Thursday, March 01, 2007

Cowards and Threats and the Areopagitica

There's a wealth of metaphor waiting to be mined here about knights and King Arthur and slaying dragons and whatnot, but what it comes down to is this:

Some coward, doubtless in possession of a very tiny penis (and probably either a very large stereo of very ridiculous car to compensate), left a threatening note on Knight in Dragonland's door with the implication "I know where your family lives and I can get to you."

Anyone who works in media for any length of time gets familiar with these notes. Once I wrote a column for Notre Dame's student newspaper and -- get this -- some radical pro-lifers organized an intimidation campaign against me because I WAS NOT PRO-LIFE ENOUGH. I wrote objecting to the student pro-life group unwittingly turning up at an event sponsored by a group that supported the clinic bombings and sniper-shootings of doctors that was then going on, and said that aligning yourself, even accidentally, with people who held so little regard for life undermined the pro-life message and put the group in a very bad light.

The student group itself didn't actually object. (In point of fact, I had a very nice sit-down with their president and we became good friends; she later crashed at my apartment when she was visiting Duke looking at graduate schools.) It was a local chapter of a Catholic mostly-lay organization that was banned from campus (some years before I got there) after some crazy-ass cult-related hijinks and maintained a house near campus from which to launch their operations on campus. Mostly cult recruiting tactics. I am seriously still scared of these people but I'll tell you they got a shout-out in the Da Vinci Code and weren't any too pleased about it.

At any rate, they organized an intimidation campaign against me, which basically consisted of calling my phone all day and all night, all the time, and screaming "BABY KILLER!" whenever anyone picked up, and sending threatening letters to my office at the newspaper and my dorm room. A couple of them followed me around campus and one disrupted a couple of my classes (I really don't know what that was meant to accomplish).

Like many cowards who turn to intimidation because they're completely incapable of forming coherent arguments or participating in a full and free discussion, they weren't any too bright and made the calls from their chapterhouse without blocking the caller ID function. The notes went to the campus cops and the phone company blocked the number.

My charming little intimidators eventually got bored and gave up. It scared me a little bit, but I suppose it was fortunate I'd written somewhat more gently controversial columns in the past (typically on male-female relations and dating), so I'd had some experience with people who had no boundaries or manners whatsoever and I was fairly confident it was all talk and it would blow over.

What particularly annoys me about these people is that they typically claim you are un-American (or un-Christian, depending on the topic), which is really another way of saying, "I'm going to make emotive rhetorical statements because I am not actually capable of putting words in a coherent logical order to support my assertions." This makes me want to throw things at people -- do you honest to God live in the same COUNTRY I do? Do you really, seriously think that you are somehow STRENGTHENING the United States by trying to terrify people out of using their First Amendment rights to talk about controversial issues in general and political issues in particular? DID YOU MISS THE ENTIRE FOURTH GRADE?????

I seriously do not understand how people who claim to be patriots can spend so much damned time spitting on the Bill of Rights. I really don't think that you understand what being an American means if you think it has anything to do with cutting off vigorous speech in the public square. There was this thing? Called a Revolution? About oppression and lack of citizen participation in government? Maybe you've heard of it?

When this kind of thing happens, I turn to John Milton's Areopagitica. (In fact I am frequently tempted to mail a complimentary copy to people in positions of power who take it upon themselves to shut others up.) Areopagitica is really the foundation for free speech rights in Anglo-American thought. Milton argues -- brilliantly -- that free speech is crucial to both good governance and good religion. Suppressing heresy or dissent, Milton argued, actually gives it credence and makes it sexy (only Milton didn't say it "makes it sexy" being from, you know, the 17th century), and gives the impression your own position is weak. It all comes down to this passage:

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.

If you hold to that one thought, that one idea, from the Areopagitica, it's amazing how many debates it will guide you through. It's astonishing how often one side of a debate turns to strategies that confuse the truth -- emotional appeals, exaggeration, straw men, and, yes, threats and suppression and censorship. Moreover, when someone tries these tactics with you, you can be pretty sure they think you're an idiot; whenever I get a donation appeal letter or a campaign mailing with all those scary emotive words in bold or italics or in a REALLY LARGE FONT or Capitalized at Random like an A.A. Milne book, I get absolutely infuriated, even when I agree with the cause. Do they seriously think their own arguments are so weak they have to use loaded language, emotional appeals, and a festival of font faces? Do they really think I'm so moronic I can't judge the arguments on the matter for myself?

All of which is to say to Knight in Dragonland, that's one grade-A Constitution-hatin' coward you've got there, and whatever his opinion is, we can be pretty sure it's wrong, because he's too scared of the "free and open encounter" to take part in the debate. Instead he picks the sneaky, snakey ways of Falsehood that fears Truth and tries to suppress it.

So this doctor's orders (that'd be a juris doctor) are to go curl up with a mug of hot tea and a copy of the Areopagitica, Knight. Better than asprin for this kind of headache, I promise.


knight in dragonland said...

Thanks for your support, E.M. I really appreciate it.

Cara said...

Go knight! I got your back if you need it.

And thanks Eyebrows for the brilliant treatise/post on free speech. And the link to the Areopagitica. Never read it, but will be tonight.