Thursday, April 12, 2007

Censorship in the Heartland

“If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.”

- Benjamin Franklin

In yesterday’s edition of the Emporia Gazette, Christopher White Walker, the publisher, weighed in on some of the public comments that have been made on the newspaper’s website in the past month or so. This is how he put it:

“We want people to be able to post on The Gazette Web site and have thoughtful discussions on community issues, but using the newspaper’s site to make random attacks on people is not OK.”

“We hope the community realizes that this Web site extends beyond our community and is really a bulletin board to the world. We have posted online news for 10 years and the site is heavily viewed by businesses and people wanting to locate to Emporia as well as people who want to stay in touch with their former home.”

“We have to wonder what kind of impression is left by the negative posts.”

“Our staff is looking into ways of handling the negative posting issue and we hope to bring some balance to the posts.” (emphasis added)

“In the meantime, we hope posters will use some restraint and we encourage positive posters to join in the discussion.”

I’ve read some of the commentary and in fairness to Chris Walker I understand his concern. Quite a bit of what was said was personal and negative. I disagreed with much of it, but to think that the solution to the problem lies in squelching public discourse is, in my view, foolhardy. Censorship, whether it’s imposed from without the newsroom or within, is nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction founded in fear. It does nothing to foster the common good.

The story that activated the sometimes heated discussion was about a Somali woman who recently ran her car into a local restaurant, injuring two men in the process. Some used it as a platform to lash out at the Somali refugees who have relocated here. Others, like me, saw it as a public safety issue. This is the second time in six months that a Somali has run a car into a building. It sure seems to me that we’ve got a public safety problem that cries out for fixing. In addition, we have a growing resentment being expressed by a vocal minority against the Somalis. In a city where median incomes are extremely low, people coming to town from another country to potentially take jobs away from someone else at the bottom of our economic ladder is a regrettable, yet understandable outcome of the short sighted municipal policy the city has pursued for years. The problem of how to assimilate the Somalis into our mainstream isn’t going to go away with the flick of the wrist or denial. The problem is very real and the chickens of benign neglect are starting to come home to roost. Denying that reality or attempting to stuff it into a closet so that it will be hidden from view is a task only a tyrant would take on.

But that’s exactly what Chris Walker’s trying to do. His solution is to ignore the problems because they might give a negative impression of life here in Emporia. He wants to censor out negativity so the bad news doesn’t get past the Taliban vintage tank at exit 130 which guards Emporia from the world outside. It simply won’t work. Does he really think that someone visiting isn’t going to see the payday loan shops, the dilapidated rentals, the closed storefronts? Does he really think visitors won’t be able to feel the tension crackling in the air? Does he really believe that he has the power to change the current reality by denying that it exists? Apparently so, because he now wants to explore ways to “handle” the negative discourse. That’s nothing more than a cleverly disguised euphemism for censorship.

It’s the worst possible response.

Proto-communist Vladimir Lenin once said that “free speech is a bourgeois prejudice.” Everything that followed under communist rule reflected that evil, iron handed worldview. From Lenin to Stalin, from Mao to Pol Pot, communist leaders have squelched dissent and public discourse through fear, intimidation, torture, and murder. The infamous gulags and lobotomies became the preferred instruments of social policy. Anyone who dissented in the communist world was dealt with harshly. The architects of communism claimed that the tactics were necessary to make utopia a reality. The end result was a society built on fear, repression, and millions of deaths.

Tyranny almost always begins with a desire for just outcomes. In its infancy the hallmarks are the cries for bread for the poor, justice for the aggrieved and communal harmony for all. In its maturity it has developed all the mechanisms of tyranny. Dissenters are dispossessed. Free thinkers are lobotomized. Conformity is rewarded. Truth is pulverized. It all begins with one step – squelching the free expression of ideas. Once that’s taken, it’s Katie bar the door.

The answer to our problems here in Emporia lies in bringing them into the light of day, then fixing them. Truth is always better than deception. Free expression for all is always better than monopolized opinion controlled by a few. The city of Emporia doesn’t need folks like Chris Walker sanitizing the news. His views, or the views of his staff, aren’t the only opinions here in town, nor are they necessarily the most valuable. The public here has a right to express itself and nothing Chris Walker says should, or can stop that.

I’m now tempted to give Mr. Walker a layman’s view of the first amendment to our constitution, but I’m not sure it would do much good. I’ll just close with some insights from others who, through history, have valued freedom of expression. Perhaps they can get through to him

“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”
- Frederick Douglas

“All newspaper and journalistic activity is an intellectual brothel from which there is no retreat.”
- Leo Tolstoy

“If the book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But for God's sake, let us hear freely from both sides.”
- Thomas Jefferson

“Censorship can't eliminate evil; it can only kill freedom.”
- Garrison Keillor

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
- George Orwell

“Freedom rings where opinions clash.”
- Adlai Stevenson

“Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”
- Mark Twain

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