Saturday, June 21, 2014

Do We Really Want “Thought Police?”

Burning Books
In the 1940s, novelist George Orwell penned a chilling, futuristic novel entitled Nineteen Eighty-Four. Having observed the expansion of oppressive, totalitarian governments during his lifetime, Orwell projected a future society in which individual freedoms would be forfeited to full control by the state. One of the features of the totalitarian government was a force of people charged with assuring that anyone expressing ideas contrary to the official positions would be silenced. He coined the term, “Thought Police,” to describe this organization.

Policing the thoughts of the population has long been a prime totalitarian principle. In Nazi Germany, the thought police were called the Gestapo. In Tsarist Russia, they were the dreaded Okharanka. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) policed thought. Militaristic Japan of the 1930s and 1940s, the Tokubetsu Koto Keisatsu suppressed improper thought. In Communist East Germany, the STASI (Ministry of State Security) dealt with contrary thinkers. In Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, the function fell to the OVRA.

Improper thought could result in severe penalties for the offenders. In Japan, the state’s initial response was “re-education.” In Italy, huge quantities of castor oil might be poured down their throats. In the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia, relocation to Siberia or a bullet in the back of the brain were common remedies. In Nazi Germany, thought offenses might range from confinement in a labor camp to being hung with piano wire from a meat hook.

When I first heard the term, “political correctness” in the 1970s, a chill ran up my spine. As you may have gathered from my writings, I am a history buff. Having lived seven decades and eight years on this earth, I have personally observed a pretty wide swath of history. The very idea that opinions contrary to popular consensus should be condemned and suppressed is anathema to everything I believe about individual freedom and liberty.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech (emphasis added), or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution further states that, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…” Is anything so central to a person than their very own ideas and opinions?

To me, the idea that the populous should be coerced into conforming to some conventional wisdom determined by the political elites is clearly a totalitarian concept. To those who would argue that the purposes of “political correctness” are themselves laudable, I would answer that, “the ends justify the means,” is also a totalitarian concept. Read Arthur Koestler’s classic condemnation of totalitarianism, Darkness at Noon, which concludes, “the ends have become the means, and darkness has come over the land.”

The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. There is no constitutional protection of freedom from being offended. Not very long ago, we celebrated the concept of “competition in the marketplace of ideas” in this country. This is not a right-wing concept. When Hillary Clinton was First Lady, she chided college students for shouting down speakers with whom they did not agree. Freedom of speech court decisions have actually cited the quotation once attributed to the French philosopher, Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it...”

Most people are offended by something. I have written about being offended by excess profanity in today’s speech, but I wouldn’t support a law against it. Like former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, I am offended by the epithet, “redneck.” We are both of Scots-Irish ancestry. The term, “redneck,” originally meant Scots-Irish Protestant supporters of William of Orange in his wars against the Stuart Pretenders. Both Protestant and Catholic militias fought in these wars. The Protestants wore red bandanas to distinguish them from the Catholic militias. The term soon became applied to all Scots-Irish. It was not meant to be disparaging. But neither Senator Webb nor I urge the banning of the word from the language.

One further thing that offends me is that defenders of “political correctness” tend to belittle and ridicule those who disagree with them. Their attitude seems to be, if you don’t agree, you are obviously stupid, uneducated, ignorant, or just plain deluded. In adopting such an attitude, they attempt to make their ideas look good by questioning their adversary’s qualifications to even have an opinion. To me, such attitudes are not worthy of respect.

To those who might not agree with what I think, I say, “Argue your case and try to convince me that I am wrong.” Compete in the “marketplace of ideas.” Don’t condemn me or belittle me because I don’t happen to agree with you.

We do not need “Thought Police!”

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Warren Bell is an author of historical fiction.  He spent 29 years as a US Naval Officer, and has traveled to most of the places in the world that he writes about.  A long-time World War II-buff, his first two novels, Fall Eagle One and Hold Back the Sun are set during World War II.  His third novel, Asphalt and Blood, follows the US Navy Seabees in Vietnam.  His most recent novel, Snowflakes in July, is a Pentagon thriller about domestic terrorism.  He is currently working on a new novel, Endure The Cruel Sun, the sequel to his best-selling novel, Hold Back the Sun. For more about Warren Bell, visit his website at: or see him on twitter @wbellauthor.

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