Reading through the Screens of Bias

The New York Times has a poignant story, in significant miniature, of how last week’s coup in Honduras has split Honduran society. Jorge Arturo Reina, Honduran ambassador to the United Nations has sided with ousted President Manuel Zelaya. Honduran ambassador to the United States Roberto Flores Bermúdez, Reina’s former law student, has given his support to the interim government. The coup has produced a striking split, too, in the world of Latin America and Honduras experts, and in the world of journalism. What, then, is everyone else supposed to think, when all the rest of us can know so much less than they do?

Blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates had a trenchant post last week entitled The Practical Limits of Knowledge. Coates addresses the polymath presumptions of pundits everywhere in the media who opine on every subject that arises. In contrast, he considers his own, and most of our, limits in so many areas in which we cannot be expert. He worries about all that knowledge that is lost, even if preserved in archives for periodic expert rumination, as part of the general understanding of our world because it is, simply, humanly forgotten. So

[F]aced with a group that asks its bureaucrats to censor science, that asks its presidential candidates to deny evolution, that employs phraseologists when faced with the challenges of the environment, I know which one I’ll pick. But even as I say that, I can see the limits of my own thinking–maybe if I had more than an informed layman’s knowledge of the health care debate, I’d think universal health care was a terrible idea. My politics are as much based on trust as they are on actual knowledge–I simply trust liberals more.

In the case of Honduras, then, we are confronted by two complicating elements, the limits of our knowledge and whom it is that we “simply” trust more – in other words, our biases. And the biases of those we trust or turn to for knowledge.

A few – very few – events are generally undisputed. The Honduran military removed Zelaya from office and exiled him from the country. This has all the characteristics, on its face, of a coup. Justify it, rationalize it however you want – it was a coup. It fully meets the definition, and it is increasingly apparent that international reaction is persuading those who participated in the removal that this was their crucial error. Whatever justness there may have been in taking some form of action against the president, the action should have followed a legal course – as, indeed, it had up until that point. From what I read, even the military’s role, according to the Honduran constitution, may have been appropriate, but spiriting Zelaya from the country, not proceeding, further, on a legal basis – that undermined it all.

Coverage is not limited to that issue, however. There is a question – so far drawing lesser attention – of how the U.S. government and President Obama have reacted. The President’s muted but clear response has been to assert the necessity of constitutional processes. Some quarters, exemplified by the Washington Times, have declared that Obama stands with tyrants. Obama, in the Times‘s view, did not come out forcefully enough in support of the Iranian protestors, and now actually backs the wrong side – the Hugo Chavez-allied Zelaya. One needs to recognize, of course, that the very conservative Times is thinking – if you can call it that – in the matador tradition of muscular foreign policy, in which every tyrant (in the eyes of the Times) is himself, actually, the matador, with the U.S. the fierce bull. Drop that red cape by uttering, say, some sentiments about unequal distribution of wealth, or by provocatively firing some ineffectual missiles into the Sea of Japan, flit the cape slyly by mouthing the name “Fidel” and the Times would have the U.S. snort fire, scrape its hoofs in thoughtless frenzy, and charge pell-mell into – well, we’ll deal with that then.. Wouldn’t it be better not to be the bull?

A related charge is that while the Obama administration explained its caution in Iran on the basis of not wishing to create any semblance of interfering – of which the U.S. has a history in Iran – the U.S. has, in fact, taken sides by opposing the coup. But once again, the U.S. has a history of supporting, even staging coups in Latin America. The crucial matter from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy – for anyone capable of perceiving error in past US.-Lain American relations – is no longer to be perceived as interfering with even the appearance of democratic processes in another country. Had the U.S. not expressed its opposition to the coup, it would have been received everywhere as tacit support for it. Which, of course, is exactly what critics in this regard wish.

One is hard pressed to find opinions on the coup, or reporting about it, that are not influenced by political philosophy and a greater agenda. Since Zelaya is aligned with Hugo Chavez and other populist leaders in Latin America such as Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador – all of whom oppose entrenched oligarchies and seek wealth redistribution – conservatives of all variations are pleased by his removal. Many to the political left are now railing against the coup because they are sympathetic to Zelaya for those very same reasons. And all of them frame the elements of the story according to those predispositions.

