This is what I know and it is fully embraced: freedom of expression is the most valuable liberty of man. And a free press and the right to peaceful assembly are the eternal breath of a Republic. To these truths I cling. The concepts have validity. Unfortunately, with the upheaval of the ‘Arab Spring’ there has been a distinct greater movement away from such freedoms. Egypt immediately comes to mind. Turkey is close behind. You may add to the list. This movement away from freedom is born due to a quest for political stability. Yet it must be remembered that certain vibrant liberties are the very guarantors of a future peace. It just takes a lot of hard work. Plenty of it! It also requires abundant mercy and latitude whilst individual citizens learn how to responsibly raise their voices. We learn by doing. After all, it has taken my nation more than two centuries to arrive at this point. Our values are the result of carefully cultivated judicial opinions that have consistently affirmed and expanded our first amendment rights. The US maintains a freewheeling press and its citizens happily attend raucous town hall meetings. We can say ‘bad things’ about our leaders. Best of all, we get away with it.
Here’s the deal. A veneer of peace does not denote lack of conflict. My thoughts wander into Egypt. Is there the need for an artificially constructed stability to give peace a chance? Does that need include incarceration of political opponents and any who dare to speak against General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi? Regardless, because of our ability to speak, conflict exists as a dynamic that can travel underground, percolate, build and, finally, explode. How long until Egypt explodes again? Things are still percolating along in spite of the burgeoning prison population. The Muslim Brotherhood is again underground but they have not been run aground. We all understand that explosive conflicts are initially nurtured within secret hotbeds of thought. These seeds of thought sprout in dark corners and are carried along by a sense of intellectual superiority. The knave thinks himself a knight but he imagines himself a knight because his thoughts are armoured in isolation. There has been no real exposure to diversity of opinion. There has been no real public challenge brought to examine a warren of thoughts that connect tunnel-to-room-to-tunnel in the psyche by repeating an order of operations again and again. Bring all thoughts into the open. Then all can judge. Lack of a free press and the right to peaceful assembly smother the breath of a Republic. These things I know to be true. Please do not misunderstand the premise of what is written. Individuals are accountable for their words, brother-to-brother. But individuals are accountable to the state for their actions. The state punishes crime. Words, in and of themselves, do not constitute crime. If so, I should have been locked up a long time ago.
Privately shared words can be incredibly deceitful. And the bitter fruit of deceit is that individuals seduced by such things remain unaware of the moment of their own capture. A free press and peaceful assembly expose the knaves and elevate the knights. This is healthy. The cure for deceit is an open forum. Truth is never under the mantle of ‘one’. This is how individuals become snared by personality cults. They believe the one, listen to the one, follow the commands of only one. On a personal note, I detested the earlier army motto, “I am an army of one.” No! You are not an army of one. You are one individual under a chain of command. You are a minuscule part of a greater whole. Within that whole, traditions and dictates provide guidance for your own behaviour. ‘One’ is over-rated, but back to truth.
Truth prevails within a vast arena that allows for intellectual sparring and conflict. Vibrant and responsibly expressed difference of opinion does not mean there is conflict brewing. In fact, an ethically-driven free press and responsible/open peaceful assembly are the ultimate peacemakers. These ‘peacemakers’ provide a venue for cross-pollination of thought. A free press and peaceful assembly are tools wielded skilfully by the discerning. These ‘peacemakers’ function as springboards for communal consensus. A free press and government tolerance for open peaceful assembly bring societal health. Freedom of expression is the breath of peace. I know this in my heart. I have lived with peace because I am a US citizen.
I have mentioned Freedom for the Thought We Hate in an earlier column, ‘Establishing a beachhead against a free press’ (Daily Times, May 31, 2014). The selection by Anthony Lewis (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) is a frequent literary companion. Let me quote directly from the book: “In 1937 the Supreme Court made two decisions that turned away from fear of radicalism. In De Jonge v Oregon, Dirk De Jonge had been convicted of violating Oregon’s criminal syndicalism law when he helped conduct a meeting held under the auspices of the Communist Party. The sole basis of the conviction was the fact that the Communist Party had called the meeting.
The Supreme Court unanimously reversed De Jonge’s conviction. The opinion, by Justice Hughes, did not take up the debate about whether there was a clear and present danger of some substantive evil. Instead, the chief justice focused on the general importance of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, which is protected by the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law...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”). Hughes wrote: “The right of peaceable assembly is a right cognate to those of free speech and free press and is equally fundamental...Peaceful assembly for lawful discussions cannot be made a crime. The holding of meetings for peaceful political action cannot be proscribed.” (Pages 109-110).
I believe in a free press and the right to free assembly. These concepts are peacemakers. They breathe life into governance.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org