In times of crisis, it is all too easy to focus on the immediate danger and to ignore the encroaching, silent assassin of our rights and liberties. We become so consumed with what is happening in the present that we forget to look to the future and assume that the status quo will eventually reassert itself. But it so rarely does. Once a right is surrendered, we can consider it gone, or at the very least, weaker than it once was.
The First Amendment is beyond doubt under attack. The five freedoms protected by this most critical Amendment are the freedoms of religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly; the Coronavirus crisis has challenged every one.
People are forbidden from congregating and worshiping as they choose. Those who speak against the set media narrative are pilloried. For example, try posting information about the China virus and see how long your posts remain up. Press agencies that do not kowtow to the World Health Organization are censored by big tech. When protesters tried to assemble and to petition the state government of Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared that they could not.
This Coronavirus crisis has exposed the fragility of our relationship with our rights. But it is not the first such attack. In fact, the First Amendment has been under sustained bombardment for a long time, the vanguard of this assault being PC culture.
The concept of political correctness, if not the actual words, were first outlined by Lenin, who used it as a way of distinguishing those who would follow the prevalent party line. It led to one of two actions. First, either a person was useful to the cause. For example, Picasso was considered to not be living the full Communist life. Still, because he had signed on to the cause and his influence could be exploited, he was deemed politically correct. But the second, the far darker of the two, was that those who did not follow the groupthink and adhere to the doctrines of the revolution could be considered politically “incorrect.” The fate of those poor souls – sent to camps, indiscriminately murdered, tortured, and imprisoned – should remind us of this “tool’s” real power.
If one were to quote, say, a Hitler line, or perhaps a phrase from Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, media and angst-ridden politicians would make you front-page news – decrying you for promoting such hideous verbiage. Yet those who speak of PC culture – praise, it in fact – are doing the same if not worse. The very words “politically correct” were used to enforce political aims that apparently necessitated mass murder. Which is genuinely worse – to quote phrases first said by historical figures, or to live your life by the very words that consigned countless souls to death?
For those of us educated more than a decade ago, the roots of political correctness were well-known. Yet if one tries to search for the origins of it today on the internet, it is difficult to find anything other than a claim that it began in the 1970s as a self-deprecating swipe by the political left. But this is just not true. Actual documents show that it goes back at least as far as 1921 in Russian as “politicheskaya korrektnost.”
Another problem with limiting speech – and that is what PC really does – is that it makes the world flat and humorless. The joy of life, the sparks that allow us to renew, come from spontaneity. Whether that is a wicked flash of a smile from a loved one, a witty comment from a close friend that cuts to the heart of a matter, or the guileless utterance of a child that both shocks and entertains in its innocence, PC kills this spontaneity. As Alexander Pope wrote in his 1728 poem The Dunciad:
Wit’s vain works shall fall, And universal Dullness cover all!
This was the original version; later versions went on to describe Universal darkness covering all – but both still apply to a world increasingly enamored with political correctness.
So often we talk of rights being bound up in responsibility, and that is true. We are each responsible not only for protecting our own rights but the rights of others. Every freedom we claim for ourselves, we must ensure that we are willing to provide for the stranger. That is our collective responsibility. As the Declaration of Independence states:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
It does not state that people have the right to be happy, but that they have the right to pursue happiness, and that any government that gets in the way of this pursuit is no fit government at all.
I want to read you a short excerpt from Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, in which John the Savage is speaking with one of the world comptrollers, Mustapha Mond. It deals with rights and happiness. Since first reading this book as a child of 10 or 11, the last sentence of this segment has stuck with me and, it’s fair to say, has never failed to bring an emotional response. It starts with John the Savage outlining what he really wants from life … what he, in fact, wants everyone to have:
“’But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin.’
‘In fact,’ said Mustapha Mond, ‘you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.’
‘All right then,’ said the Savage defiantly, ‘I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.’
‘Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.’ There was a long silence.
‘I claim them all,’ said the Savage at last.”
I claim them all, he says. To have any rights at all, to be responsible enough to have rights, means that we must accept the good with the downright bad.
An interesting side note is that the character, Mustapha Mond, is thought to be a nod to the British industrialist and politician Alfred Mond, who went on the become the first Baron Melchett. The Mond family has a coat of arms and a motto, as all Baronets do; his family motto is: Make yourself necessary.
And it is these words that we should all keep close to our hearts when we think about rights. They are not bestowed upon us with the caveat that we need to do nothing to protect or enforce them.
Our rights are under threat and always have been. There was never a Golden Age when the power of one government or another was not trying to shift the balance form the public to the governing authorities. It is perhaps a natural thing for rulers to seek, whether they be altruistic or despotic. Let’s say no more about rights without first thinking of our responsibilities – because one can’t truly exist and sustain without the other.
Read more from Mark Angelides.
For home study students and young people, Liberty Nation recommends…
All About Freedom of the Press
High School: First Amendment: Empowering the Press
Middle School: First Amendment: Protecting a Free Press
Elementary School: First Amendment: Freedom of the Press
Freedom of Speech
High School: Free Speech in College: Should Students Be Protected or Exposed?
Middle School: Free Speech in College: How Free Should It Be?
Elementary School: Free Speech in Schools
VIDEO: Why Free Speech Matters
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