Thursday, May 18, 2006

Moving towards freedomless speech

It is not so curious that in the wake of the Danish cartoon conflict, during which the American press and news media revealed their tepid commitment to freedom of speech and the inviolacy of the First Amendment, incidents of assaults on that freedom would not only multiply, but assume odd but no less ominous forms.

In 1996, in "The Ghouls of Grammatical Egalitarianism," a review for The Social Critic of the American Association of University Press's Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing, I noted:

"Thought orthodoxy is not synonymous with thought control. There is no Federal Board of Language Usage to which publishers must submit their books and journals to be tested for discriminatory or disparaging language before they can be put on the market for sale to the public. However, while no official agency of control exists, there is a kind of interlocking directorate of semi-public institutions and organizations which accomplishes the same purpose by presenting a united front against freedom of expression and imposing orthodoxy on our culture's intellectual and literary pacesetters. 'Say what you please, we're not censors!....But say it our way, or do not bother to say it.'

"Short of overt government repression, I cannot imagine a more insidious form of thought control than this, which is to thrust independent minds of whatever professional suasion or degree of ability into a purgatory that is not quite freedom and not quite slavery."

And, in discussing the ramifications of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in my entry on "Censorship" in the 2002 edition of The Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science (Vol. 70), I observed:

"All the provisions regarding 'obscenity' are ostensibly for the sake of protecting children. An early precedent for this particular ruse was the Rubbish and Smut bill (or the Schund und Schmutz law) of May 1927, enacted by the Weimar government in Germany, in which children under the age of 18 were similarly 'protected' by controls from plays, literature, art, and especially nightclub performances that might corrupt their moral fiber. The act took the form of a ban of all under 18 years of age from proximity to these 'evils.' It also gave the police the unlimited power to enter private residences to enforce the law, and even prohibited young adults from attending art classes that employed nude models. The Rubbish and Smut law was an overture to wholesale Nazi censorship six years later."

Germany was prepared for Nazi rule in more ways than one -- chiefly by its philosophy -- and the Rubbish and Smut law was passed and enforced in the name of "decency." In the U.S., such laws are enacted on federal and state levels for the same reason, and also in the name of "fairness," "balance," and "sensitivity." Not to mention that Trojan horse of all regulations, bans, and controls: children.

"Speech codes" have established stultifying purgatories of expression not only on college campuses, but in other venues, as well, such as business and even tourism. In how many numberless places of business would one now risk a sexual harassment lawsuit by paying a colleague a compliment on his or her appearance, and probable dismissal by one's employer, who would likely be named a co-defendant for not having enforced federal and state "guidelines"?

And what better way to ensure that college students become "responsible" citizens than by creating lists of "protected" and "unprotected" speech, and even linking academic success to the degree to which students adhere to them? Establish in their minds the habit of observing arbitrary parameters of speech and thought, and they won't give the authorities much trouble. They will be too busy "giving back to society" to discover how much liberty that society has surrendered and taken from them.

And, just the other day, browsing through some Colonial Williamsburg teachers' brochures that offer literature on how to introduce students to the American Revolution, I encountered the term "tradespeople" in lieu of "tradesmen." What the first term conveys is that the men who made the Revolution possible were androgynous "persons" who wore strange clothing and practiced odd customs. But the employment of sanitized terminology is not the worst offense committed by Colonial Williamsburg. Its acceptance of federal grants disqualifies the foundation from teaching anything about why the Revolution occurred, for with the grants come the requirements of political correctness, which can only influence how it represents history.

To return to thought control. The "control" that enforces "orthodoxy" in speech by individuals is simply fear of retribution, reprisal, or financial and personal ruin. To work, thought or speech control relies exclusively on self-censorship. The instances of operable thought control are as ubiquitous and innocuous in our culture as countless drops of water falling on one's forehead in a Chinese torture.

Now, there's a "disparaging" analogy! Could it be construed as an ethnic slur, or a cultural slur? A sleazy lawyer could make a case for both and take me to the cleaners. Wait! Now I'm offending lawyers! And cleaners! Well, how about saying that thought control is much like the embrace of an iron maiden? No, that wouldn't sit well with maidens reading this, either. Not that any girl or woman today wouldn't feel offended by being called a "maiden." How about risking being hauled before a Spanish Inquisition for speech heresy? Or for playing Russian Roulette with one's mouth? Nope. I might offend Hispanics, Catholics, or the Moscow Mafia. And perhaps Italians.

