly talked (bragged?) about ‘covering four wars with his pen’ (his words), including the war in the Falklands, when he was actually over a thousand miles away from the ‘active war zone’ (also his words, the phrase he used to describe his own location at the time) covering a demonstration in Buenos Aires.

But the O’Reilly case is different! many say. Brian Williams is a trusted news anchor, from whom people expect to get unvarnished facts, and they expect to get them because that’s what he promises to deliver. O’Reilly is a commentator, albeit on a popular news station. Yet he presents himself as a truth-teller, speaking from the ‘No Spin Zone’, constantly referring to his bona fides as a lifelong journalist. So his viewers do expect the same level of honesty from him as from Williams, be it the facts or his true political and moral opinions.

Bill O'Reilly dining with troops, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Bill O’Reilly dining with troops, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of taking the snarky, self-righteous tone he’s adopted, using tactics of straw-manning and name-calling his critics and trying to obscure his tall tales with lame excuses, O’Reilly could just honestly admit that he used exaggerated or even just colorful language to add a sense of immediacy, urgency, or drama to his stories, and given his self-proclaimed role as a truth teller and ‘non-spinner’, admit that he might have misled his audience.

Rush Limbaugh, another famous commentator who’s often accused of lying and slander, likes to use the same excuse that his fans do when he gets caught: that he’s ‘just an entertainer’. Presumably, then, when he purposefully misrepresents the words, actions, and characters of his ideological opponents, he doesn’t really mean what he says. Or does he?

Rush Limbaugh / Sandra Fluke, image public domain via

One such case was that of Sandra Fluke, a law student and activist who testified before Congress regarding a proposed religious exemption to the government mandate that all health insurance policies must cover contraception. Fluke presented arguments, based on medical evidence and anecdotes of friends with gynecological and hormonal conditions, that birth control is essential preventative and therapeutic health care, especially for women, and as such, should be covered under all plans, public or private.

Limbaugh exploded. He called Fluke a slut and a prostitute and represented her as saying that ‘she must be paid to have sex’, and if so, she should provide sex tapes as public repayment for taxpayer money. Yet if you read Fluke’s own testimony, and read or listen to any of Fluke’s own discussion of birth control, it’s clear that she doesn’t mean any such thing, or says anything that can reasonably be construed as saying that paying for birth control is equal in any way to ‘paying for sex’. This would be as nonsensical as saying that to pay for an emergency room visit for a car crash victim amounts to ‘paying them to drive’ (and therefore they are obligated to be your chauffer?), or to pay for insulin for a diabetes sufferer is to ‘pay them to eat sweets’, or to pay the medical bills for the delivery of baby is to ‘pay for her to have sex’ (after all, that’s how she got pregnant) or ‘pay for her to have children’ (and therefore you have the right to put spycams in the nursery? Or make her child come over to do your chores?). After a storm of protest over his nasty (and pervy) rhetoric, Limbaugh apologized for calling her names and for ‘exaggerations to describe’ her personally. Yet he’s never, so far as I could discover, apologized for distorting and misrepresenting (two commonly used, slightly polite ways of saying ‘lying about’) her views on preventative healthcare on his radio show. Of the two, I argue that the name-calling is by far the lesser of the two: the slurs are unbelievable, and therefore perhaps possibly construed as satire. But the misrepresentation of her views is a lie that harms both her and the public, by slandering her and keeping important information from his audience, replacing it with falsities.

Limbaugh tells his viewers that he’s one of the most ‘honest‘ commentators out there, ‘huge on personal responsibility’ as he said in the same apology broadcast. He also says that he’s a satirist, that he uses ‘absurdity to illustrate the absurd’. It doesn’t appear to me as if he presents his take on Fluke’s testimony as satire: he seems to present it as a corollary of her arguments. The trouble with Limbaugh is that he slides back and forth from what he tries to call ‘satire’ to what he would call ‘the truth’ without any sort of clarification, any sort of signal to his audience so they can tell when he’s being factual, and when he’s uttering an absurdity to make a point. In researching this piece, I read quote after quote, transcript after transcript, of supposed satirical absurdities, facts, and half-truths all scrambled together will-nilly in each sentence, each paragraph, each entire show, generally with no discernible way to tell which was which. This gives him a general ‘out’ when it comes to saying whatever he wants without being called out for lying, which, in turns, makes every statement as credible as any other, which is not at all. Sorry, Rush. You can’t have it both ways.

