I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Years ago, I hosted a talk show on a Salt Lake City radio station. One day, an irate caller complained that I had "no right" to express my heretical ideas on the air. "But madam," I protested, "surely you must believe in the First Amendment right of free speech." "Of course," she replied, "but that doesn't give you the right to say what isn't true."
She declined to explain to me who or what would determine "what is Truth?" However, come to think of it, Pontius Pilate fared no better.
It appears that the Bush Administration has adopted, and most of the American media and public have accepted, my anonymous caller's interpretation of the First Amendment – with this advantage: We are also give a criterion of "The Truth." It is what Bush's government tells us it is.
Defiance of that criterion has cost journalists in Texas, Oregon, Utah and elsewhere their jobs. Talk Show host, Bill Maher, salvaged his job for a short while at the cost of a stern warning from management and a humiliating on-air retraction, following the cancellation of his show in several local markets and the loss of a few key sponsors. And then his "Politically Incorrect" was itself cancelled. And Susan Sontag's display of eloquence and candor in the September 24 New Yorker unleashed a torrent of public criticism. (As a self-employed writer, she is presumably beyond firing). Appearing on Nightline with a covey of conservative critics, Sontag was told that she had no right to be critical at a time of national emergency. When she brought up the First Amendment, the critics retreated. Sure, they said, she had a right to express her views, but that didn't mean that The New Yorker should publish them. Presumably, she was thus afforded the right to type up her opinions, have them copied at Kinkos, and then to hand them out at some street corner. But publication in a significant periodical? Faggetaboutit!
What is especially remarkable about these episodes is the relative mildness of Maher's and Sontag's remarks. Both commented that it seemed inappropriate to describe suicide pilots as "cowards." Instead, they continued, "cowardice" might better describe those who shun the battlefield, preferring (in Sontag's words) to "kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky." Such comments are scarcely original with Maher and Sontag – they have, in fact, been expressed widely, both at home and (more freely) abroad.
Nor is that the end of it. Harper Collins, the publisher of Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men," refused to release the book. Only the timely response of a few professional librarians followed by a protest from the American Library Association saved the book from the pulp machine. As we all know, it went on to become a best seller. ( See Kera Bolonik's "Muzzling Moore," Salon, January 7, 2002). And at a commencement ceremony at CSU Sacramento, December 15, 2001, Sacramento Bee Publisher, Janis Besler Heaphy, was shouted off the stage before she could complete her speech, which would have concluded (had the audience permitted): "America was founded on the belief that the freedom to think as you will and speak as you think are essential to democracy. Only by exercising those rights can you ensure their continued existence."
Do you disagree, dear reader, with the opinions of these dissenters? Whether or not you do is quite beside the point. The fundamental question is this:
Do we, or do we not, still reside in a republic that tolerates the expression of unpopular ideas? Amidst all the talk of "supporting our leaders," and "you are either with us or against us," all too many of our
journalists and citizens seem to be forgetting the content and implications of that "freedom" that we claim to be defending.
To close, I invite you to ponder some of the words that provoked the abuse heaped upon Susan Sontag:
The disconnect between last Tuesday's [September 11] monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in campaign to infantilize the public. . .
The public is not being asked to bear much of the burden of reality. The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy. (The New Yorker, September 24, 2001).
"If liberty means anything at all," Orwell wrote, "it means the right to tell people what they don't want to hear." By that account, the United States may no longer be the "sweet land of liberty." The acid test of a democracy is its tolerance of the free expression of unpopular ideas. Bush's America is failing that test. Can Orwell's "Ministry of Truth" be far ahead?
The Usurper President proclaims that "we will not allow the terrorists to take away our freedom!"
No, instead it appears that we're willing to let George do it.
Copyright 2001 by Ernest Partridge