A friend remarked to me, referring to the disgraceful behavior of our government and press during the Danish cartoon "outrage," that "Mohammed was only the beginning." Rather, Mohammed is only the capstone of an edifice otherwise known as an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, under construction in our culture for the last half century.

I trust I have made my point. The Mohammedan enforcer of politically correct speech is ready with his scimitar, watching your every movement and listening to your every word, eager to behead unrepentant infidels of the First Amendment. "Slay them wherever you find them." Or take them to court.

And if we are tempted to speak out of turn -- that is, to endorse or criticize a candidate for political office and consequently violate the time strictures of the Campaign Finance Law and an arbitrary ruling of the Federal Election Commission -- we must not think that law is an abridgement of the First Amendment, but rather as a gag for the "public good."

In Boulder, Colorado, for example, citizens concerned about the "decency" of their neighbors, coworkers, or strangers may have the chance to snitch anonymously to the authorities if they believe a "hate crime" has been committed.

The Denver Post reports that "the Boulder City Council will take up the matter of allocating public funding for a 'hate hotline,' which would giver residents an opportunity to report incidents in which Boulderites use tactless language."

As though that were not bad enough, try to unravel the illogic of a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union. The Post reports him as saying, "Our concern -- and there are many -- is that there is no confidentiality, no legal confidentiality," explains Judd Golden, chairman of the Boulder ACLU. "So it's potentially chilling if people think they are providing this information in confidence and then that information were provided to the government or the government sought access to it. That would chill free speech."

Here is that gibberish unraveled. Golden is not concerned about the power of the government to punish someone for speaking his mind and asserting his freedom of speech. That it has such power, or is seeking it, is the given he sanctions. He is concerned about the jeopardy in which informants might find themselves if the government knew their identities. It is not the principle of the First Amendment that he is worried can be chilled, splintered, and melted away, but the contextless "freedom of speech" and "privacy" of petit Nazis and would-be gauleiters.

The Boulder Council, flailing about in its own shrunken epistemology, believes it has a duty to protect tattletales from any consequences of their "public spirited" actions. Its resolution would not only condemn "the usual individual or collective acts of racism and bigotry," writes the Post, but those who attack, disparage, or denigrate "personal beliefs and values."

Sound familiar? This is Mohammed in the guise of any random soccer mom, public school teacher, community activist, or other endorser of the idea of "hate crimes."

The criminal code and justice system were once legitimately concerned with determining and punishing criminal actions in order to protect or uphold individual rights. The concept of "hate crimes," however, extends and sanctions the power of government and our courts to punish thought, as well, that is, for why a crime might have been committed.

It is but a short step from linking an actual crime with "hate" to making it a crime to "hate." One need not act on that "hate" to be pilloried by a law or society, except to express one's opinion or position, no matter how rational or irrational it might be. The Boulder Council seems to want to take that step. One can only imagine in how many other American cities that willingness exists in the minds of "stewards of the public good and safety."

On a fundamental cultural level, it is no coincidence that the introduction and gradual acceptance of the concept of "hate crimes" paralleled the stealthy and de facto imposition of politically correct speech. Politically correct speech, in turn, has established the grounds for punishable "tactless language."

In May of 1765, Patrick Henry urged the Virginia General Assembly to adopt the "tactless language" of his Resolves over the "politically correct" style of his time to protest the Stamp Act. When other colonial Americans read that language, deemed by the fearful as "disrespectful," "insensitive," "disparaging" and "offensive" to the majesty and prerogatives of the British Crown, it moved them to unite for the first time to oppose and resist Parliamentary power. That was the true beginning of the American Revolution.

The growing silence you hear now is a cowed nation exercising its freedomless speech.

* * * *

Other articles by Edward Cline on censorship:

"Here Comes a Chopper to Chop Off Your Head: Freedom of Expression vs. Censorship in America" Essay: The Journal of Information Ethics (St. Cloud State University, MN/ McFarland & Co., Publishers, Jefferson, NC), Fall 1995

"Patrick Henry: Not Merely an Orator" Essay: The Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Winter 1995

"The Ghouls of Grammatical Egalitarianism" a review of Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing, ed. Marilyn Schwartz and the Task Force on Bias-Free Language, The Social Critic, November/ December 1996

"Censorship" Entry: The Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, ed. Allen Kent, Marcel Dekker, New York, Vols. 62 (1998) and 70 (2002)

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