Journalism: Backing Away from the Gates

May 5, 2010

For the use of member newspapers only (755 words)

“We oppose all infringements on individual rights, whether they stem from attempts at private monopoly, labor union monopoly or from an overgrowing government. People will say we are conservative or even reactionary. We are not much interested in labels but if we were to choose one, we would say we are radical. Just as radical as the Christian doctrine.” — William Grimes, the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 2, 1951

As I review the sorry bunch of retreads, reprobates and crazies that the local GOP has elected to “fight” for me in Washington, I realize we are in for another year of reasonable Republicans — sidestepping the issue, adjusting the message, parsing the text, hammering out the compromise. They who put their faith in such democratic posture rather than in a constitutional republic will learn too late that liberty is lost all of a sudden.
There was a reminder of that last month in an incident at the White House caught on video and circulated by YouTube. One moment reporters could cover protests at the White House Gates as they had for decades. The next they were being pushed back by shouting, threatening, armed police.
We need not blow out of proportion a stupid policing decision to appreciate there are moments in history when a journalist might feel comfortable, even noble, writing a letter like this one, criticizing obvious excesses of a regime. The next moment, though, he doesn’t feel so comfortable — not at all.
I worked with editors who remembered federal agents taking reporters out of their newsroom in handcuffs under the Sedition Act for using “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the United States government. And of course there was a night in 1934 in Germany when the Schutzstaffel and the Geheime Staatspolizei  began pulling people from their homes never to be seen again. It was necessary, explained the authorities (all fairly elected or properly confirmed) to prevent destabilizing.
The White House would say that last is an outrageous comparison. Time will tell. If insensitivity to a right as basic as free speech does not portend tyranny, what does? And don’t tell me that tyrants can’t be thoroughly charming fellows. All of this is the norm, please know, and not the exception. Read today’s dispatches from the foreign capitals, even the democratic ones.
Let us just say that it is important to understand how people in real life react to the application of unconstrained force by a government. 
It’s not like in the movies, we can agree. Civic heroism is practically invisible outside Hollywood’s dramatic lighting, cued music and crafted scripts. In reality, we do what the reporters did at the White House. We back away from the gates.
Is it being said here that our children and grandchildren are in danger from a political class forcing them to say only the correct things? Conscripting them? Arranging their political incarceration, their extradition, their disappearance?
Yes, absolutely — now and in all times. And if that marks me a radical, I can only say in defense that I believe liberty is an absolute. Politics is little more than an eternal struggle between those who believe that and those who do not.
Put it this way: We are not free to be half free. We must choose, especially journalists given special license and privilege to question the powerful. It is spelled out dispassionately and with great historical accuracy in the Declaration of Independence. Forget the rationalization of the moment, do you believe in liberty or not?
Many Americans today are having trouble with that question. The Washington press corps (watch the video) would avoid it altogether. You should not be surprised. More colonials served that old collectivist King George than in the war for independence — far more.
Maybe this will help. Earlier we agreed that life is not like the movies. Sometimes, though, the movies get life right.
“Amerika,” the 1987 television mini-series, was one of the most poorly watched prime-time audiences ever recorded. In the final segment, though, the last president of the United States hands us this jewell in his farewell address:
“Totalitarianism doesn’t need armies. It only needs to control a couple of things — the media, and the ability to dispense privilege to some, and to withhold it from others. Of course, a weak and divided people helps.”
But let’s go big. There is a wonderfully pertinent line in the most popular movie of all time, “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” It was delivered with a suddenness approaching the subliminal. And although millions watched, few heard the words of the beautiful Padmé. Fewer still were mature enough to recognize their profundity.
To set the scene, the supreme chancellor is announcing to the senate that extreme measures would be necessary in order to ensure security and stability. The republic would be reorganized into an empire, “for a safe and secure society which I assure you will last for 10 thousand years.”
At that promise of change, on that hope, the senate chamber filled with applause. Padmé, straining to be heard over the tumult, turns to her friend: “So this is how liberty dies — to thunderous applause.”
The reporters, long before, had backed away from the gates.

Craig Ladwig is editor of The Indiana Policy Review.


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