Among those “generally” agreed upon facts I earlier mentioned is that Zelaya was seeking to conduct a non-binding plebiscite among the populace that would have enabled him to run for the presidency again, which the current Honduran constitution does not permit. The Honduran congress rejected the propriety of the poll (on constitutional grounds) and passed legislation that would bar it. The Honduran Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the attorney general, and the Supreme Court all declared it would be illegal. However, while the details are so much greater and more complex still, here already we encounter dispute, and the “clarification” of details becomes slanted.

The non-binding plebiscite scheduled for June 28 would have asked if a fourth ballot should be included in the coming November elections. The plebiscite did not pose the question whether Zelaya should be permitted to run – unconstitutionally – for president again. It raised the question whether a constituent assembly should be formed to rewrite the constitution. One might ask how this question transformed in people’s minds into the question of another presidential term. That then becomes a matter of perception – of various individuals’ motivations, in every aspect of this affair. Why did Zelaya wish to raise the issue of rewriting the constitution? Why did he wish to have it rewritten by a “constituent assembly” – assembled how, we don’t know, but “constituent” suggests by members of the citizenry – rather than by the congress, as called for by the constitution.

Zelaya opponents, those who paint him as another Chavez, argue that like Chavez, Zelaya’s plan was to extend his term in office by mobilizing populist sentiment against existing constitutional and democratic structures, reformulating them in order to extend his powers. The effort to rewrite the constitution via a constituent assembly was a first step to changing the prohibition against continuismo – the imposition of presidential term limits – an end he knew he could not accomplish under the current constitution, through the congress.

In contrast, let’s consider how Al Giordano has treated the issue. Giordano is a veteran reporter with an expertise in Latin America, among other areas. He has been out front on the Honduran story, gathering the facts and developments ahead of most others and presenting them on his blog The Field. Because the much greater known and more widely read blogger Andrew Sullivan has been linking to and referencing him, his reporting on the story has achieved even greater distribution. Giordano is also on the political left, which he does not hide, though no one has challenged his reporting of the facts, and he is, in fact, meticulous about them, correcting one critical Sullivan reader by pointing out that it was not the non-binding plebiscite that the Honduran Supreme Court disallowed, but an earlier proposed binding one. Thus, according to Giordano, Zelaya had not actually acted in contravention of a court order.

Now, determining the facts about anything in this world can be a daunting enterprise – and your head may already be spinning from the, really, very few I’ve offered here – but if all we needed were facts, we might actually be able to sing Kumbaya somewhere down the road. It’s what we make of the facts, what we say they mean, that makes all the difference. And Giordano makes no bones – he’s on Zelaya’s side. He showed “true courage.” The coup leaders are “cowardly.” All the rest of the government – the congress, the Supreme Court, plenty more – they’re the same wealthy oligarchs who always ran Honduras, before the end of the Central American insurgencies and civil wars. Giordano knows: he’s got the papers on them.

What do you and I know?

What I do know is that Giordano is not simply a reporter on this event. He is a player. He writes “we” when referring to pro-Zelaya forces. He enlists his readers, particularly Honduran readers, in an anti-“propaganda” campaign of information dissemination. On the matter of the constitution, he refers us to Salvadoran attorney Alberto Valiente Thorensen who, Giordano says, “makes mincemeat” of the argument that the coup was legal. Follow that link and you arrive at Rebel Reports, the blog of fellow leftist reporter Jeremy Scahill.

A reader who is looking for at least the attempt at objective reporting has to wonder whether a blog named “Rebel Reports” is going to provide it. Titles of all kinds tell you something. Look at the title of my blog. It tells you something about me. Look at Scahill’s blog roll. Now, placement on a blog roll is not necessarily endorsement. Many bloggers are quite ecumenical in their blog rolling. But Scahill is, in fact, linking to organizations and publications “I Work With,” as he labels the links. They’re all very to the left: CounterPunch, The Nation, The Progressive, ZMagazine/Znet. That’s all right. He’s upfront about it. But unless you believe the far left has a purchase on the truth, you have to wonder whether all reasonable perspectives on the news are going to be available to you at Rebel Report. Note, too, that among the links is one to, “the Web site for Socialist Worker, a national newspaper founded in 1977 and published by the International Socialist Organization.” The ISO stands “in the Marxist tradition, founded by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and continued by V.I. Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky.” If you keep in mind that at the heart of the debate over the coup is the issue of fealty to democratic processes and who embodies it – a President who defies all of the other institutions of government or those institutions, as they take him from bed in the night and put him on a plane – and that none of above named Marxists possessed a tumbler’s worth of this fealty (while Lenin and Trotsky did far worse to millions of their enemies than treat them to a ticket out of the country) you begin to feel the shock of a whole lot of wires being crossed.

