The fall of Van Jones and the stealth censorship of reasonableness

If it meant the end of government service to call members of the opposing party “assholes,” a lot of promising careers would have ended this weekend with the resignation of White House Green Jobs Czar Van Jones. Some past careers would have been relegated to history much earlier: Richard Nixon applied that expletive to Pierre Trudeau, you’ll recall, and George W. Bush attached it to Adam Clymer.
It may be too blunt a word for the West Wing, and it may also be self-defeating, an attack that harms only the speaker, making him seem too unreasonable for civil discourse. But it’s not a career-ender, as the Bush example demonstrates. To lose his job, Jones had to be associated, however flimsily, with a greater degree of unreasonableness.
Jones’s detractors dug up an old quote that failed the enduring test given to us by Sen. Joe McCarthy: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? In 2005, Jones told the East Bay Express that the 1992 Rodney King verdicts had turned him into a communist. But most damaging of all, apparently, was Jones’s name on a petition calling for the government to investigate its own complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Jones increasingly appeared to be an unreasonable man in a White House that wants to effect change without seeming unreasonable. He began to look more like a liability than an asset for green jobs and environmental legislation. A crackerjack activist before he started wearing ties to work, he may be more effective outside of the White House than within it anyway.
But there’s a problem with this method of disqualifying unreasonable Americans from public service. Reasonableness is a function of the status quo. Times occasionally call for measures that shake up the status quo, and both economically and environmentally, this is one of those times.
Reasonableness sometimes proves in the long-term to be wrong-headed. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, it became unreasonable to question the Bush Administration even as it committed the nation to a misguided war that cost the lives of thousands. Many Americans resisted that prevailing sentiment and protested the war, but reasonableness shouted them down. It exerted itself in that historical moment as a form of censorship. It weighed upon decisions made in newsrooms. It diminished the American value of questioning authority.
In its exceedingly weak mea culpa, even The New York Times confessed that it failed to question authority: “We have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.”
The Times didn’t try to explain why its coverage lost rigor at the moment rigor was most needed, but the answer should be obvious to anyone who has felt, in a newsroom, the invisible forces that censor our free press. With the country caught up in a drumbeat for vengeance, The Times did not want to seem unreasonable.
Since reasonableness can be a form of censorship, conservatives who claim to love freedom should be skeptical of it, even if it helps them defend the status quo. It is reasonableness that keeps us from prosecuting Bush, Cheney and company even though they lied to the American people to start a war and violated the Geneva Convention in the prosecution of that war. Notice that it’s still unreasonable, as Jones’s example shows, to wonder about the connections between the Bushes and the Bin Ladens, but it’s more reasonable–because it defends the status quo–to make claims about death panels in health care legislation.
Free Americans should be free to enforce laws, free to wonder, free to be daring, free to associate, free to speak. Otherwise, we may be reasonable, but we’re not free.

Tip Jar: If you found value on this page, please consider tipping the author.