December 17, 2003

Recommended read of the day: ICH's "Is America Sick?", citing an unpublished manuscript, "The IHO Syndrome" by Julien Ninio. Excerpts:

Americans have a legal right to speak more freely than most people on earth. Our Constitution's first Amendment guarantees that 'Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech'. We pride ourselves on our right of free speech and scoff at those who strike speech they dislike . . .

In fact, we long forbade the category of speech called seditious, speech that criticises the government. Under the 1917 Espionage Act, we sent five-time presidential candidate Eugene Debs to jail for making an anti-war speech. Under the 1940 Smith Act, we sent a dozen leaders of the American Communist Party to jail for teaching the Marxist doctrine in the United States--and we outlawed the party. Apart from these two famous examples, we prosecuted thousands of dissidents over nearly 200 years. In 1964, we finally revoked the 1798 Sedition Act that made it illegal to speak or write critically about the government, allowing us to meet the minimal condition for a democratic society for the first time.[2] We have enjoyed our present level of free speech only for a short period, and we can easily lose it.

To control speech, lawmakers now act more subtly than by just yanking rights away. They reduce speech by playing with the balance of rights, by granting government agencies rights that interfere with our right of free speech. For instance, in return for our freedom of speech, the government has a 'freedom to listen'. The recent USA Patriot Act allows government to wiretap us and search our apartments without proving our 'probable involvement' in a crime. The USA Patriot Act also allows government to monitor our emails and the web sites we visit. If an FBI agent worries about a letter you wrote to the editor, he can now order your travel agent, your doctor and your librarian to turn over your records without telling you. The FBI can ask bookstores and libraries to turn over the list of people who bought or borrowed certain books. The USA Patriot Act does not restrict our speech directly. You can say whatever you like, but the FBI can come and bully you if it dislikes whatever you say.[3] If the government has a right to sift through our underwear every time we speak out, we may have a kind of right of free speech, but a weak one, not one we should brag about . . .

When the towers went down in New York, we had a chance to look in the mirror. Immediately, we asked: What have we done? Why us? The attack made no sense in our view of the world, where America presides as the planet's righter of wrongs. For the entire day of the attacks, news programs showed countless Americans asking why anyone would want to hurt us. Then at night Bush appeared and gave a final, abstract answer: 'America was targeted for attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world'. After that, few dared use their right of free speech to suggest more concrete reasons anyone could resent our country. We rallied behind Bush. Those who hated him for stealing the presidency now carried him to the top of the polls. We turned our criticism sensor all the way up, and stoned anyone who whispered the least doubt about the official answer--'they hate our freedoms'. The irony should not be missed: We took away their freedom to disagree with the claim that others hate us for our freedoms. Two weeks after the attacks, essayist Susan Sontag provoked an outburst of outrage when she wrote a piece that contained a single suggestion for her compatriots--to think: 'Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together'.[8] Her suggestion marked her as insensitive and unpatriotic. In times like these, we cannot engage in cold analysis; we must respect other people's feelings, we must respect their wishes neither to think nor to hear contrary views.

I happen to think that that last paragraph is one of the more insightful I've read lately.

Be at peace.