By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
In an interview with NPR this week, vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine was asked about his struggles to separate his personal faith from his political life. Kaine admitted that as a devout Catholic he faces a challenge, but explained the principle that guides his separation of religion and governance. “I don't think my job as a public official is to make everybody else follow the Catholic Church's teaching, whatever their religious background or lack of a religious background.” This statement seemingly contradicts the nature of Catholicism: namely its universality. Unlike states and or nationalities, who generally respect each others sovereignty over domestic citizens, the Catholic Church traditionally did not accept the right to practice other religions: there was only one true religion and its center was in Rome. For many years this was a struggle between the Church and states: see for example the French Revolution, the Thirty Years War and many others in Europe.
Tim Kaine represents both the new face of the Catholic religion and the uniquely American version of the separation of church and state. Under Pope Francis, Catholicism has made overtures towards different ways of practicing Catholicism and other faiths. Like Pope Francis, Tim Kaine turns to his religion on questions of broad morality, equality and poverty, but not on questions to which different faiths have diverging views. Kaine explained, “on many of the questions that I, you know, that I would struggle with, different religions have different traditions and preach different things. And I don't think, in fact I feel this is a really important principle and it's a moral principle, not just a governing principle, it's a moral principle: we are better off as a society when we're not trying to enforce the views of one religion over everybody. People can make their own moral decisions.”
This reflects the nature of faith in the modern world, where some people are believers and others are not, and they all must live together. It also reflects the long-standing American tradition of high religiosity combined with religious freedom. In states that have a high level of participation in religions practices, there is often a state religion. Others like France have managed to separate church and state thanks to secularization. As we see today, when faced with an influx of a community of believers, these states struggle to adapt. One example of this is the ongoing controversial attempt to regulate religious practices in the public sphere by banning hijabs and more recently “burkinis” on French beaches.
But even in the US, religious tolerance is not unidirectional. While Tim Kaine may be leading by example, others are trying to overturn the long-standing place of religion in public life. In his recent speeches, Donald Trump refers to the American people “under one God”. Calling for unity under one God excludes non-believers and believers of non-monotheist religions. Even within the monotheist group, it is unclear if the one God is the same one. In the US politicians often talk about religion as a source for both their own and communal values. But these statements usually assume the plurality of religious faiths. Just like Fox News’ allegation of a “War on Christmas”, this is in contradiction with the very principles of the American constitution.
On this, and on many other issues, Donald Trump is emulating global trends. Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey and Modhi’s India are all moving towards an explicit establishment of state religion, in which all citizens must participate. This is a source of conservative identity that connects nationalism to the masses in an apolitical way while also undermining liberal values. If this American version of the separation of church and state represents a modern idea of religious practice in a plural world, then the new state religion ideologies are a backlash against the very idea of modernity.
By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
This week a Russian group hacked into the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) athlete database and released the private medical records of three leading American athletes: Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Simone Biles. The documents revealed that all three athletes had received medical exemptions to use banned drugs during competition. This comes following the ban of many Russian athletes from competing in the 2016 Rio Olympics due to systematic state-sponsored doping.
Policymakers and academics tend to think of cyber warfare as an issue of national security. Cyber terrorists hack into defense and intelligence targets and use the information to increase their security vis-à-vis targeted organizations. Prominent American targets have included the Pentagon, the State Department and the Department of Defense. Although this is a relatively new field of scholarship, it is termed cyber-security and is studied in reference to theories of terrorism and technology security. However, the targeting of a 19 year-old 4’9” phenomenal athlete can hardly be classified as an issue of national security.
How does Russia benefit from targeting these athletes? First, the medical records support an age-old Russian narrative that the system is rigged against Russia. According to this logic, when Russian athletes failed doping tests, it became a worldwide scandal and led to the banning of the majority of the Russian team. When American athletes take banned substances, they are given exemptions by WADA, allowed to compete, and win. We know very little about the process of exemptions, and there is no suggestion that these athletes did anything wrong, but that matters little to the Russian hackers. In Russia, the victimization narrative is supported by many examples: since the end of the Cold War the West has moved to expand its influence countries that were traditionally in Russia’s sphere of influence, like Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. This was done with complete disregard to Russia’s interests and security concerns in the region. Other minor examples include the lack of international outcry over the Russian plane downed in Egypt compared to the response to terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. These things cause outrage in Russia and real sense of grievance.
