I’ve been reading this fabulous account lately of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Putin.
The book is The Invention of Russia, by Arkady Ostrovsky, one of the lead journalists on the subject, so his account focuses a lot on the role of the media in shaping current affairs. In Russia this is probably even more true than in other countries. Nevertheless, the following sentence, describing a turning point in the government’s relationship with the media, struck me as particularly relevant:
For a second, Russia seemed almost like a normal country, where the ability to criticize and ridicule politicians is a sign of a healthy democracy.
Now, before this begins to sound too alarmist, let me highlight the obvious: If there’s one thing upon which absolutely every single one of us can agree, it is that we are definitely still able to criticize and ridicule our politicians. This has basically been our national pastime for the last year and a half—if not longer.
Yet, it seems like not all politicians are so happy with the criticism. More importantly, it feels to me that the more polarized politics become, the less citizens are tolerant of criticism targeting their chosen politician. And that’s dangerous.
Yet there was one fundamental problem. In contrast to “normal” countries, where freedom of expression is guaranteed by institutions such as parliament, by the media itself and, above all, by the consensus of the population, in Russia freedom of speech rested on the goodwill of just one man—Yeltsin—who, for some reason, believed it to be a valuable thing. As Alexander Yakovlev testified, “Not once did he complain about a single program, although he had plenty of reasons to do so…. His tolerance toward criticism… went beyond any measure.”
Our president elect has about the lowest tolerance for criticism of any public figure in America. His Twitter rants are alarming—even more so his threats to sue The New York Times. But we can withstand this because we know it is almost certainly an idle threat. The institutions which guarantee freedom of expression are largely in tact, as demonstrated by every media outlet from Fox News to Comedy Central.
But I worry that popular consensus is eroding. That we’re less and less willing to listen to the other side. That we’re more and more inclined to shut others down, in whatever form that should take. And while I’m 90% sure that’s just my own anxiety talking, that 10% of me that isn’t so sure wishes I could be more confident.
I find the cacophony of political commentary exhausting and demoralizing. I forget sometimes, that it’s like a canary in a coal mine: so long as we can hear it, we’re still OK. Silence is where the danger lies.