15 April 2010

The ACLU Defends a Tea Partier; Will TPs Return the Favor?

Regardless of what surveys tell us, most of us probably assume the average Tea Party participant to be the sort of person who regards the American Civil Liberties Union as a subversive organization dedicated to undermining national security and/or national morals. One of the ACLU's virtues, however, is that they try to help people regardless of whether those people like them or not. I don't know what one particular Marine thinks of the ACLU, but the organization has come to his defense after his superiors ordered him to close a Facebook page that had been critical of the President's healthcare-reform agenda. Sgt. Gary Stein has obeyed the order to close his site, which was apparently in violation of a Pentagon policy forbidding any partisan advocacy by soldiers. He has also taken the admirable extra step of affirming that President Obama is his commander-in-chief and opposing, on behalf of his "Armed Forces Tea Party Patriots" group, any calls for a military uprising against the government.

The issue seems to be less about Stein's opinions than about his appearance of partisanship. Despite his group's name, Stein denies attempting to speak for the national tea-party movement, such as it is, and is considering changing his page's name in order to eliminate the offending reference. Like it or not, the Pentagon regards the Tea Parties as a partisan phenomenon, but the ACLU is understandably concerned that a ban on "partisan" expression amounts to a ban on dissent itself.

This looks like a different sort of case from those we heard about during the Bush presidency, when soldiers were discouraged from publicly criticizing the President's conduct of the war in Iraq. It's an accepted part of the whole "commander-in-chief" thing that soldiers have no business publicly questioning the military policies of the White House. Whether the same principle should apply when the subject isn't military or foreign policy is arguably another matter. If we can take Stein as his word, his opposition to healthcare reform doesn't compromise his readiness to obey Obama's orders as commander-in-chief. He seems to think now that he might be able to express his dissent so long as he doesn't label himself as a Tea Partier. If explicit partisanship was the problem initially, he may be right. However, since we live in a Bipolarchy there'll be a temptation to view any criticism of Obama's domestic policies (unless it comes from his left) as "partisan." Whether that's fair is subject to debate. A separate but related problem brings us back to the question of representation. Whether or not he claims to represent a political party, any public commentary by Stein under his military byline (so to speak) would raise the question of whether he speaks for the United States military or any branch of it. I doubt whether Stein ever meant to suggest that his views were those of the Marine Corps as a whole, but identifying himself as a Marine might give his views a kind of authority, if not credibility, that they might not otherwise merit.

My gut feeling is that any soldier has as much right as any civilian to criticize his commander-in-chief's policies, foreign and domestic, civilian and military. If we don't accept "I was just obeying orders" as a defense of accused war criminals, we have to recognize soldiers' right to question the President's commands and his policies. At the same time, I think restraints on partisanship within the military are reasonable. You can make a more plausible argument for them on the basis of "unit cohesion" than you can about some other military rules. A middle way should be available for people like Stein, and such a way is available. It'd be a simple matter of swallowing one's pride and emulating the Founding Fathers. In other words, come up with a pseudonym and publish anonymously like Madison, Hamilton, et al did throughout their careers. That way you don't represent anything but your opinions, which would stand or fall on the strength of your argument. Anonymity and pseudonyms came into disrepute at some point because they seemed like evasions of accountability, but if we don't believe in punishing people for expressing political opinions, and if we want to debate policies and principles instead of practising identity politics, then there's no reason why someone like Stein can't express himself without anyone knowing he's a soldier, or even a Stein. I do this all the time and I'm not even a military man. The same option should be available to everyone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I suppose he does have a right to criticize, but does he have a basis? As a member of the military, he gets free government-paid healthcare, so why does he feel other American citizens shouldn't? Is this just another example of typical right-wing hypocrisy?