Why it’s important to keep up the principled fight

When you’re promoting something you believe to be strongly advantageous for the public (fighting for environmental improvement, writing and publishing free software, speaking against the loss of civil liberties, etc.) it’s critical to do your research so you know what you’re talking about, formulate specific plans of action, and continue working on those interests even when the prevailing forces wax and wane in support of the same ideas and goals. This entry mainly concerns the last point: without consistent pressure one can easily be dismissed for playing favorites (being a “fair weather friend”).

For example:

  • The documentary “Cowspiracy” argues an interesting point often ignored in mainstream discussions about environmentalism—no consumer action aimed at conserving resources (e.g., shower less frequently, fix leaky pipes, bike more, recycle more, and drive less) can compete with ending animal agriculture. According to the movie, environmental groups don’t fight to end animal agriculture even though water use problems, problems caused by the end of species, problems with cutting down forests, and greenhouse gas production are chiefly caused by animal agriculture. So pushing others on consumer issues is simultaneously ineffective, a distraction away from a real issue, and likely to annoy others for no real gain. All to keep the business of donating to environmental groups going, avoid challenging well-organized money behind big agriculture, and give people the false idea that they can individually spur environmental improvement with personal choices.
  • The open source developmental methodology advocates for increased access to source code but doesn’t present any real objection to software proprietors. That’s because open source wasn’t designed to present any such objection. Open source, a right-wing reaction to free software, formed over a decade after the free software movement began and was designed to give software businesses (chiefly proprietary software developers) a public relations-friendly means of talking to developers by dropping the freedom talk found at the center of the free software movement. Thus even if a software proprietor granted users none of the freedoms of free software a proprietor could claim some affiliation with something that sounded like was in the user’s interest even though proprietary software is never in the user’s interest. In the environmental movement a similar form of covering the truth is called “greenwashing” and Brad Kuhn pointed out in his 2016 talk on copyleft that he calls this same disingenuousness “openwashing”. Virtually every story carried by the (overwhelmingly corporate) tech press and tech repeater sites (Hacker News, Slashdot, etc.) comes down to the same issue—a lack of software freedom is dangerous. But these sites are run by open source enthusiasts. Therefore they encourage readers to think about maximizing profit, arcane details about features, and branding—issues which never bring software freedom to mind.
  • The American left usually let Democrats pick horrible choices without complaint, even if those same choices raise suspicion or protest when backed by Republicans. During President Obama’s two terms he killed lots of people by drone attack. Most of the victims were innocent people who happened to be in the area of the bombing. There weren’t any sustained marches about this and many Americans seem unaware this happened at all, not extrajudicially chosen for death by Obama himself. In 2017 Donald Trump was sworn in as president. In his first month he killed an 8-year-old child, the sister of 16-year-old Abdulrahman whom Obama killed in a prior attack. Obama killed Abdulrahman two weeks after killing his father, Anwar al-Awlaki. In the most recent attack, President Trump’s Navy’s SEAL Team 6 used drones for cover and executed a raid which killed 30 people, including 10 women and children and among them was Anwar al-Awlaki’s 8-year-old daughter who was shot in the neck and killed. In a statement, Trump mentioned no civilian deaths. CNN, obedient stenographers that they are, also made no report of civilian deaths. American protesters on the left built a history in Obama’s terms of not organizing around extrajudicial assassination. This history makes it difficult to distinguish between caring about such attacks for their own sake (a principled objection) and being upset that their preferred candidate didn’t win the electoral votes needed to become US President (a partisan objection we can legitimately dismiss out of hand).

On the latter point, consider what Jeremy Scahill said in 2013 (remote: 1, 2) about the attacks against journalism that would later become another major part of the Bush/Obama legacy: (emphasis mine)

The message that the state is sending is that journalists are only allowed to print official statements, whether they are from public officials saying them publicly, or it’s being stated in off-the-record briefings, or in strategic leaks. They are trying to criminalize real journalism. They are trying to criminalize whistleblowing. And this has sent a chill through the community of reporters who cover national security issues, and it has sent a chill through the community of people who work within government that were considering speaking up. If journalism is criminalized, and if whistleblowing is criminalized, then how can we say that we have a free press in this society? It means we don’t actually have a free press. It means that something that is enshrined in the Constitution, the right to a free press, actually doesn’t matter. And I think we’re at a moment right now because of who the President is; where we risk this becoming a permanent reality in this country.

We all know that under Bush and Cheney they were engaged in warrantless wiretapping, their foreign policy looked like Murder Incorporated, there was certainly a war against journalists and a war against dissent. But it’s easy to be against those policies when cartoonish villains like Bush and Cheney are in office. When your actual principle is tested, meaning what you actually believe, is when someone like President Obama is in office. When it’s the liberals that are sending you the hate mail. When you have the tenacity to continue on and say “You know what? This is a principle, not a partisan game. This isn’t a game at all. This has everything to do not only with the future of this country, but with the stability and independence of nations around the world. I believe journalists have an obligation to stand up and defend one another when any of them are under attack. And what has happened to Glenn [Greenwald] and other journalists who dared to report outside of the consensus of the Washington clique is reprehensible, and journalists should be ashamed of themselves.”.

The recent history of inaction from the American left helps us separate the wheat from the chaff, those who objected when an ostensibly more agreeable (though really only differently scary) president was in office from those who raise objections under President Trump. It’s a shame, really, because some critics raise valid issues (see any of the episodes of “News from Neptune” or “AWARE on the Air”) but have to hope for coverage while less articulate liberals get coverage complaining that their pro-war, bank-fueled, 1% representative didn’t run a competent enough presidential campaign to take office.