Second, the records also promote the idea that the United States is hypocritical. Many Russians think that while the US presents itself as a liberal democratic country, it is actually no different than Russia. The average person on the street in Russia would likely tell you that Russia is a democracy, certainly as much as the United States. Of course, Russia has little to no political opposition and a lack of free media, but in the United States capital and political power are intertwined and the turnover rate in Congress is extremely low. A common view is that while Russia may limit certain individual rights, the United States also does this in regards to certain vulnerable domestic and international populations. Similarly, while it is true that Russian athletes dope, so does everyone else, including Americans. According to the Russian view, Americans should get off their high horse in their dealings with Russia.
Finally, consider the images of Simone Biles flipping through the air in the Rio Olympics, her Wheaties box and Serena Williams, with her beautiful athletic form winning dozens of international championships. This is the image that America wants to portray to the world. It is powerful, multi-racial and promotes gender equality. This is exactly the image that Russia wants to tarnish. In general, sports are an instrument of soft power. During the Soviet period, Russian gymnasts were marketed as a sign of Soviet femininity and power, and they won. Larisa Latynina was the most decorated Olympian for 48 years, until her record was broken by Michael Phelps in 2012. Through their athletes, Soviet Union wanted to project normality and success to the Western world. This aspect of soft power should not be taken lightly. States devote significant resources to their sports programs. Of course, one reason for this is health and other benefits to youth, but many of the more advanced programs are designed to create national winners. The United States had an enormously successful 2016 Olympics: the US was first in the medal table with 121 medals overall, 46 of them gold, far ahead of the rest of the pack. In contrast, Russia’s rump team had 56 medals total, 19 of them gold. This new attack is an attempt to even the score.
There is no evidence of a connection between the Russian hackers and the Kremlin. However, the group, Fancy Bear (!), has been tied to the G.R.U., Russian military intelligence. In any case, the cyber attack solidifies strong Russian political narratives both domestically and abroad. This is a great example of why the connection between cyber-security and soft-power should receive more attention, especially in the scholarly community.
By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
In an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Julian Assange dropped the bomb that he would release “thousands” of documents that will have a “significant” impact in the upcoming presidential elections. Earlier this election season Assange’s WikiLeaks published emails from DNC officials leading to the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz amongst others. Now he has announced that he will put out some “teasers” and then release documents about Hillary Clinton, the DNC and the upcoming presidential election.
As liberal academics whose normative inclination is to open information democracy we were surprised that our reaction to Assange was negative. Perhaps we are the type of liberals who only stand by our liberal values when it is convenient. But maybe there is more to this aversion of Assange and his tactics.
Assange continuously presents himself as a champion of transparency and freedom of information. But in fact, WikiLeaks chooses which information to present, how to publicize it and the most effective timing for achieving its goals. WikiLeaks has had these emails for months and could have easily published all of them together, letting readers decide for themselves what is important. Publicizing “teasers” of the emails and timing their release before the height of the presidential race goes far beyond the admirable goal of freedom of information. Assange and WikiLeaks have a political goal and framing it under the guise of freedom of information is misleading.
Some, in particular those in the Democratic Party, accuse Assange of having ties to Russia. We do not have the information to weigh in on this accusation, especially because there is a war of narratives between the U.S. government and Assange, both of whom are powerful media actors (of course the US has the advantage here). But it should be noted that freedom of information in the world since the inception of WikiLeaks is not on the rise. Many regimes, including Russia, have become less transparent in the past decade despite the rise of open information online. Another prominent example is China: despite the enormous rise in internet availability the state still controls the flow of information and government processes are still very opaque. The online revolution of information seems to affect only liberal democratic regimes.
Assange presents himself as the prophet of free information unveiling the dark secrets of powerful actors. But in fact free information is not a new phenomenon. Although the technology has changed, whistleblowers have always been influential in politics and other arenas. Throughout history insiders have uncovered plots and secrets and mobilized popular support accordingly. There were numerous plots revealed during French Revolution that influenced the course of events, the Dreyfus affair hinged on notes found in a trashcan, and of course Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were scandals around the release of secret information. Assange did not invent whistleblowing and in fact WikiLeaks has had probably less effect than these pre-internet examples. Today there is a massive amount of information being leaked: they key to its usefulness is selection and interpretation. Traditionally this is the role of the media. Assange argues that in the age of Internet there is no need for elite gatekeepers to filter information to the masses, but in fact he is himself assuming the role of an elite gatekeeper without honestly acknowledging it.
We support freedom of information and believe in transparency. But it is important to remember that all information comes with an agenda, whether it is the agenda of the US government or the agenda of Julian Assange. These actors are so powerful it makes it difficult to identify the agenda, especially when they are not being honest about it. We believe that the role of the media as an interpreter and communicator of information, with its own agenda, ideally to support liberal democracy, is as important as ever.