Freedom To Shut Up

OK, so I’m getting political again. Ranty, even

It all started Sunday evening after watching Brothers and Sisters (which, by the way, is shaping up to be one of the best shows on television) when mor and I had our post-show debriefing. When said debriefing turned to exclamations of delight about Sally Field, I remembered how the part of her Emmy speech that include a comment about the war in Iraq got cut off. And then, Monday morning, I read an editorial in the New York Times about how WBAI, a New York radio station that apparently has a long history of challenging limits to free speech (such as broadcasting George Carlin's "seven dirty words"), has decided it couldn’t risk broadcasting Allen Ginsberg's Howl on its 50th anniversary. Howl, I discovered, was ruled not to be obscene 50 years ago in a landmark case. According to the editorial, “[T]he station retreated out of fear that the Federal Communications Commission would levy large obscenity fines that might bankrupt the small-budget station."

And then I got a little bent out of shape about freedom of expression, censorship and the lunatic fringe bullying an entire country into submission.

When things first started to go sideways several years ago, after 9/11 and as the Iraq war was sold as a just fight to prevent a lunatic dictator from destroying the world with his WMD's, I tried to talk to American friends about looking deeper, about asking questions, and about how up here in Canada, it wasn't very hard at all to find information that contradicted the propaganda and I was very firmly and angrily told that now was not the time to challenge the president, now was the time to support him. It was a hard time and not only because I believe that during a time of war the most patriotic thing you can do is to ask questions - we have centuries of examples of how it is so very easy to demonize a country, a race, a culture when in reality, war is often about something other than that. It was a hard time because, as I tried to tell my American friends, the very reason that I was tremendously upset was because I love America and Americans. I have travelled to the States many times and have found Americans to be welcoming and friendly and their country spectacular. Watching the ideals of freedom and democracy become hijacked has been hard to bear, even for those of us in different countries.

Although freedom of expression is a part of many international human rights documents, it is with America that I associate it most. The Declaration of Independence states in its First Amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. Ratified in 1791. Over 200 years ago. Wow. Just… wow.

And now this nation that so famously said 'up yours', this nation that has been a model for fledgling democracies and revolutionaries all over the world, has willingly sleepwalked its way into a place where fear has gagged its media and its citizens.

Free speech? What free speech?

And sure, there are welcome changes emerging. The White House Press Corps has begun to ask questions again, after years of passively recycling statements, art questions – like Sunday’s episode of Brothers and Sisters when Kitty said to a Rush Limbaugh-like radio host that nutbars like him has turned conservatism into an ideology of hate - and media questions in cases like this (which horrified and nauseated me), but what I keep wondering is how much damage has been done and how long it will take the U.S. and the world to return to where it was. Or if we ever will.

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