To whatever high school intern probably came up with the idea, the White House's "Attack Watch" website and Twitter account must have seemed a spark of genius. After all, they yoked together two trendy ideas—rapid response and crowd-sourcing—in service to the president. Give people the opportunity to report false and malicious things others are saying about Obama, so the administration and its supporters can fight back.
What could possibly go wrong?
The intern—whoever it was—must have been too young to remember the left's Bush-era motto: "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."
But some adult in the West Wing ought to have stepped in. He or she should have pointed out that encouraging Americans to inform on their fellow citizens carries a whiff not just of Nixonian creepiness but of totalitarian menace.
Police states routinely rely on citizen informants; dungeon cells from Cuba to Saudi Arabia are full of political prisoners arrested for "insulting the president and the regime," "disrupting internal order," and other dysphemisms for speaking your mind.
Fortunately, Attack Watch inspired little more than a "national fit of giggling," as Reason magazine put it. Enemies of the People—i.e., conservatives—immediately began denouncing all manner of offenses against Our Beloved Leader: Someone was squeezing the Charmin in aisle six, reported one. Wrote another: "There's a new Twitter account making President Obama look like a creepy, authoritarian nutjob."
Funny. But also not funny. Because this is not an isolated incident. It is only the latest in a string of episodes in which the administration has made itself look creepily authoritarian.
It started even before the administration was an administration, with a campaign that depicted Barack Obama as The One—the savior who would lead a broken people out of darkness. That isn't sarcastic exaggeration. Obama himself described his capture of the Democratic nomination as "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." Not even Chairman Mao promised that much.
Scarcely had the planet-healer been sworn in before the public learned that the White House's Office of Public Engagement had teamed up with the NEA's Yosi Sargent to mau-mau artists into cranking out agitprop. "I would encourage you to pick something, whether it's health care, education, the environment," Sargent said in an August 2009 conference call with various artists. "Then my task [to you] would be to apply your artistic, creativity community's utilities" to advancing the cause. "We are just now learning how to really bring this community together to speak with the government," he said.
And for those who don't "speak with the government," there could be Consequences. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made that clear last year when she sent a letter to the president of AHIP, the national Association of Health Insurance Providers. "It has come to my attention that several health insurer carriers are sending letters to their enrollees falsely blaming premium increases for 2011 on the patient protections in the Affordable Care Act," Sebelius sniffed. "There will be zero tolerance for this type of misinformation and unjustified rate increase," she went on, warning that those who did not come to heel might be shut out of the new government-run exchanges.
There have been other episodes, too—the EPA employees ordered to take down a video critical of cap-and-trade legislation, for instance. When the Bush administration silenced NASA scientist James Hansen, Rep. Henry Waxman fumed that "Democrats are not going to sweep [censorship of scientists] under the rug." By the time Obama's EPA started silencing dissent, he had found his broom.
HHS Secretary Sebelius isn't the only one who objects to "misinformation." In the first chapter of On Rumors, Cass Sunstein, the president's regulatory czar, writes: "As we have seen, false rumors can undermine democracy itself." But as others have noted, we have "seen" no such thing. (Was Sunstein trying to start a false rumor?) Nevertheless, Sunstein numbers among the apparently numerous administration officials who think the government should be managing people's thoughts and ideas much more closely. He has even suggested government agents should "cognitively infiltrate" groups that promote ideas of which the government disapproves.
One doesn't want to strain analogies too far. Albert Einstein and Josef Stalin both wore mustaches, but the similarities end there. Nobody expects the Obama administration to start hauling dissidents off to the Lubyanka. Still, let us not forget Naomi Wolf's most popular essay from the Bush years. In "Fascist America in Ten Easy Steps" (later expanded into a book), she noted: "In Mussolini's Italy, in Nazi Germany, in communist East Germany, in communist China—in every closed society—secret police spy on ordinary people and encourage neighbours to spy on neighbours."
Liberals worried about our government doing that kind of thing, once upon a time.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.