America has a problem speaking truth to power, too

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Russian President Vladimir Putin is in trouble in Ukraine, and it’s because people lie to him.

That’s the story put out by US intelligence officials, and it has the ring of truth. Apparently, Putin wasn’t told of the miserable state of readiness of Russian troops, the unavailability of spare parts and repair facilities, the shortage of transport, the inefficiency of the Russian air force, the lack of trucks needed to haul ammunition, food and fuel to the front or the surprising effectiveness of the Ukrainian military.

Putin’s “senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth” about “how badly the Russian military is performing and how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions,” according to the White House’s Kate Bedingfield.

Certainly, this has been the pattern in Russia — and before that, in the Soviet Union — for decades. Andrew Cockburn’s book on the Soviet Army, “The Threat,” noted these issues almost 40 years ago: poor morale, massive theft of spare parts, food and other items and sunny, faked-up reports sent to superiors.

This is a problem in any enterprise to some degree: Underlings tend to tell higher-ups what they think the higher-ups want to hear. Even in the best organizations, it takes constant effort to ensure that bad news makes it up the chain of command. And Putin’s Russia is not the best of organizations.

Putin has been in power for a long time, and making him happy has been the way to get ahead. And on a day-to-day basis, it works: People get good fitness reports, leaders feel happy, everyone wins.

Until, you know, it’s time to perform. Then reality comes crashing in. That’s the price of suppressing the truth in favor of the party line.

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “One of the Achilles heels of autocracies is that you don’t have people in those systems who speak truth to power or who have the ability to speak truth to power. And I think that is something that we’re seeing in Russia.”

Of course, you can be skeptical about how surprised Putin really was: He’s spent decades dealing with (and profiting in the gazillions from) Russia’s corruption. And that televised meeting in which he forced his minions to endorse his invasion plan even suggests he was getting his excuses lined up in advance in case problems arose.

Thing is, the hide-the-bad-news dynamic is growing by leaps and bounds right here in America.

The Posts's articles on Hunter Biden's laptop were censored called "disinformation."
The Post’s articles on Hunter Biden’s laptop were censored and called “disinformation.”
CBS Sunday Morning/ZUMA Wire

When news of Hunter Biden’s laptop, and the evidence of collusion with Ukrainians and Chinese it contained, was broken by The Post before the 2020 election, it was denounced, ironically enough, as “Russian disinformation.” Dozens of former US intelligence officials loudly pooh-poohed the story. Social-media outfits like Twitter and Facebook blocked it entirely. (Twitter even barred sharing it with individuals by direct message.)

Now The Washington Post and other establishment media outlets are admitting the laptop reporting is true. Had the news gotten out fairly, the election might well have gone the other way, sparing us the shambolic Biden administration, currently flirting with runaway inflation and World War III. And had Biden won the election anyway, at least voters wouldn’t feel cheated.

Likewise, we’ve seen all sorts of truthful information — questioning the effectiveness of lockdowns, mask mandates, etc. — censored as “dangerous misinformation.”

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is demanding that social-media companies not only censor “misinformation” about COVID but turn over the personal information of people sharing what the United States government doesn’t want shared.

That action faces a First Amendment lawsuit, as it should. (Full disclosure: New Civil Liberties Alliance, a new civil-rights group on whose board I serve, brought the suit.)

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called on social media companies to censor "misinformation" about COVID-19.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called on social media companies to censor “misinformation” about COVID-19.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File

But it’s worth talking about why free speech is important. In short, it keeps us from being Putinized.

Censors always claim they’re shutting down lies in defense of the public. The trouble is that the censors in America are no more trustworthy than Putin’s bureaucrats are. They tend to silence things that make them look bad in favor of things that make them look good.

That just means that problems aren’t noticed until they become too bad to ignore.

Censorship isn’t about protecting the public, it’s about protecting the powerful. America needs to make it easier, in Blinken’s words, to speak truth to power. Instead, the Biden administration, even as it lectures other nations, is making America more like Putin’s Russia.


Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a professor of law at the University of Tennessee and founder of the blog.

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