By John W. Whitehead
“What are the defenders of free speech to do? The sad fact is that this fundamental freedom is on its heels across America. Politicians of both parties want to use the power of government to silence their foes. Some in the university community seek to drive it from their campuses. And an entire generation of Americans is being taught that free speech should be curtailed as soon as it makes someone else feel uncomfortable. On the current trajectory, our nation’s dynamic marketplace of ideas will soon be replaced by either disengaged intellectual silos or even a stagnant ideological conformity. Few things would be so disastrous for our nation and the well-being of our citizenry.”—William Ruger, “Free Speech Is Central to Our Dignity as Humans“
As a nation, we have a tendency to sentimentalize cultural icons in death in a way that renders them non-threatening, antiseptic and easily digested by a society with an acute intolerance for anything controversial, politically incorrect or marred by imperfection.
This revisionist history—a silent censorship of sorts—has proven to be a far more effective means of neutralizing radicals such as Martin Luther King Jr. than anything the NSA, CIA or FBI could dream up.
In life, King called for Americans to rise up against a government that was not only treating blacks unfairly but was also killing innocent civilians, impoverishing millions, and prioritizing the profits of war over human rights and dignity. This was a man who went to jail over racial segregation laws, encouraged young children to face down police dogs and water hoses, and who urged people to turn their anger loose on the government through civil disobedience. King actually insisted that people have a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
In death, however, King has been reduced to a face on a national monument and a national holiday, neither of which even hint at the true nature of the man: fiery, passionate, single-minded in his pursuit of justice, unwilling to remain silent in the face of wrongdoing, and unafraid of offending those who might disagree with him.
A contemporary of King’s, heavy-weight championship boxer Muhammad Ali followed a different path as a social activist and “breaker of boundaries.” Like King, Ali didn’t pull any punches when it came to saying what he believed and acting on it. Yet already, in the wake of Ali’s passing, we’re being treated to a sentimentalized version of the heavy-weight boxer.
In life, Ali was fast-talking, fast-moving and as politically incorrect as they come. He became an early convert to the Nation of Islam, a black separatist religious movement whose membership at one time included Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan. He denounced his “slave name” (Cassius Marcellus Clay) and refused to be the “white man’s Negro.”
He was stripped of his boxing title, arrested and threatened with five years in prison and a fine of $10,000 after refusing to be drafted into the Army as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” declared Ali. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
As First Amendment scholar David L. Hudson Jr. notes, “Ali’s remarkable career and life placed him at the vortex of these First Amendment freedoms… Ali freely exercised his religious faith. He regularly spoke provocatively on a variety of topics. The press was abuzz with coverage and criticism. Thousands assembled in support of him, and the champion himself took part in rallies, parades and marches. Some petitioned the government to redress the injustice of his conviction for refusing military service, which resulted in his being exiled from the boxing ring for his beliefs.”
It took a legal battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for Ali’s religious objections to serving in the Army to be given credence and his First Amendment arguments to prevail. The case was Clay v. United States.
That was in 1971.
Forty-five years later, Ali is dead, fear is alive, and free speech is being dealt one knock-out punch after another.
Indeed, talk-show celebrity Piers Morgan has been soundly trounced and roundly censured for daring to suggest that Ali—a champion of the First Amendment who liberally peppered his speech with words (nigger and Uncle Tom) and opinions (“the white man is the Devil“ and “I’m sure no intelligent white person watching this show … want black boys and black girls marrying their white sons and daughters“) that would horrify most of his politically correct fans—made more “inflammatory/racist” comments than Donald Trump.
Speaking of Trump, in Fresno, California, a third-grader was ordered to remove his pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” hat because school officials feared for his safety. The 9-year-old boy refused, citing the First Amendment.
That was the same argument—a concern for safety—officials used in 2010 when they ordered several high school students to remove their t-shirts emblazoned with the American flag. The concern: wearing the flag on Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican day of celebration, might offend Hispanic students attending the school. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the school’s logic. Coincidentally, that same week, the high court also ruled against Confederate flag license plates on the grounds that they constituted government speech and might be offensive to African-Americans.
For those of us who came of age in the 1960s, college campuses were once the bastion of free speech, awash with student protests, sit-ins, marches, pamphleteering, and other expressive acts showing our displeasure with war, the Establishment and the status quo.
Today, on college campuses across the nation, merely chalking the word “Trump” on the sidewalk is enough to have student groups crying foul and labeling it as hate speech in need of censorship. Under the misleading guise of tolerance, civility, love and political correctness, college campuses have become hotbeds of student-led censorship, trigger warnings, microaggressions, and “red light” speech policies targeting anything that might cause someone to feel uncomfortable, unsafe or offended.
As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, this doesn’t even begin to touch on the criminalization and surveillance of various forms of speech that the government deems to be hateful, anti-government, extremist, bullying, dangerous or inflammatory.