(When I was doing research to refresh my memory on the case, I found that he had scrubbed his website of all transcripts and recordings of his actual remarks. It may be he was forced to do so as a result of his advertisers fleeing, or it may have been his own ass-covering move. Either way, this scrubbing does not represent evidence of his honesty or belief in ‘personal responsibility and accountability’, to say the least.)

So why bring up this old case again?

It’s to illustrate how and why so many of us are feeling so distrustful, so tired, so saddened, or (I think mostly) so jaded about honesty, and the lack thereof, in our public discourse. These three men, three widely admired, influential public figures present themselves as advocates for and providers of ‘the truth’: the straight newsman, the newsman-turned-commentator-on-a-news-network, and the straight commentator. All of them have been caught lying, some more than others, some more seriously, perhaps, than others. The way these three men have responded to being caught in lies and exaggerations reveal a lot about what they expect of themselves, and what they think we expect of them.

Brian Williams, of the three, has responded the best. He publicly apologized and admitted he made a mistake, admittedly in a rather defensive, perhaps self-excusing way. His inaccuracies may have been half-honest, in a sense, as he exaggerated his stories little by little over time with each re-telling, as human beings commonly do, just as Bill O’Reilly may have done. (I have been researching how memory works for another piece I’m working on, and how easy it is for certain people to create false memories, and to change certain aspects of a memory, especially when recalled and discussed repeatedly over a period of time. Stay tuned for more on that.) But he, like O’Reilly, should also have been fact-checking himself all along when re-telling such an important story after so many years, because that’s his self-imposed job: to stay faithful to the facts in a way the ordinary citizen doesn’t necessarily need to. As his friends and colleagues have stated, however, he alone, of these three, appears appropriately contrite, even ‘shattered’.

It seems clear that he’s aware of the wrong he’s done, and why it was wrong.

O’Reilly and Limbaugh, on the other hand, have been reacting very badly, as we have seen. They simply seem to have a different conception of what truth is, and what their relation to it should be. Is it because they consider themselves commentators first, and reporters of factual information second? Perhaps. But this makes no difference.

William Jennings Bryant, 1908, image Public Domain

If you promise your audience that you will tell the truth, that you should be trusted, then you have made it your duty to be truthful and trustworthy. I believe, further, that it becomes your duty in these circumstances to be a living example of truthfulness and trustworthiness: conduct discourse in an honest fashion, present your opponent’s views fairly and give them the benefit of the doubt, and debate and discuss their arguments on their own merits. If you want to tell the truth indirectly in satire, make clear what’s satire, and what’s not.

And if you get caught in a lie or an exaggeration, admit it. Your audience will thank you for your honesty, even as you make a mistake, since admitting it without excuses it proves your honesty all the more.

The discussion continues: On Jonathan Webber’s Discussion on Deception With Words: Honesty in Public Discourse Part II

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes
*Also published at Darrow
*this piece has been lightly edited on June 8th, 2018 for clarity


Sources and Inspiration:

Corn, David. ‘Bill O’Reilly Responds. We Annotate’. Mother Jones, Feb 20th 2015, Sandra. Sandra Fluke Yestimony to US Congress, Feb 23, 2012….

Freed, Benjamin. ‘7 Questions for Travis Tritten, Reporter Who Debunked Brian Williams’s Helicopter Story’, Washingtonian, Feb 5th 2015.…Limbaugh, Rush. ‘Why I Apologized to Sandra Fluke’. The Rush Limbaugh Show, Mar 05 2012, Rush. Quote: ‘You know I have always tried to be honest with you…’ Wikiquote, from
The Rush Limbaugh Show, Oct 10th 2003

McCoy, Terrance. ‘Brian Williams Perhaps Misremembered Floating Dead Body and Gangs During Katrina Hotel…’ Washington Post Feb 10, 2015

Mahler, Jonathan, Ravi Somaiyia, and Emily Steele. ‘With an Apology, Brian Williams Digs Himself Deeper in Copter Tale’. New York Times, Feb 5, 2015

Reeve, Elspeth. ‘Rush Scrubs ‘Slut’ Comment, Demand for Fluke Sex Tapes’. The Wire, Mar 8 2012

Steel, Emily and Ravi Somaiyia. ‘Brian Willaims Suspended From NBC for Six Months Without Pay’, New York Times, Feb 10, 2015

Uygur, Cenk. ‘Bill O’Reilly Responds To Attacks Over Falkland Islands War Coverage Lies’.
The Young Turks, Feb 23rd, 2015.