Who's Afraid Of Ideas?

John Andrews

5/5/2008 12:00:46 AM - John Andrews

To fear an idea, any idea, is unworthy of a free society. To suppress an idea from debate is more cowardly still. How does our country measure up?

Americans pride themselves on being free-thinking and open, and we generally are. But five instances to the contrary recently hit the news. The utterance of forbidden words had polite opinion caterwauling like spinsters who saw a mouse. It was a bad show. We can do better.

The would-be censors targeted a radio host’s glee, a political party’s advocacy, a wartime nation’s realism, a legislator’s bluntness, and a black man’s heresy. Amid the Washington cherry blossoms, Jefferson’s statue wept. French seismographs detected Voltaire spinning in his grave. It was not a good week for free expression.

Start with Rush Limbaugh. The king of talk radio exulted that he was “dreaming of riots in Denver” when radicals try to disrupt the Democratic convention. A chorus of pantywaists led by Sen. Ken Salazar demanded Limbaugh be punished. For what: stating the obvious? Civil disorder fomented by the likes of Glenn Spagnuolo and Al Sharpton can only help Republicans – but nothing Rush says will increase its likelihood. Grow up, people.

Then there was Linda Daves, the North Carolina Republican chairman. Her TV ad in a governor’s race, featuring film of Barack Obama’s pastor calling for America’s damnation, was deemed by John McCain as unfit for airing. That the war hero soon flipped and disqualified himself as “referee” only worsened the embarrassment. Why was he frightened in the first place by the idea of voters knowing this fact about Democrats and the company they keep?

Our epidemic of the vapors then swept the departments of State and Homeland Security, which told Americans to avoid words like “jihad” and “Islam” in describing the radical Muslims at war against us – even though many so label themselves. Mustn’t cause “offense to moderates,” explained the AP story. The bureaucrats prefer sanitized terms like “violent extremist.” Counter-terrorism expert Steven Emerson suspects the Muslim Brotherhood scripted all this.

So what else has arisen lately in the way of ideas to be afraid of? Don’t forget the unschooled rural farm laborers– or in a single pithy phrase, “illiterate peasants.” Liberal legislators and media scolds went nutso when Colorado State Rep. Douglas Bruce spoke the unspeakable in a debate on guest workers. Censure was threatened. Bruce’s election challenger self-servingly urged him to quit. Memo to lynch mob: bad manners aren’t grounds for muzzling and persecution. It’s still a free country.

No survey of intellectual cowardice would be complete without an update on the campus thought police. Chris Robinson, the Colorado College student hauled into kangaroo court for satirizing feminism, is a tale for another day. Today consider Joseph C. Phillips, the black TV actor and columnist, whose April 4 speaking date for the College Republicans at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania became an ordeal of intimidation for his hosts – at the hands not of fellow students, but of administrators.

Phillips’s talk on – not for or against, just “on” – affirmative action must be paired with an opposing speaker, the hosts were warned, or vandalism against their posters and personal backlash against them were likely. When the GOP students stood firm, according to a report filed by Phillips with Ward Connerly of the American Civil Rights Institute, “they were finally told by the Office of Multicultural Affairs that they should have invited a white speaker instead of me.”

You can be sure that story’s not over. None of these stories are, because America’s journey toward a full realization of freedom and responsibility isn’t over either. The goal is a civic arena where all ideas openly contend and none are fearfully silenced. We’re not there yet.