Peril on the Home Front

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Via Instapundit is an article that, although it is doubtless all over the place anyway, I will post it here and urge my readers to read in its entirety. My reaction follows. The article details massive efforts underway to severely curtail freedom of speech by means of reining in talk radio and the blogosphere.

***

Ayn Rand once said, "A political battle is merely a skirmish fought with muskets; a philosophical battle is a nuclear war." ("What Can One Do?", The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. I) This quote is particularly chilling in today's context: We are, in fact, facing the prospect of nuclear war with a deranged enemy, Iran. We could very easily wipe out the threat posed by Iran, but we haven't yet and we still haven't decided what to do. Our political will has been sapped by a war of ideas over the battle of Iraq because (1) its proponents in our administration have done a poor job of justifying and defending it to the American public, and (2) there has been a constant drumbeat of opposition from the political left and the media. This is not the drumbeat of a loyal opposition that would have had us fight harder in Iraq, or even to have started the war in a different theater altogether, but an opposition that would have us surrender on the battlefield and accept dhimmitude at home.

Despite the fact that we have an inarticulate president who does not seem to appreciate the importance of appealing to the minds of his electorate, we differ from most of Europe in having shown the political will to fight back in this war. Why? In large part, it is because ordinary citizens have stepped forward in the alternative media to supply the facts and arguments (Rand would have said, the "intellectual ammunition") that should have come from our elected officials far more often than they did, and (more importantly) which should have gotten a hearing in our traditional news media and universities, but which almost uniformly did not.

Why are ideas and arguments important in a time of war? Since we do not live in a dictatorship, our nation does not wage a war unless the politicians in power think that there is a broad enough consensus in favor of doing so. This is a very small, but relevant portion of the meaning of the Ayn Rand quote I started with above. For our country to fight an actual war, its people must first fight a battle of ideas. In other words, for us to go to war, we must hold a public debate and at the end of that debate, we must end up broadly accepting the premise that our enemy is a threat and that we must do what it takes to defeat him. Is sharia incompatible with freedom? Is it OK to kill others when their leaders threaten our lives or those of our friends in Israel? Is the purpose of diplomacy to settle a dispute between equally moral peoples or is it to buy time for a madman to develop a bomb? These are all questions whose answers depend not just on the factual context of our situation, but upon the values we generally accept as a people. And we must answer questions like these before we decide to go to war.

We cannot all be moral philosophers. We also cannot all be military or foreign policy experts. But in a free society, those who do specialize in these disciplines are free to make their arguments for or against a given course of public action. It is their job as intellectuals to help a people make an informed choice about what we should do as a nation, not just in a time of national crisis (as we are in now), but always. This is why freedom of speech is by far the most potent weapon in the American arsenal. When a nation permits the free exchange of ideas, we are free -- unfettered by such considerations as political correctness -- to, say, examine the religion of Islam and accept it or to find it wanting as the guide for our lives. Because we are free, we have all the information we need, and because we are free, we do not have to pretend, out of fear for our lives, to disagree with what our own minds tell us. And we have all the help we need from intellectuals, the specialists in their fields.

But all this information and help do not relieve us of the need to make our own minds up about the issues of the day. This is where, on a more modest level, freedom of speech shows its value again. In the times leading up to the American Revolution, the colonists would meet in taverns to discuss the issues of the day with their peers. Today, we do the same thing on a national scale by way of radio and the Internet. Why? Aren't the pronouncements of the experts enough? If the town crier or Dan Rather says something a common man can understand, is that not good enough?

Suppose for a moment that our criers and our newscasters are infallible. What if someone misses something, or wishes to be sure of grasping it fully? Fortunately for the town criers then, and the Dan Rathers now, they don't have to take each individual question from their audiences. Others who heard them could share the load of making sure everyone got what they needed, be that in the form of factual information or intellectual argument, to make an informed decision on the issues of the day. This is why, leading up to the Revolution, groups of ordinary men would get together over ale and hash things out. Sometimes, they would even evaluate the same ideas and information and come out in disagreement anyway, but they all evidently found some value in the process most of the time since they kept meeting to discuss politics over and over again. Eventually, enough of them decided to support a war for their freedom against one of the strongest nations of the time. They succeeded. There must have been some actual value in their quaint habit of arguing with one another all the time.

Again, as I said, the responsibility for protecting freedom lies with each man in a free nation. It is up to him to understand the rationales and facts behind the course of action he will advocate for any given issue of his day. Take the last election. Was the service of our current wartime President in the National Guard relevant or not to the job he had done for the past four years and would be expected to continue doing? And if so, were the allegations that he did not do so substantiated? These were important questions that no one in the business of providing facts to his public should mind that public discussing among themselves until they feel like they understand the point. And certainly, any politician genuinely concerned for the welfare of his nation would want his people to have nothing but all the facts about himself and his opponent, and the time to weigh them carefully before choosing to cast their ballots.

I will not belabor the details of Rathergate, but merely note that it demonstrates that in a free society, even a corrupt press cannot stop the common man from learning, by means of his own honest effort, what he needs to make an informed decision. The importance of this transcends party lines as well as the results of that election. Instead, I will only ask a few pertinent questions.

Given that it is necessary, with the way our republic conducts its affairs, for large numbers of ordinary men to access and evaluate arguments and factual data, what possible motivation could someone have for wanting to throttle the flow of those arguments and that information?

What consequences would such a achievement, such a throttling as it were, have?

And most importantly, why are you letting them do this to you?

Now go, if you haven't read that article already, and read it, please. And if you have, read it again. Make sure you have a copy handy, and make damn sure everyone you know finds out about it.

A repeal of McCain-Feingold would not solve all our problems, but it would be an excellent place to get started.

-- CAV

Updates

1-16-6: corrected typos (HT: Adrian Hester)

2 comments:

Adrian Hester said...

Yo, Gus, damned fine essay!

Gus Van Horn said...

Adrian,

Thanks! Just spit the thing out. Haven't decided what, if anything further I am going to do with it at the moment.

Gus