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Now that the impeachment hearings are over, at least for the foreseeable future, I have been reflecting on the curious behaviors of the minority members of the House Intelligence Committee. Two stand out in my mind: the repeated argument that most of the witnesses were unreliable because all of their knowledge was second-hand; and the bizarrely unique treatment of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman.

Alexander Vindman

In fact, the first argument is false: several witnesses got their information directly from telephone calls in which they themselves were participants. But that’s not the worst thing about it: like so many of the murky stories the Republicans constructed and repeated, the underlying assumption has no basis in reality.

It contradicts the way human beings learn and assess knowledge. We do not necessarily privilege information we have acquired through direct first-hand experience. Assuming our informant is credible and the information she conveys believable, we are normally perfectly comfortable with second- or even third-hand testimony.

Think about it: have you yourself ever dropped objects from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Yet you believe in gravity, though our knowledge is second-hand. If we required direct experience, we would know very little, and deserve our species’s name of Homo sapiens even less than we do as it is.

We do, or should, carefully assess claims that come to us from sources other than direct observation or participation, such as the assertion that it was Ukraine rather than Russia that interfered in 2016 – although many Republicans seemed to believe that despite the absence of any credible evidence whatsoever.

But when a trusted colleague reports on a telephone conversation in which he was a participant, most of us would believe what that colleague said. That is especially true when the same claims are reported by more than one credible individual, as was true of many of these statements.

So either a majority of the Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee know less about normal human intelligence than practically anyone else, or they are knowingly and deliberately being deceptive.

Then there is the second matter, the unusual treatment of Lt. Col. Vindman. I will pass over Rep. Devin Nunes’s addressing him as “Mr.,” although I tend to believe it was intended as derogation, a means of eroding Vindman’s credibility. I am more concerned with the attempts to invalidate Vindman’s testimony by allegations that he was not a patriotic American: he was disloyal, perhaps treasonous, and had “divided loyalties.”

The Republicans were semi-covertly invoking the old and unfounded claim that Vindman, as a Jew, was necessarily disloyal to his country, automatically unpatriotic.

Although the Republicans attempted to personally destroy everyone who had negative things to say about the President’s activities in Ukraine, the slurs directed at Vindman were unique: no one else was accused of being anti-American. The reason repeatedly alleged for this charge was that he had not been born here – so his loyalties must be divided between the country of his birth and the US.

But logically, an immigrant is apt to be more loyal, rather than less. After all, an immigrant has had to make the wrenching decision to leave everything comfortable and familiar and learn the ways of a new country. An immigrant, then, must want very much to become a member of this new place, rather than just getting that by chance. So on its face, the charge is not only scurrilous, but nonsensical: it violates what we all know about how people think and act.

Yet this charge was reiterated over and over: the Republicans must have felt that it would get them sympathy. If we understand what they really meant, we can understand why they expected it to be received by many of their hearers with sympathy.

I am forced to entertain the suspicion that in alleging Vindman’s disloyalty, they and those who found the charge plausible knew that “Ukraine” and “Russia” were not what we were supposed to understand as we listened. Rather, the Republicans were semi-covertly invoking the old and unfounded claim that Vindman, as a Jew, was necessarily disloyal to his country, automatically unpatriotic.

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This is an ancient and a vicious canard. It goes back many centuries, and was the major argument in the Dreyfus affair in France during the last decade of the nineteenth century, a shameful business that was recognized even then as blatantly anti-Semitic. The Republican rhetoric around Vindman has disturbing similarities to that notorious case.

Alfred Dreyfus was a decorated officer in the French Army – and a Jew. This combination was intolerable to many of the powerful people in the French government and military. As a result, Dreyfus was charged with treason, found guilty, and sent to Devil’s Island. The only evidence against him was a scrap of a letter found in a wastebasket, in a handwriting someone said “looked like” Dreyfus’s. After his conviction, Dreyfus’s insignia were ripped from his uniform by a crowd chanting, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.”

Well, we’re past that now, of course. But…not so fast. When Vindman first came forward several weeks ago, his case was discussed by a panel on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show. One member of the panel, John Yoo, engaged in the following colloquy with Ingraham

“Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine,” said Ingraham, “while working inside the White House, apparently against the president’s interest, and usually, they spoke in English. Isn’t that kind of an interesting angle on this story?

“I found that astounding,” Mr. Yoo replied. “Some people might call that espionage.”

Espionage? Well, sure: they spoke in English. What more proof do you need? And of course, if you have ever done that, you too might be a spy. James Bond spoke English, and he was a spy: all you need to know.

This accusation, while superficially different, bears a nasty similarity to the “evidence” in the Dreyfus case: consisting of nothing, and dependent on anti-Semitism to achieve plausibility.

(Some might argue that the fact that Vindman, in Washington, was speaking English with his Ukrainian interlocutors (in Kyiv) proves that he is subversive. But that’s not so. It’s true that Vindman speaks Ukrainian: it was his home language, the one he learned first and the language probably most spoken at the family dinner table.

But what often happens with such bilingual speakers is complex. Their home language tends to remain at the simple, dinner-table level, while their English, the language in which they are receiving their education, develops greater complexity, specialization, and sophistication as they grow older.

In particular, they learn their profession in English – not only verbal technical terms, but the very way argumentation and persuasion are done. So when someone with Vindman’s background is trying to accomplish complicated business on the phone (harder than face to face), he is apt to prefer to do it in English.)

The best analogy to both of these arguments occurs in Chapter XI of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where the Knave of Hearts, on trial for stealing tarts, is found guilty because of a letter, unsigned and not in his handwriting. Not in his handwriting? Well, says the King of Hearts, presiding as Judge, “he must have imitated somebody else’s hand,” absolutely proving his guilt.

Yoo’s, like the anti-Dreyfus, argument, is a close analog of the King’s. Like Alice, Americans should be able to see through it. But not necessarily – if the person you’re talking about is not one of us. That is the deeper message the congressional Republicans, and similar conservatives, are trying to get us to believe.

robin lakoff

Robin Lakoff
The Berkeley Blog