So maybe now you read, or should, attorney Thorensen’s take on the legalities with a not so trifling measure of skepticism. The sub-head to Thorensen’s exclusive Rebel Report article informs us that “Zelaya attempted to give Hondurans the gift of participatory democracy.” How good of him. But if you read history with something sharper than a zealot’s eye, you may find that it tells you, be they Greek or not, to beware of presidents bearing gifts unto the people. Better, maybe, they should entertain a humbler understanding of their role in a democratic system.

Thorensen gets very involved in the intricacies of the constitution and its provisions, as do others, on both sides, and as neither you nor I are likely to do. So how do we judge his argument without offering simple credence? We consider the quality of the argument.

Thorensen argues that while the Honduran constitution reserves the job of amending the constitution to the congress – something like in the U.S., where state legislatures also play a role – Zelaya wasn’t seeking to “amend” the constitution; he was seeking to “rewrite it.” This is an argument as dim as the sophistical day. Oh, no, I don’t want to make changes in our agreement; I want to renegotiate it. That’s very different. And, Thorensen argues, despite the constitutional provisions regarding amendment by the congress, there is nothing in the constitution prohibiting a constituent assembly from rewriting it. Consider that there is nothing in the U.S. constitution expressly forbidding the same kind of assembly for the purpose of a rewrite, which is never even mentioned. Now entertain in your imagination the scenario of former President Bush or President Obama seeking, not to amend the constitution – oh, no, not that – but to rewrite it. Convinced?

Two other arguments Thorensen makes are that, first, direct, participatory democracy is superior to representative democracy, but I’ll let the founders of our own republic take him on in that area, about mob rule, tyrannies of the majority and all that. Second, he strains to justify a constitutional rewrite by damning the soiled political context in which the Honduran constitution was written back in the early 80s. I suppose the ongoing conquest of the American Indian and the practice and acceptance of slavery doesn’t measure up to Honduran dirt, so the U.S. constitution is thus safe from this contextual attack.

It isn’t just Thorensen, though. Scahill links to AlterNet (“serving as a reliable filter”) via this headline:

Obama Continues to Support Right-Wing Thug in Colombia Who DID Change Constitution to Stay in Power

Leaving aside the reliable filter of “thug,” I will say that those who read me know what I think of elected officials changing the rule of reelection for their own benefit. However, Liliana Segura writes

Uribe knows something about changing a constitution to stay in office. In 2004, his powerful supporters in the Colombian Congress passed legislation to amend the 1991 constitution in order to allow the popular president to seek a second four-year term. Though controversial, the new law was upheld by the country’s Supreme Court, and in 2006, Uribe won the presidential election in a landslide.

Need I point out all the differences? Segura is so blinded by her bias she cannot see them. Columbia’s congress supported Uribe, and the new law was upheld by the Columbian Supreme Court, both circumstances contrary to what occurred in Honduras. Of course, Segura attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the process by use of the insidious “powerful” descriptor for Uribe’s supporters. She later tries to further delegitimize the congressional vote (as Thorensen tries to do with the Honduran constitution by citing its “context”) by citing unsourced reports “that members of Congress were bribed.”

The entire controversy is over democratic process. Yet it is clear that contestants on both sides of the issue care not about process, but about bending the argument over it to suit their ideological predisposition. Giordano, as passionate a partisan as any, is a defender of Hugo Chavez, who himself attempted a coup against a democratically elected government in Venezuela back in 1992. In 2007, now President Chavez, no admirer of the 2004 coup attempt against him, led a national celebration in recognition of the fifteenth anniversary of his 1992 effort.

Democratic process? Rule of law? Zelaya, after disregarding the authority of every other legally established organ of the Honduran state, led a band of civilians to the site where the prohibited ballots (prepared and flown in to Honduras by Chavez) were being held. He tried to take them by force. The act of a democrat? A president who respects the rule of law himself before he condemns its flouting in his own exile?

Writes Giordano of his reporting: “All based on that simple principle called documented fact….What we call authentic journalism.”

The problem is that in digital and other worlds, it isn’t just the zeros and ones that matter – it’s how you string them together. For the people of Honduras and so many Latin American nations – caught so long between the rock of their demagogic saviors and the hard place of oppressive oligarchies, and from the partisans of both – it isn’t just the facts that matter. They could use some commitment to the truth.

  • For a real effort at a balanced presentation on the Honduran coup, see the Wikipedia entry.
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