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Trust in Government

by on February 24, 2011

The most frequently used example of research in political science is ‘Trust in Government.”  Do people trust the local government?  Do people trust the federal government?  “Trust in Government” is to political research what “Hello World!” is to building a website, an essential starting block to make sure all further coding comes out correctly.  Do you trust your government?

My guess is, we in the United States both do and do not trust our government.  We trust our government (I think), not to kill us or torture us, despite a recent suggestion by a no-longer-employed Indiana deputy attorney general that live ammunition be used on Wisconsin protesters (although I encourage you to consider Guantanamo for a moment).  We do not trust our government not to pursue legal action against us for expressing an opinion.  Glenn Greenwald, of Salon magazine, suggested to readers in March 2010 that WikiLeaks was a website worth supporting, financially or otherwise.  In response, several people said they were interested but “expressed a serious fear of doing so: they were worried that donating money to a group so disliked by the government would cause them to be placed on various lists or, worse, incur criminal liability.”

Speaking about fear of government, the State Department’s immediate reaction to the multiple leaks by WikiLeaks was to declare that anyone (generally young) who wrote about or commented on the issues of WikiLeaks would be automatically not considered for a State Department job.  I, of course, fear that if I ever did want any federal job, simply commenting on WikiLeaks here, much less expressing an opinion, is enough to discredit me in the government’s eyes.

If you thought about the absurdity of people’s reaction to Greenwald, he had the same reaction.  WikiLeaks, at least at the time, had never been charged with a crime, and any cry of terrorist organization was just a cry.  Any donations to an organization not considered criminal, Greenwald points out, cannot be held against people.  The point, though, is not about law or legality.  The point is that “most of those expressing these concerns were perfectly rational, smart, well-informed American citizens.  And yet they were petrified that merely donating money to a non-violent political and journalistic group whose goals they supported would subject them to invasive government scrutiny or, worse, turn them into criminals.”  More importantly, “a government can guarantee all the political liberties in the world on paper (free speech, free assembly, freedom of association), but if it succeeds in frightening the citizenry out of exercising those rights, they become meaningless.”

Let me repeat that, because it gets lost in long paragraphs.  “A government can guarantee all the political liberties in the world on paper (free speech, free assembly, freedom of association), but if it succeeds in frightening the citizenry out of exercising those rights, they become meaningless.”  Glen Greenwald said that; I don’t disagree, do you?  Do you trust your government?

To return to an earlier point, I believe we do not fear our government.  We can protest, talk, and change our elected officials.  A brave man just came back from Libya, Afghanistan and Iran – he planned his trip before large protests occurred – and reminded us that

we can all use the tools of modern technology to communicate with people without censorship. If you want to publicly protest something in America, you can do that too, and the government will even send out police to protect both you and any demonstrators who oppose your views.

True, but do we do that, will we do that, if we fear government?  On a federal level involving our national security state Greenwald wrote (a month after the already-mentioned article),

At some point, the dogmatic emphasis on limited state power, not trusting the Federal Government, and individual liberties — all staples of right-wing political propaganda, especially Tea Party sloganeering — has to conflict with things like oversight-free federal domestic surveillance, limitless government detention powers, and impenetrable secrecy (to say nothing of exploiting state power to advance culture war aims).

However, it is not only Greenwald that writes about trust of government secrecy in government.  I cited and summarized an article by Bill Moyers recently, but I did not include this comment about the government.

“It’s  always a fight to find out what the government  doesn’t want us to  know. The official obsession with secrecy is all the  more disturbing  today because the war on terrorism is a war without  limits, without a  visible enemy or decisive encounters. We don’t know  where the  clandestine war is going on or how much it’s costing and  whether it’s  in the least effective. Even in Afghanistan, most of what  we know comes  from official, usually military, sources.”

I do not usually fear my government, and I do not usually trust my government.  I belong to the dangerous and endangered class of people that says what I think about government when I disagree and do so in a public place.  When I read things like this, “anyone connected to WikiLeaks — even American citizens — are now routinely detained at the airport and have their property seized, their laptops and cellphones taken and searched and retained without a shred of judicial oversight or due process,” I tend to fear my government.  That, of course, is the point.  As a final thought from Greenwald, and this is exactly the point, “political liberties are meaningless if they’re conditioned on obeisance to political power or if citizens are frightened out of exercising them in any way that matters.”

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From → On the Dole, Politics

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