One could say that we have allowed our fears—fear for our safety, fear of each other, fear of being labeled racist or hateful or prejudiced, etc.—to trump our freedom of speech and muzzle us far more effectively than any government edict could.
Ultimately the war on free speech—and that’s exactly what it is: a war being waged by Americans against other Americans—is a war that is driven by fear.
America is in the midst of an epidemic of historic proportions. The contagion being spread like wildfire is turning communities into battlegrounds and setting Americans one against the other. Normally mild-mannered individuals caught up in the throes of this disease have been transformed into belligerent zealots, while others inclined to pacifism have taken to stockpiling weapons and practicing defensive drills.
This plague on our nation—one that has been carefully cultivated and spread by the powers-that-be—is a potent mix of fear coupled with unhealthy doses of paranoia and intolerance, tragic hallmarks of the post-9/11 America in which we live.
Everywhere you turn, those on both the left- and right-wing are fomenting distrust and division. You can’t escape it. We’re being fed a constant diet of fear: fear of terrorists, fear of illegal immigrants, fear of people who are too religious, fear of people who are not religious enough, fear of the government, fear of those who fear the government. The list goes on and on.
The strategy is simple yet brilliant: the best way to control a populace is through fear and discord. Confound them, distract them with mindless news chatter and entertainment, pit them against one another by turning minor disagreements into major skirmishes, and tie them up in knots over matters lacking in national significance. Most importantly, keep the people divided so that they see each other as the enemy and screaming at each other so that they drown out all other sounds. In this way, they will never reach consensus about anything or hear the corporate state as it closes in on them.
This is how a freedom-loving people enslave themselves and allow tyrants to prevail.
This Machiavellian scheme has so ensnared the nation that few Americans even realize they are being manipulated into adopting an “us” against “them” mindset. Instead, fueled with fear and loathing for phantom opponents, they pour millions of dollars and resources into political elections, hoping for change that never comes. All the while, those in power—bought and paid for by lobbyists and corporations—move their costly agendas forward, and “we the suckers” get saddled with the tax bills.
We have been down this road before.
A classic example is the fear and paranoia that gripped the country during the 1950s. Many huddled inside their homes and fallout shelters, awaiting a nuclear war. It was also the time of the Red Scare. The enemy this time was Communist infiltration of American society.
Joseph McCarthy, a young Republican senator, grasped the opportunity to capitalize on the popular paranoia for personal national attention. In a speech in February 1950, McCarthy alleged having a list of over 200 members of the Communist Party “working and shaping the policy of the U.S. State Department.” The speech was picked up by the Associated Press, without substantiating the facts, and within a few days the hysteria began.
McCarthy specialized in sensational and unsubstantiated accusations about Communist infiltration of the American government, particularly the State Department. He also targeted well-known Hollywood actors and directors, trade unionists and teachers. Many others were brought before the inquisitional House Committee on Un-American Activities for questioning. Regarded as bad risks, the accused struggled to secure employment. The witch hunt ruined careers, resulting in suicides, and tightened immigration to exclude alleged subversives.
“McCarthyism” eventually smeared all the accused with the same broad brush, whether the evidence was good, bad or nonexistent. McCarthy, like many do today, appealed to the low instincts of envy, paranoia and dislike for the intellectual establishment.
“The real scoundrel in all this,” writes historian David Halberstam, “was the behavior of the members of the Washington press corps, who, more often than not, knew better. They were delighted to be a part of his traveling road show, chronicling each charge and then moving on to the next town, instead of bothering to stay behind and follow up. They had little interest in reporting how careless McCarthy was or how little it all meant to him.”
However, on March 9, 1954, Edward R. Murrow, the most-respected newsman on television at the time, broke the ice. He attacked McCarthy on his weekly show, See It Now. Murrow interspersed his own comments and clarifications into a damaging series of film clips from McCarthy’s speeches. Murrow ended the broadcast with one of the greatest news commentaries of all time, also a warning.
We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular.
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it—and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ”The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Whether you’re talking about free speech, surveillance, police misconduct or some other symptom of a government that has grown drunk on its own power, the answer is always the same: “we the people.”
We need to reject fear as our guiding principle, and restore freedom to its rightful place at the center of our republic.
As William Ruger writes in a powerful editorial for Time:
We must vigorously re-make the case for free speech. We must recur to its great defenders from ages past and reintroduce their ideas to our fellow Americans. The wisdom of John Milton, John Locke and John Stuart Mill—not to mention that of Americans like George Mason and Justice Louis Brandeis—is as true today as it was in their times. We just have to remember it… we must transmit an understanding of the value of free speech to today’s Americans in order to ensure that it is protected for future generations. And perhaps even more importantly, we need to demonstrate a vigorous commitment to free speech. America’s success depends on whether we continue to embrace this fundamental freedom.