Dispatches from the Creation Wars

I criticized Newt Gingrich the other day for his absurd claim that we need to limit free speech in order to stop terrorism. Keith Olbermann says what I wish I had said. I’ll post the full comment below the fold:

And finally tonight, as promised, a Special Comment about free speech, failed speakers, and the delusion of grandeur.

“This is a serious long term war,” the man at the podium cried, “and it will inevitably lead us to want to know what is said in every suspect place in the country.”

Some, in the audience, must have thought they were hearing an arsonist give the keynote address at a convention of firefighters.

This was the annual Loeb First Amendment Dinner in Manchester, New Hampshire — a public cherishing of Freedom of Speech — in the state with the two-fisted motto “Live Free Or Die.”

And the arsonist at the microphone, the former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, was insisting that we must attach an “on-off button” to Free Speech.

He offered the time-tested excuse trotted out by our demagogues, since even before the Republic was founded: widespread death, of Americans, in America, possibly at the hands of Americans.

But updated, now, to include terrorists… using the internet for recruitment… end result, quote “losing a city.”

The Colonial English defended their repression with words like these.

And so did the Slave States.

And so did the policemen who shot strikers.

And so did Lindbergh’s America-First crowd.

And so did those who interned Japanese-Americans.

And so did those behind the Red Scare.

And so did Nixon’s Plumbers.

The genuine proportion of the threat is always irrelevant.

The fear the threat is exploited to create… becomes the only reality.

“We will adopt rules of engagement that use every technology we can find,” Mr. Gingrich continued about terrorists formerly Communists formerly Hippies formerly Fifth Columnists formerly Anarchists formerly Redcoats.

“….to break up their capacity to use the internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech.”

Mr. Gingrich, the British ‘broke up our capacity to use free speech’ in the 1770’s.

The pro-slavery leaders ‘broke up our capacity to use free speech’ in the 1850’s.

The FBI and CIA ‘broke up our capacity to use free speech’ in the 1960’s.

It is in those groups where you would have found your kindred spirits, Mr. Gingrich.

Those who had no faith in freedom, no faith in this country, and, ultimately, no faith even in the strength of their own ideas, to stand up on their own legs, without having the playing-field tilted entirely to their benefit.

“It will lead us to learn,” Gingrich continued, “how to close down every website that is dangerous, and it will lead us to a very severe approach to people who advocate the killing of Americans and advocate the use of nuclear and biological weapons.”

That we have always had ‘a very severe approach’ to these people is insufficient for Mr. Gingrich’s ends.

He wants to somehow ban the idea.

Even though everyone who has ever protested a movie or a piece of music or a book has learned the same lesson:

Try to suppress it, and you only validate it.

Make it illegal, and you make it the subject of curiosity.

Say it cannot be said – and it will instead be screamed.

And on top of the thundering danger in his eagerness to sell out freedom of speech, there is a sadder sound, still — the tinny crash of a garbage can lid on a sidewalk.

Whatever dreams of internet-censorship float like a miasma in Mr. Gingrich’s personal swamp, whatever hopes he has of an Iron Firewall, the simple fact is — technically, they won’t work.

As of tomorrow they will have been defeated by… a free computer download.

Mere hours after Gingrich’s speech in New Hampshire, the University of Toronto announced it had come up with a program called “Psiphon” to liberate those, in countries in which the internet is regulated…

Places like China, and Irahn, where political ideas are so barren, and political leaders so desperate, that they put up computer firewalls to keep thought and freedom out.

The “Psiphon” device is a relay of sorts that can surreptitiously link a computer user in an imprisoned country to another in a free one.

The Chinese think the wall works, yet the ideas — good ideas, bad ideas, indifferent ideas, pass through anyway.

The same way the Soviet Bloc, was defeated by the images of Western Material Bounty.

If your hopes of thought-control can be defeated, Mr. Gingrich, merely by one computer whiz staying up an extra half hour and devising a new “firewall hop,” what is all this apocalyptic hyperbole for?

