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In defense of whistleblowers

Guest Opinion: A new novel about the Dreyfus Affair reminds us that when power is at stake, inconvenient truths - and truth tellers - are often ignored or persecuted.
An historical thriller about the Dreyfus Affair reminds us that truth is elusive in politics.

An historical thriller about the Dreyfus Affair reminds us that truth is elusive in politics. Credit: Knopf

"Power is not a means, it is an end...the object of power is power." — George Orwell

"Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." — Lord Acton

An Officer and a Spy (Knopf), a new quasi-fictional account of the Dreyfus Affair by Robert Harris, is a screaming wakeup call to anyone who does not apply critical faculties to statements and acts by governments, private institutions and individuals interested in protecting themselves. These self-serving moments occur around us all the time. We need to recognize them when they happen.

Alfred Dreyfus was a French Army officer attached to the general staff, who in 1895 was convicted of treason, humiliated before thousands in Paris streets and sent to Devil's Island, where he was the only prisoner and where, it was presumed, his brutal treatment would lead to his death. 

Dreyfus, who was Jewish, was a victim of rampant anti-Semitism of the time and also of the senior war ministry and Army officials who knew him to be innocent and, in fact, knew the identity of the real perpetrator who had passed military information to Germany. They manufactured false evidence, lied and attempted to silence and even kill those who discovered the truth and wanted Dreyfus freed.

Lt. Col. George Picquart, a newly appointed chief of Army counter-intelligence, uncovered the truth shortly after Dreyfus was convicted. He attempted to correct the injustice through official channels but eventually was drummed out of the army and jailed. Yet he persisted, at great personal risk, helped by courageous politicians, attorneys and journalists, including Emile Zola, Georges Clemenceau, Jean Jaures and Louis Leblois. These Dreyfus champions operated in a poisonous French political climate in which public opinion overwhelmingly supported the men who had perverted justice. 

After several years' imprisonment and later trials, Dreyfus finally was freed. But he was not pardoned until 1906.

In a rare good-guys-win scenario, both Dreyfus and Picquart were restored to active military service and Picquart eventually was appointed Minister of War (the equivalent of our Secretary of Defense).

In the earlier French Revolution, as in the later Nazi and Stalinist eras, outcomes were less just. Innocent and courageous persons were falsely accused, jailed and executed for the crime of their integrity and refusal to toe a politically correct line. It's still happening today in some parts of the world.

Wars have been started and sustained, lives ruined and questioners punished in the United States because leaders wanted lies and mistakes covered up. The Spanish-American War, the U.S. entry into World War I, the Red Scare years after World War I and the McCarthy era after World War II, blatant discrimination against and oppression of minorities, the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the financial crashes of 1929 and 2008, the Vietnam War, the second Gulf War, the Exxon and BP oil spills, the Enron collapse and the continuing Wall Street corruption all have been surrounded by such conduct. 

President Nixon was forced to resign but presidents before and after have lied too, not only about policy but about their health, personal lives and political opponents. In many cases they were supported at the time, as were the abusers during the Dreyfus era, by overwhelming majorities of public opinion.

Even the highest minded governments slip into self-protective expediency. The same Johnson Administration which launched the Great Society fell victim to the syndrome when it came to Vietnam. President Johnson's senior foreign-policy and national-security advisors had a stake in the war and delivered upbeat reports of progress which the president, in turn, passed on to the American people. Inside the bologna factory, it was another matter. As Vice President Humphrey's assistant in the LBJ White House, I saw and heard from a stream of Pentagon, CIA and State Department officials who told another story entirely but were stifled and muffled by their bosses. In that administration, no one was jailed or sent to purgatory for Vietnam dissent; truth tellers simply were ignored or not promoted.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, May 20, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Read the book a few months ago. It really does leave you shaking your head, even if you already knew the basics of the history. I recommend it.

Posted Tue, May 20, 11:29 a.m. Inappropriate

"Anyone who has worked in government, a corporation, university, labor union or large nonprofit knows that conformity is encouraged and that dissent often leads to isolation."

Speaking of books, TVD's review reminded me of a seminal work that has largely gone unappreciated outside the academy: "Political Parties", written in the early 20th century by Robert Michels, a German sociologist with a French name. Michels formulated what he termed "the iron law of oligarchy", which holds that idealism of even the most radical sort becomes conservative and self-protective once it becomes embedded into an organizational structure. His insight was that a bureaucracy has an intrinsic and powerful internal dynamic that eventually overwhelms any programmatic idealism that may have impelled its creation. Ultimately any bureaucracy becomes primarily focused on the preservation of the elites that run it, to the exclusion of everything else, including the reasons that originally brought it into existence.

I have often wondered why Michels's brilliant analysis has been so broadly ignored on the functional level. Maybe it's because his conclusions are so depressing to the cause of long-term social change and no one has ever found a pathway out of the bureaucratic trap.

woofer

Posted Tue, May 20, 11:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Woofer: Excellent observation. I've always thought of it this way.
First, the revolutionaries and/or idealists, then the bureaucrats and/or administrators, then the defensive status quo reactionaries.
History keeps repeating.

Posted Wed, May 21, 10:17 p.m. Inappropriate

You've heard some conservatives talking about starving the beast, now you know why they say it. When I worked for the feds the primary concern up the GS scale was; how to manage their image. The mission was always in second place till the poop hit the fan, then the scapegoating and blood letting started, and the mission was elevated to the top of heap. It was short lived at the top. I might add that it was that way when I worked for Seattle Public Schools in the early 70's.

Djinn

Posted Mon, May 26, 7:16 p.m. Inappropriate

Bureaucracy should never be respected or admired, or allowed to flourish.

That is the basis for what is wrong in our society today.

Posted Wed, May 21, 11:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Considering myself a whistleblower, I've practiced a yin-yang moderate/centrist approach to infrastructure/engineering and regretfully offering critical analysis, Mr Van dyk. Yet, as grandpa warned,
"Yew wont be listened to. We no like Gerty before she died. Nobody listen."
Bertha Wormtunnel is a rapist.

Wells

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