AUTHORITARIANS AND THE LOSS OF FREEDOM
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 13, 2006 -- It's been a week in which so much material has surfaced that a diligent media critic can't keep up. Unfortunately, a lot of it involves threats to freedom of expression. It is a topic that crosses disciplinary, geographic and philosophical boundary lines.
The most dramatic story continues to be the Danish cartoon war that has inspired so much print; more about that a bit later, but first an ugly little story about the so-called guardians of our freedom.
The story is so absurd, it would make for poor fiction, but it is presented to us as documented fact by Editor & Publisher. Published Feb. 11 and attributed to "E&P Staff," It can be found online under the title "Nurse Investigated for ‘Sedition' After Writing Letter to Editor." The story has been banging around an increasingly large number of internet sites for the past couple of days.
It involves a nurse who is employed by the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (apparently in Albuquerque, N.M). The E&P story explains, "Laura Berg, a clinical nurse specialist for 15 years, wrote a letter in September to a weekly Albuquerque newspaper criticizing how the administration handled Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War." Berg's letter included remarks critical of the President and called for his removal from office.
As the E&P story explains, the VA then commenced an investigation that included seizure of the computer she used at work. The story continues, "Berg is not talking to the press, but reportedly fears losing her job." There is no evidence that Berg ever used government facilities or equipment in producing her letter.
There is a more detailed account at alibi.com, the newspaper that printed Berg's letter back in September, 2005. Both stories refer to a comment made by a VA representative in response to an inquiry from the American Civil Liberties Union. V.A. human resources chief Mel Hooker is quoted that the "agency is bound by law to investigate and pursue any act which potentially represents sedition."
Assuming that the VA's representative was quoted accurately, it is worrisome that a governmental agency can harass an employee for expressing opinions that are, after all, well within the mainstream of current thought. If it is seditious (whatever that might mean in current usage) to mistrust our president, then there is a lot of sedition going on right now in these United States. "Alibi" points out the absurdity of the government's use of the term "sedition," explaining that under the law, it is a term which refers to plotting the violent overthrow of the government.
(Disclosure and testimony: I once was employed by the VA as a research scientist, though not in the state of New Mexico, and for this service I was paid out of VA grant funding. This should not be interpreted to mean that I intend to be an apologist for the VA's behavior. To the contrary, I saw the same sort of authoritarian attitude where I worked as comes across in the E&P story. Of course, I would not characterize everyone at the VA in this way; I had many coworkers I respected highly; but the overall institutional character came across as authoritarian and even a little creepy, certainly a far cry from the openness of other academic institutions I have known. For some reason that I don't understand, the VA communicates to its employees more by the whip than by the carrot.)
In the current story, the VA's conduct was so over-the-top that it brought on intervention by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D. - N.M.) on Berg's behalf, thereby converting an outrage into low comedy. The problem for the rest of us is that the VA's actions symbolize an attitude that has taken root in far too many places: the questioning of freedom itself in our reaction to terrorism.
Letters to the editor, like editorial cartoons and investigative journalism, are a long-accepted element of our national expression and worthy of protection under the First Amendment. We shall see in the next few days whether the nation's newspapers take this as a personal affront and join the protest. If ever there was a policy that has a chilling effect on the free expression of political views, this is it.
On another front in the war against freedom, the affair of the Danish cartoons continues to generate comment. Tim Rutten, writing in the Los Angeles Times, points out that the reticence shown by American newspapers in not publishing the cartoons is more a matter of fear than of religious sensitivity. Rutten's Feb. 11 piece, "Let's be honest about cartoons" (available online at www.latimes.com), argues that if newspapers really cared about religious sensibilities, they would avoid giving publicity to the film "The Da Vinci Code." Rutten concludes, "Those of us who inhabit this real world will continue to believe that the American news media's current exercise in mass self-censorship has nothing to do with either sensitivity or restraint and everything to do with timidity and expediency."
The world-wide fight over the cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten is a tragedy by any rational Western standard: It has damaged freedom of expression through the threat of violence. There is however one element in the Western response that is so ironical that it approaches being comical.
It begins with the insistence by many conservative Westerners that if Muslims expect to enjoy freedom of religion in the West, they owe a similar duty to offer tolerance to non-Muslims in their own countries. Wow - that's cultural relativism that these politically-pious pundits are demanding. The same people who denounce relativism when it is applied to western values now insist on its application in the eastern setting.
There is one staunch conservative who managed to avoid relativism in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks: Ann Coulter wrote, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." No cultural relativism there.
I chanced to tune in on Rush Limbaugh the other morning and happened upon one of those moments for which the word irony is too pale.
It began with an interaction that was presented to us listeners as somebody calling in on the phone. Forgive my skeptical nature, but it all came across like the scripted "calls" that you can hear on infomercials for useless nutritional supplements. Even if not actually scripted, this caller certainly had been carefully screened.
The female voice started out by explaining, "I'm worried about the wiretapping." This could be interesting, I thought, but as she continued, it became clear her worry was that the NSA's wiretapping program might be halted. It seemed that she was quite concerned that the Democrats' resistance to the Bush administration could result in the surveillance being stopped, which could result in a terrorist attack, which would result in her child growing up without a mother. Her voice became increasingly shrill as she recited the new party line.
Limbaugh then went on to reassure her that the Democrats wouldn't win.
So here's the guy who fought tooth and nail to keep the government from looking at his medical records; you know, the same guy who made the pages of the National Enquirer for buying high-power narcotics on the black market, but then argued that this failed to justify allowing the government to invade his privacy. Somehow, the logic of that argument is not being applied to the wiretap issue.
This goes beyond a mere flip-flop. It's more like a double-180 degree flip-flop-flip-flop - it really belongs in "Guinness World Records."
One of the Superbowl ads showed a young man going through the security system at an airport. Two officers conspired to intimidate the young man into giving up his soft drink, a beverage that was obviously an object of desire to the officials. The officers accomplished their deed by threatening the young man with an intrusive bodily search (the male officer starts to pull on a latex glove). The ad was modestly funny in its own way, but it signifies the cultural acceptance of a loss of privacy that would previously have been considered unacceptable.