“I further think,” you said in Manchester, “We should propose a Geneva convention for fighting terrorism, which makes very clear that those who would fight outside the rules of law, those who would use weapons of mass destruction, and those who would target civilians are in fact subject to a totally different set of rules, that allow us, to protect civilization by defeating barbarism…”

Well, Mr. Gingrich, what is more ‘massively destructive’ than trying to get us, to give you our freedom?

And what is someone seeking to hamstring the First Amendment doing, if not “fighting outside the rules of law”?

And what is the suppression of knowledge and freedom, if not “barbarism”?

The explanation, of course, is in one last quote from Mr. Gingrich from New Hampshire… and another, from last week.

“I want to suggest to you,” he said about these internet restrictions, “that we right now should be impaneling people to look seriously at a level of supervision that we would never dream of if it weren’t for the scale of the threat.”

And who should those “impaneled” people, be?

Funny I should ask, isn’t it, Mr. Gingrich?

“I am not ‘running’ for president,” you told a reporter from Fortune Magazine. “I am seeking to create a movement to win the future by offering a series of solutions so compelling that if the American people say I have to be president, it will happen.”

Newt Gingrich sees, in terrorism, not something to be exterminated, but something to be exploited.

It’s his golden opportunity, isn’t it?

‘Rallying a nation,’ you might say, ‘to hysteria, to sweep us up into the White House with powers that will make Martial Law seem like anarchy.’

That’s from the original version of the movie “The Manchurian Candidate” – the chilling words of Angela Lansbury’s character, as she first promises to sell her country to the Chinese and Russians, then reveals she’ll double-cross them, and keep all the power herself, waving the flag every time she subjugates another freedom.

Within the frame of our experience as a free and freely argumentative people, it is almost impossible to conceive that there are those among us, who might approach the kind of animal-wildness of fiction like that — those who would willingly transform our beloved country into something false and terrible.

Who among us can look to our own histories, or those of our ancestors who struggled to get here, or who struggled to get freedom after they were forced here, and not teer up when we reed Frederick Douglass’s words from a century-and-a-half ago: “Freedom must take the day”?

And who among us can look to our collective history, and not see its turning points — like the Civil War, like Watergate, like the Revolution itself — in which the right idea defeated the wrong idea on the battlefield that is the marketplace of ideas?

But apparently there are some of us who cannot see, that the only future for America is one that cherishes the freedoms won in the past, one in which we vanquish bad ideas with better ones, and in which we fight for liberty by having more liberty, not less.

“I am seeking to create a movement to win the future by offering a series of solutions so compelling that if the American people say I have to be president, it will happen.”

What a dark place your world must be, Mr. Gingrich, where the way to save America, is to destroy America.

I will awaken every day of my life thankful I am not with you in that dark place.

And I will awaken every day of my life thankful that you are entitled to tell me about it.

And that you are entitled to show me what an evil idea it represents — and what a cynical mind.

And that you are entitled to do all that, thanks to the very freedoms, you seek to suffocate.

Hear, hear.


  1. #1 kehrsam
    December 1, 2006

    I doubt I’ve watched SportsCenter a dozen times since he left for MSNBC.

    As for the comment, it is literate, well-reasoned, with a sense of both history and the current human predicament: What the hell is he doing on US TV?

  2. #2 J-Dog
    December 1, 2006

    Yes, excellent article, thanks for reproducing this. Bob Costas is the only other “sports guy” I know that you could have this kind of discussion with. I like Olberman, and it’s great that he is on vs. Bill O’Reilly, and, I understand, doing very well in the ratings.

  3. #3 Keanus
    December 1, 2006

    The trouble is that the Americans who would most benefit from the lessons Olberman teaches probably don’t watch his program. They’d much rather watch sports, soaps, and reality shows.

  4. #4 Joshua
    December 1, 2006

    “Keith Olbermann says what I wish I had said.”

    That happens a lot, I think. 😉

  5. #5 Matthew
    December 1, 2006

    A bit too sanctimonious for my taste.

  6. #6 SLC
    December 2, 2006

    During the Vietnam war, it was often stated that the village had to be destroyed in order to save it.

