Censorship is a betrayal of American principles
August 15, 2008
Their eyes drawn to the quadrennial spectacle that is the Summer Olympics, Americans are scowling over China's censorship of free speech. Critics should beware of the pot calling the kettle black. Under the Bush administration, censorship in the United States has made a shameful comeback.
The censorship goes far beyond the White House's squelching of scientific reports and information it disagrees with or finds embarrassing. The administration, acting through the State Department and immigration service, and under the guise of thwarting terrorism, has been waging a war on ideas and preventing Americans from hearing administration critics.
The list of scholars, writers, thinkers and religious leaders banned from entering the United States continues to grow. But on one recent night, in a church on Cape Cod, a distinguished group of writers gathered to give voice to those who have been banned. Hundreds of people turned out to hear them read the words of those who have been denied entry by the U.S. government because of their political views.
Among those who have been barred from America over the years are Nobel laureate authors Dario Fo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Czeslaw Milosz; singer Cat Stevens; Mexican author Carlos Fuentes; poet Pablo Neruda; and former South African president Nelson Mandela.
Among those excluded more recently have been Oxford University professor Tariq Ramadan and Adam Habib of South Africa. Both men are Muslim scholars critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Both were offered jobs at American universities but prevented from taking them.
The Bush ban on scholars and stifling of free speech is one of the first of many things the next president must change. The ban is, in its most profound sense, un-American. It makes us hypocrites and mocks the president's oft-stated message of supporting freedom throughout the world. It smacks of McCarthyism. That night on the Cape, sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union and PEN New England, an organization of writers and supporters long dedicated to preserving the right of all people to speak freely, was a moving celebration of freedom. Writers Alice Hoffman, Mary Oliver, Michael Lowenthal, Ann Bernays, Howard Zinn and others read from the works of the banned. At one point, the people in the church were stunned into immobility by the power of Nelson Mandela's 1962 address to a South African court, as read by novelist and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll.
"Do not believe, Your Worship, that this court, in inflicting penalties on me for the crimes for which I am convicted, should be moved by the belief that penalties deter men from the course that they believe is right. History shows that penalties do not deter men when their conscience is aroused, nor will they deter my people or the colleagues with whom I have worked before.
"I am prepared to pay the penalty even though I know how bitter and desperate is the situation of an African in the prisons of this country. . . . Nevertheless, these considerations do not sway me from the path that I have taken, nor will they sway others like me. For to men, freedom in their own land is the pinnacle of their ambitions, from which nothing can turn men of conviction aside."
When citizens cannot speak or cannot hear from others whose views are not sanctioned by government, they are not free. Americans watching the Olympics know that the Chinese are not free. But do they know how their own freedoms are threatened at home?