The claims of Russian interference in our election require an open and transparent investigation. However, some of the public discourse on the issue is increasingly reminiscent of McCarthy-era red-baiting era. Dissent must not be treated as evidence of disloyalty, or of collusion with Russia.
We raise these concerns not with the aim of impeding any legitimate inquiry, but to prevent a political moment in which, in the name of defending our democracy, we actively curtail it by hunting for and rooting out those with dissenting points of view.
For example, an ODNI report appendix on the media outlet RT devoted considerable attention to the fact that the Russian-funded TV network reports on mass surveillance and “alleged Wall Street greed.” The situation became even more disturbing with reports that ads were taken out by a Russian entity promoting Black Lives Matter and targeting Facebook users in Baltimore and Ferguson. The implications here are clear, that the Russians are actively cultivating dissident movements within the US. And it is not much of a logical jump to then accuse those who participated in Occupy or Black Lives Matter, or who are sounding an alarm about the continued erosion of basic civil liberties, of being at the very least unwitting Russian dupes, or even being active Russian saboteurs of our “democracy.”
This story is not new.
Throughout the 20th century, those working for justice were constantly tarred with the label of being foreign agents, solely for working for justice. For example, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) labeled the National Lawyers Guild agents of Moscow for correctly pointing out that the FBI was engaging in illegal wiretaps and break-ins and acting as the country’s political police. Anne and Carl Braden, two early supporters of DRAD’s predecessor organization, were charged with sedition after purchasing a home in a segregated, all-white neighborhood on behalf of an African-American family. The rationale was that they were allegedly “affiliated” with the Communist Party and integration was a communist plot to incite unrest.
People living in Ferguson and Baltimore do not need Russian “trolls” to be aware of unchecked police violence and structural racism, that is their day-to-day life. And it is condescending, if not outright racist, to assert that everyone would be happy if not for meddling Russians. Protests against economic inequality and racial injustice show why the right to political expression is so important. And it is not only appropriate, but desirable, for journalists to probe fully official claims, especially when issues of war and peace are at stake.
For those in power it is never the right time for dissent. There are always exigent circumstances that require the imposition of a faux unity, in which those who live with oppression or injustice must remain silent, or else they will be aiding an omnipresent enemy. We know too well that democracy can never be defended by curtailing democracy.
While we understand that many have legitimate concerns about Russian interference in our democratic process and that an impartial, transparent investigation is necessary, we caution people against creating an environment in which the government is given new rationales to target dissent.