  7. #7 RAHRules
    December 2, 2006

    “SANCTIMONIOUS”??!! When, during the course of one week in 5 one hour broadcasts (you pick the week, any week you prefer), one person is able to present more common sense, and provoke the American public to think for themselves more than this entire administration has been able to present in six years, I don’t think sancitmony has anything to do with it. Get used to it. It’s beginning to look, with much credit for this being given to Keith Olbermann, the the MSM is just about ready to stop grovelling at the feet of the White House and their (mostly discredited or ousted) toadies.

  8. #8 double-soup tuesday
    December 2, 2006

    Slightly OT, but high on the sanctimonious scale: Today is December 2, the anniversary of Mario Savio’s speech.

    The guy orates a good snippet, and the government follows him around for the next 20 years concerned that there may be actually people that heard his voice.

    Definitely mad, bad and dangerous to know from the government’s perspective.

  9. #9 RickD
    December 2, 2006

    Matthew thinks the freedom of speech is optional.

  10. #10 Brian X
    December 3, 2006

    Are there really people who still listen to Newt Gingrich?

    Silly question — some people still consider Oliver North a hero.

  11. #11 Jeffrey Lemkin
    December 3, 2006

    I’m sure Mr. Gingrich believes in what he’s saying. I learned long ago to keep in mind that the ravings of madmen aren’t always. . .well. . .ravings — that these people are actually expressing ideas and perspectives in which they have an actual belief — often, which they’ve thought through quite carefully.

    And that’s what makes it so frightening. We go through life thinking we’re more or less rational creatures, but we forget how easy it is — how terrifyingly easy — for our emotions and belief systems to subvert our intellect, turning it from a reasoned consideration of ideas to a tool for the potent ideologies that have co-opted its functionality.

    We’ve only been “thinking” creatures for perhaps a few hundred thousand years. We’ve been emotive creatures with powerful drives, urges and hard-wired needs — e.g. territoriality, revenge — for millions of years. The veneer of civilization is thin, painfully thin.

    That’s one of the things that makes our Constitution such a beautiful and almost sacred text. It formalizes so many of the structures that have evolved from the parts of our brains that think, and provides a real buffer — a potent meme in itself — against the subversion of our rationality by the parts of our brain that are run on ideology (and though ideologies have a deservedly bad rap today, you can sure get a lot of mileage out of them).

    So, read the MSNBC article — then think about the last time that your rational mind — the part of you that makes decisions and decides what’s right and wrong — was subverted or suborned by the part of you that feels and reacts, the part that is driven by a desire to believe, rather than a desire to understand.

  12. #12 Tenax
    December 4, 2006

    My brother-in-law said something similar over Thanksgiving. A hard-core partisan Republican, he said that he believed that hard men break the laws and our constitution so that I might sleep soundly at night.

    As the movie we were waiting for started up right then, I didn’t get a chance to say much, but I did tell him that if men were doing such things, then I shouldn’t be sleeping soundly.

    It’s disturbing that there are folk who think that Colonel Jessep in A Few Good Men was right.

  13. #13 dev
    December 4, 2006

    Re hard men and sleeping soundly at night, I was about to note that George Orwell himself wrote something along those lines. Then I took the trouble to verify the quote, and discovered that Orwell apparently never said this; presumably he was posthumously misquoted and subsequently pressed into service to try justify this sort of thinking. (“Look, even George Orwell thinks we need to take the gloves off!”)

    Anyway, back to Gingrich. I’ve always thought that Gingrich was like George Gilder: both of them are capable of writing interesting and sometimes even insightful things, but then they ruin it all by putting forth arguments that are so brain-dead and easily refuted it’s hard to believe any serious person would make them.

  14. #14 escapeforward
    April 3, 2007

    Allowing the enemy to take advantage of our freedoms to incite violence within our country and demoralize our people is nonsense. We’ve not won one war without fighting with information, not just arms. Newt is exactly correct, of course.
    And Olberman is a bitter, increasingly obscure man on a network that will fall off the face of the earth any day. CNN has more viewers!

New comments have been disabled.