The Truth Is Like Water

January 26, 2007

Bangkok Post, Friday January 19, 2007

The truth is like water

By Philip J Cunningham

Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that the United States was in the
grip of a borderline insane president who was running the country into
the ground with a ruinous war and bankrupting America’s future with
various ill-conceived grandiose schemes.

And let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, impeachment was not a
serious option because the president with tyrannical tendencies had
intimidated and compromised the justice system to the point that
America’s judiciary was no longer independent or neutral, but a
political tool.

And supposing during a state visit abroad, a quiet coup was staged in
Washington and the controversial president was told to take a little
vacation for the good of the country. And what if, in his place, an
interim president was appointed and took up office in the White House.

There is an appealing expediency to getting a torn, divided and
discredited nation back on track, but a host of unforeseen dangers go
along with such a scenario.

Let’s say the dangerous work of the quiet coup was pulled off by a
reluctant warrior, a capable and genial general who had been sidelined
by the hawkish president. And let’s say another general, a retired
professional soldier, was appointed interim president, a highly
decorated and widely respected man who, in a long and credible career,
worked well with both opposition and ruling parties.

The coup, of course, could be construed as nothing less than a serious
setback to American democracy, perhaps even more serious a blow than
the contested elections of 2000 that saw a man who lost the popular
vote win the presidency. And because democracy is desirable, or in the
very least it is widely regarded as the best worst system, the coup
leaders would be beholden to do everything in their power to assure
the resumption of honest electoral politics at the earliest possible

Now let’s say during this fragile, tentative period of interim
government, the exiled president, backed by big money and numerous
populist supporters, starts to circle the US, as if eyeing to return.

Let’s say he shows up in Ottawa, then Vancouver, and then Mexico City,
firing off sarcastic comments and incendiary faxes.

The generals who pulled off the coup would like to get down to the
nitty-gritty work of ending a war and getting democracy back on track,
but they are distracted by the actions of the man they replaced.

Is he plotting a comeback? Might they themselves be unceremoniously
replaced? The coup group might be tempted to curtail press coverage
and jerry-rig the jury against the former president, but that would be
a mistake.

Because a democracy, all the more so if it is a damaged one, needs
free press and an independent judiciary even more than elections

Putting aside for the moment the controversial election in 2000, the
US has in recent history had a non-elected president in the person of
Gerald Ford, and while his tenure had a strong interim feel to it, it
was not the worst of presidencies.

Elections are important but not as important as free press and rule of
law. A country can survive, even thrive with a non-elected leader.
Indeed, some non-elected leaders perform quite well, and compare
favourably to elected monstrosities such as Marcos or Hitler.

In any case, a well-balanced democratic country can muddle through
with a middling leader.

But what a democratic country cannot countenance, should not
countenance, not even for a day, is the abrogation of civil rights,
equal protection under law, free expression and free press.

To say that law is essential is not to say it can solve every problem,
nor is it always judicious, but it is necessary. To say the free press
is an essential, indispensable pillar of democratic governance is not
to say the press always gets things right; the press makes plenty of
mistakes and excesses and distortions need to be addressed.

In regards to the kind of leader who brings ruin to his own country,
there will always be members of the press, like the public in general,
and the uneducated poor in particular, so awed by the brute exercise
of power and demagogic rhetoric as to become co-conspirators, perhaps
unwittingly, to populist leaders with tyrannical tendencies.

Because even the best of coups is likely to have many unintended
consequences, it is not a good idea for coup leaders to issue threats
or orders, let the interim appointed leader be the point man for
talking with the public.

Power is addictive, and one of the risks implicit in taking power is
the acquired unwillingness to cede it.

A free press offers necessary checks and balances to the exercise of
power, it serves as a social and political corrective mechanism. The
beauty of free expression is that truth wins in the end, in the
battleground for ideas; propaganda can be routed, isolated and exposed
for what it is. It is when free expression is curtailed that
propaganda and rumour start to thrive.

The press is not above criticism, but the press must regulate itself.
Not in the sense of a handful of editors exchanging wrist-slaps when
they and other offenders of current political correctness cross the
line, but in the sense of letting information flow freely, letting
honest information do the correcting.

Reliably reported information, not censorship, is the best antidote to
lies and distortions.

The truth is like water, it wants to be unfettered and be free.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.

source: (Google cache)

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