Speak Truth to Power?

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Recently by Butler Shaffer: Democracy and Violence

     

I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.

~ Thomas Jefferson

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

~ United States Constitution, First Amendment

The above-quoted words reflect sentiments so essential to a condition of liberty that they are at the forefront of the history of American political thought. Jefferson's quotation as well as the first of the listings in the so-called Bill of Rights, represent a theme carried over from the Revolutionary War period: minds should be free to explore and express whatever is of concern to them. If one reads the First Amendment closely, it becomes evident that this provision was intended to prohibit government intrusions upon the then-known means and settings for free thought.

Many of the central figures who helped bring British rule to an end would, upon ascending to power under the newly-created Constitution, deny these fundamental principles to Americans. This should surprise no one familiar with the nature not only of power, but of those who fancy themselves fit to exercise it. Thus, George Washington — as President — personally led federal troops into western Pennsylvania to confront leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion. This rebellion was in opposition to a federal tax on whiskey, promoted by Alexander Hamilton as a means of paying off a national debt, much of which arose from the confederacy's issuance of all-but-worthless "Continentals." Hamilton and his friends had bought up much of this debt in expectation of the constitutional provision that would authorize the new government to pay it off at face value. (And I'll bet you thought financial corruption in American politics didn't arise until the 20th century!) Thus were Americans introduced to the first of an endless string of contradictions: a rebellion against a British tax on tea was an act of patriotism, while a rebellion against a federal tax on whiskey was an act of insurrection.

Nor did the sentiments for freedom of expression last once the American system of government was in place. The Sedition Act of 1798 made it a criminal offense to "print, utter or publish, . . . any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President, with intent to defame, or bring either into contempt or disrepute. . . ." So much for the "spirit of liberty" that leads modern conservatives to don three-cornered hats!

The practitioners and defenders of the modern American state apparently have no quarrel with embracing such contradictory thinking. Neither "conservatives" who wish to "conserve" and protect the state's arbitrary powers of violence in military and police matters; nor "liberals" who find coercive regulation of the lives of people more to their liking than "liberating" them from state power, object to the present arrangement. The leadership of both the Republican and Democratic parties share a bipartisan commitment to keeping human beings — whether Americans or foreigners — under the violent boot of the state. It is the questioning of this dehumanized premise that has led millions of young people to support the presidential candidacy of Ron Paul who dares to challenge this prevailing dogma.

The cause of liberty has always depended upon minds free to think, read, and communicate with others concerning any matters that interest them. The free movement of thought has long been a countervailing force to state power, a truth made evident in the consequences of Gutenberg's invention. The Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, were all energized by the creative powers inherent in the free exchange of ideas and information. The established order — desirous of maintaining the status quo it represents — has long warred against such influences. Heresy trials of the past have their modern counterparts in blatant censorship, charges of treason, and state efforts to curtail the Internet.

It is no idle coincidence that the corporate owners of the political establishment are also the owners of the major print and broadcast media, or that the information content disseminated by such outlets is constrained by the interests of such owners. Repeated U.S. military attacks on Al Jazeera news facilities in the Middle East, and current efforts by the American political establishment to criminally prosecute Wikileaks' Julian Assange for revealing government documents, illustrate how desperate the state is to control truth. As if to trumpet the extent of their legal ignorance, both Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sarah Palin opined that Assange should be charged with treason. A federal statute defining "treason" as certain acts committed by a person "owing allegiance to the United States," and the detail that Assange is an Australian, did not inform the unfocused gurglings of these erstwhile, bipartisan vice-presidential wannabes.

Every expression of human thought; every revelation of governmental behavior, is entitled to the protection of the First Amendment. Be they printed or uttered words, photographs or films, or any yet-to-be-invented technology, no political restraints ought to be allowed — whatever the grounds — on the free flow of information. City governments that have criminalized photographing or videotaping the actions of policemen are in violation of the constitution under which they pretend to operate. Police officers who confiscate or destroy such evidence are, when criminal activities are involved, engaged in acts of obstruction of justice and should be so charged. If you were in possession of evidence involving a criminal act and destroyed such evidence, is it not clear that you would quickly be prosecuted for your deed?

The statists, of course, will deny the First Amendment basis for the protection of such expressions. They will offer the weasel argument that a "free press" is limited only to newspapers or and, perhaps, just to journalistic news reporting rather than opinionizing (despite the fact that no such distinction is to be found in the Amendment). They may also contend that since radio, television, the Internet, photography, motion pictures, telephones, recording systems, computers, et al, did not exist in 1789, the framers could not have intended their inclusion in the First Amendment. Such an argument cuts both ways, of course: the 18th century absence of these technologies — along with airplanes, electricity, nuclear power plants, automobiles, xerography, et al — should also prohibit Congress from regulating these varied forms under the "commerce" clause!

The statists will have no tolerance for such distinctions, and they trust that Boobus with his well-conditioned mind will be too dense to appreciate them. Having allowed the government — via the usurped authority of judicial review — to be the interpreter of its own powers and limitations; we ought not be surprised to discover that it has given itself a broad definition to the former, and a narrow construction of the latter. Nor have the statists found any interest in that pesky Ninth Amendment, which was designed as a catch-all for all the other liberties supposedly to be protected under the Constitution.

It is often said that people like Ron Paul, Andrew Napolitano, Lew Rockwell, Julian Assange, Justin Raimondo, and the dozens of others who write on a variety of websites across the Internet, are "speaking truth to power." If this is all they were doing, the established order would have little to fear. Those who exercise coercive "power" already know the "truth," and no changes would occur from letting them know that you know.

What terrorizes the statists is that such persons are "speaking truth to the powerless" and, as a consequence, their sanction for political rule will come to an end. Hitler's Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, got to the essence of the matter when he declared that "the truth becomes the greatest enemy of the State." When the barbed-wire and fences that enclose the mind are cut, the herd will be lost, free to seek better lives in greener pastures. History has shown us the creative and liberating powers to be found in minds that are free to think, speculate, and communicate with one another without any forceful restraints as to methods or content. We are living in the final days of a dying civilization, a death brought about by an abundance of repression designed by and for the benefit of those who presume to rule others. Perhaps we can rediscover from the origins of our now-terminal culture those conditions in which the minds and bodies of individuals were free to be create the substance of that civilization. If so, an even more wondrous, life-enhancing civilization may arise from the ashes.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.

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