A few words about a traditional American value

Now that the campaign against a free press is officially under way, perhaps it's time for a few words about a traditional American value.

Last night, the Republican party applauded a vice-presidential candidate who wanted to ban books from her town library and demanded that the head librarian sign a personal loyalty oath. Simultaneously, it rolled out a set of talking points claiming that "the media" has undertaken a scurrilous sexist personal attack against that candidate, belittling her as a "cheerleader from the west" (a phrase written by one female columnist, and not repeated by the media at all).

Trashing "the media" is a standard method of insider political strategists, of course, and should come as no surprise.

Politicians universally view the media as a tool for transmitting their managed marketing message, and resent any deviation from that role.

In other cultures, they may have tools at their disposal to turn that resentment into action.

Over the weekend, the news portal Malaysia Today suddenly became unreachable from within Malaysia. In Thailand, authorities shut down hundreds of websites, most of them on charges of lèse majesté -- an offense against the dignity of the king. We all know about the Great Firewall of China, of course.

I've been to all those places, and I actually like them quite a lot. On an average day life there is not significantly more or less "free" than it is in the United States.

It's when you try to do something unusual that the troubles start -- like moving from the country to the city (restricted in China), join an unpopular religion, or voice opinions and/or facts that undermine the position of those who are in power.

We have a layer of protection in the United States in the Constitution -- which forbids interference with our freedom to speak and publish -- and the fact that the judiciary generally agrees with that point.

It's the latter that really is important. China's constitution is quite clear that its citizens have rights of free speech, press, assembly, association, procession and demonstration. (Malaysia's constitution lets the legislature abrogate those rights, and Thailand's includes only a vague reference to citizen rights.)

A constitution ultimately is meaningless if its terms are ignored. Freedom of speech and of the press, the right to a speedy trial and to face your accusers in court, protections against unreasonable search and seizure -- these are just words. Actions count.

Even Thomas Jefferson hated the press. His writings are full of anger and resentment at things that were written about him. What was unusual about Jefferson is that he recognized that no democracy can be real without that freedom, and worked with others (including political enemies) to build a barrier against interference with our rights of free expression.

We have officially adopted into our culture Jefferson's quip that he would rather have newspapers and no government, than government and no newspapers.

But we need to keep in mind that the protections of our rights of free expression are no more solid than our national will to preserve them. Those who would ban books, block websites and bully the media into silence are among us, and they are many.


I'm reading a book called Finding George Orwell in Burma (written by an American journalist), and there are many disheartening examples about the repression of free speech in that country today. It is the poorest country in Southeast Asia and has the worst rating on press freedom among the 10 ASEAN nations. In fact, in all the world, only North Korea (out of 195 countries) is judged to have a less free press than Burma, according to the annual Freedom House rankings. I recommend the book as a warning to anyone who thinks the U.S. press is too free, or who believes that it's okay to restrict freedom of speech among the public. It is not safe to restrict freedom of speech. When politicians of any party claim they want to "save" and "protect" America, I think they should be looking first at our fundamental rights as spelled out clearly in the First Amendment. Otherwise, we will lose the very thing they claim they want to protect and safeguard. Also, a correction: Steve, you linked to the OTHER Malaysia Today site, and that one was not blacklisted or blocked because that one isn't anything. The REAL Malaysia Today site, edited and kept alive by one of the bravest journalists in the world, Raja Petra, is at -- http://www.malaysia-today.net/ -- and because of the Malaysian government's repressive, self-interested blocking of the site, they are operating now at a redirect, here -- http://mt.m2day.org/ Proof yet again that the Net "interprets censorship as damage and routes around it" (attributed to John Gilmore).

I've really been into all the political coverage. I think having such great Web access has made a big difference for me, as I get to visit all kinds of sites and read all kinds of points of view. Don't agree with lots of them, but sometimes they really do make me think. No matter what you think about Palin, (and her politics are not mine), I do think you have to agree the outcry has been particularly awful, by almost any standard. (Well, I guess you don't have to agree after all!) But it all points out how important it is to get involved, and to exercise our rights to vote, and affect our lives. If you get tired of all the election blather, visit the Democracy Conservator Foundation. The site encourages open discussion. It's really thought-provoking.

Fixed the Malaysia Today link. Thanks, Mindy.