Anyone in an open society has the advantage of seeing what Putin and his nation cannot. One of the glories of an open society is that information travels easily and mostly unencumbered.
American intelligence reports note that Vladimir Putin has functionally locked himself and his nation behind a media firewall, afraid to let his citizens hear what the world knows. The Russian dictator is notorious for keeping his own council. But it seems worse this time, with many of his aides apparently willing to be the bearer of bad news. So even though he has initiated the human catastrophe of the Ukraine war, he and many Russians may still know little of the horrors that have been unleashed. As the New York Times’ Tom Friedman recently noted, “Putin, it turns out, [has] no clue what world he was living in, no clue about the frailties of his own system, no clue how much the whole free, democratic world could and would join the fight against him in Ukraine, and no clue, most of all, about how many people would be watching.” Meanwhile, most of the gains Russia achieved in the last 20 years are being rolled back by sanctions imposed by the world’s democracies.
By contrast, ordinary citizens in most of the rest of the developed world could fill him about the aimless marauding of the Russian Army. Most anyone in an open society has the advantage of seeing what Putin and his nation cannot. One of the glories of free societies is that information travels freely and mostly unencumbered. The democracies of the world take access to a multitude of sources doing credible reporting as their birthright. Individual sources may not always be accurate. But without much effort, citizens can “triangulate” between multiple sources to find truths that seem to be reasonably solid. If a conservative-leaning source confirms the same conclusion as a more liberal outlet, we can judge that the news is probably accurate. If one outlet plays favorites, a thoughtful reader–and their are too few–will cross check with other sources before reaching a conclusion.
Now, imagine living in a prison where the only loudspeaker ever heard is controlled by the guards. Welcome to North Korea or Russia, trying to impose the medieval values of top-down control on their citizens.
In no particular order, here are some easily accessible news-gathering outlets, available mostly for free to Americans via their ubiquitous computers, and key websites like YouTube. All outlets on this partial list are doing original reporting in English from Ukraine and Eastern Europe:
Agence France-Presse (AFP)
New York Times
The New Yorker
Deutsche Welle (Germany)
And there are so many more: NPR, CBC (Canada), PBS, Fox News, Sky News, ABC, CBS, ABC News (Australia), The Atlantic, Channel 4 News (UK), ITV, and others.
Free access to the press is a good reminder of why we protect our freedoms. The media firewall denying Russian citizens the same kind of access is as good an indicator as any of a failed state.
As the fates would have it, a Politburo-style maneuver failed.
There’s a rude old joke about the disgruntled office worker complaining that he feels like a mushroom. “My bosses usually leave me in the dark, and then they feed me a bunch of sh-t.”
No one likes to be kept out of the loop while consequential decisions that will affect everyone are being made. The rueful remark is a reminder of why the attempt by the Senate leadership to draft health care legislation in secret was so troubling and—in a basic sense—un-American. Healthcare is approaching 20% of the entire American economy. Just thirteen Republican Senators—incredibly, without even one woman among them—drafted the legislation (the misnamed “Better Care Reconciliation Act”) and then sprang it on the rest of us in what was supposed to be an early vote. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was clearly hoping that the secrecy that shut out the media and most members of his own conference would make passage easier. The press would be blindsided. There would be little time for anyone to read the bill or debate it. There would be no committee mark-ups or hearings, no expert or stakeholder testimony. He knew that some legislators will put party first and sometimes vote on bills they do not understand. As the fates would have it, a Politburo-style maneuver failed.
Some members of the Senate GOP complained of being blindsided. A few others didn’t like the short timetable. So McConnell had no choice but to postpone the vote until after the July 4 break.
There is reason to take heart in the old and honorable American expectation that representatives at all levels of government should do their work with the lights on and the doors open.
So the bill has been dragged into the light where it belongs. Legislating is meant to luxuriate in communication, doubly so in an open society. Now the press is reporting and assessing. The public is weighing in. And interested Americans can consider the consequences of the planned rollbacks and tax breaks that made the proposed legislation so regressive. For the moment, the legislative process has defaulted to a norm of openness and public discussion. We get to actually see the car before we buy it.
There is reason to take heart in the old and honorable American expectation that representatives at all levels of government should do their work with the lights on and the doors open. States have “sunshine laws” that require agencies to publicize their decision-making processes. We have a Freedom of Information Act that sometimes allows close inspection of bureaucratic paper trails. We have a non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that will provide an effects-oriented report. And, of course, we rightly celebrate a First Amendment that gives reporters and citizens the right to ask tough questions to their representatives and register complaints.
It is true that most legislation in the United States is written by small committees of legislators, often with lobbyists submitting drafts as well. And it is equally true that most Americans are not interested or too distracted to notice consequential law-making that will change their lives. But the process is grievously sabotaged if legislators who have pledged to uphold the Constitution usurp its intent by working in secret. Hearings are usually the open window in the process. When even those are curtailed we have good reason to question the honor of the leaders involved.