Silence Is Not Golden

In the face of the recent shut-down of the E.P.A. (for all intents and purposes) including the directive to all employees to basically keep their collective mouths shut, one must object and do so loudly. I swore I was not going to allow myself to get all riled up by what this man does — after all, we saw this coming, didn’t we? — but the attempt to gag a Federal agency cannot pass unnoticed, especially an agency that can prove the lie that climate change is a Chinese hoax.

In looking for Voltaire’s famous comment about one’s right to speak, I came across an equally pithy and even profound comment that I would like to elaborate upon:

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

This is indeed profound and so very timely because it appears as though this Administration is losing no time whatever in doing precisely that, making us believe absurdities. What else is the nonsense about “alternative facts”? It appears as though the plan is to confuse the citizens of this country with alleged facts which are made up on the spot — such things as the claim allegedly made by Trump that the Women’s March on Washington was in protest over Obama’s presidency. If it weren’t pathological it would be funny. But it is pathological, it is becoming an almost surreal pattern.

One must hope that the Congress, fighting as it is with one hand tied behind its back, will not be cowed by this man and will stand in opposition to this blatant attempt to silence dissent and force-feed untruths to a stupefied public. One would also hope that members of the Fourth Estate would stand up and scream “foul,” but so far they have not shown the courage to take this man on. He is fearsome and clearly capable of silencing the media by simply telling them what he wants them to hear or refusing to allow them into his daily briefing sessions or press conferences. I am reminded of the shell game where the object is to confuse in order to win the game.

If the attempt to silence the media and bring it to heel succeeds this country will be in very serious trouble indeed. With the Newspeak that is coming out of Washington coupled with the recent attempt to shut down the voice of the E.P.A. in order to keep people in the dark about what is and what is not happening to our planet, we are closing in on the next step Voltaire notes, the commission of atrocities. Voltaire knew whereof he spoke and we would do well to listen.

In the meantime we must hope that members of Congress who still have a conscience — and there appear to be a few of them remaining — will speak out against the latest blatant attempt to gain control of the public mind. The rest of us can write to our representatives and hope they read and respond to what we write — and take action. And we can pray that the opposition to this most recent attempt to keep us all ignorant is opposed with loud and coherent voices. Silence is not golden. Not in this case.

Truth In Fiction

As a trained philosopher who also happens to love reading what used to be called “Great Books” — but which are lately dismissed by much of the academic community as the works of “Dead, White, European Males” — I would like to make the case for reading works of fiction written by exceptional writers, such as Barbara Kingsolver (who is not D.,E., or M.). I have mentioned her before because she has the ability to write fascinating stories that have deep and important messages beneath the surface. Thus, they are not just tales, they are also food for serious thought. I have mentioned her name before and dare say I will mention it again, but at this time I would like to focus attention on a brief exchange between the writer-hero of her brilliant novel The Lacuna and his lawyer as the F.B.I. hovers in the background ready to arrest the writer for subversion. The time period follows the second world war when Stalin went from being our ally to being Satan incarnate, the “Cold War,” the period of the so-called “House Un-American Committee.” The year is 1948 and our hero’s lawyer is speaking:

“What these men are doing could become permanent.”

“What do you mean?”

Suddenly he looked weary. “You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark, or sold it for scrap. No boldness. No good ideas for fixing what’s broken in the land. Because if you happen to menition it’s broken, you are automatically disqualified. . . . .”

“I’m an old man, I’ve seen a lot. But what these men are doing is putting poison on the grass. It kills the crabgrass all right, and then you have a lot of dead stuff out there for a very long time. Maybe forever.”

Now, of course, the lawyer is speaking of folks like Martin Dies, J. Parnell Thomas, and later Joe McCarthy who many of us have forgotten or would like to have forgotten, men who assaulted Civil Rights and the First Amendment in the name of “Anti-Communism.” But events did evolve as the lawyer says, precisely, ” . . . . a lot of dead stuff out there for a very long time.” Countless decent men and women were brought to heel by frightened, small-minded, ambitious men in positions of power who were convinced that anyone who ever had shown any interest in, much less sympathy for, Communism or who spoke out for, say, Negro rights, or women’s rights, or may have read Karl Marx, were ipso facto Communists. And, despite the fact that no one really knew what Communism really was, thousands were scared silly — many of whom were literally destroyed by what was, in effect, a witch hunt.

Those days are over, one would think. But what about the other insidious elements in our culture that are designed to silence criticism and label the dissenter as an enemy, who fear words like “socialism” or “Muslim”? Those elements are more subtle in their tactics, but, at the risk of sounding somewhat paranoid, they are nearly as effective as the House Un-American Committee at silencing critics. In 1950 a writer dare not write anything favorable about Communism or the Soviet Union; today a writer dare not write anything that is not politically correct or pro-America. In either case, the written (and spoken) word is censored.

There seems to me to be a good deal of “poisoning of the grass” going on all around us. Does anyone seriously deny, for example, that the propaganda machine has gone into high gear as the DOD pays sports teams millions of our tax dollars to convince us that those among us wearing camouflage (and not at the moment hunting deer) are all, without exception, “heroes”? Does anyone in this culture today dare to suggest publicly that the wars these people are fighting are concocted by the government to protect monied interests? Does anyone dare to suggest the possibility that by invading Iraq for no good reason our nation gave powerful impetus to IS? Does anyone dare to suggest (other than on blogs that no one reads) that our democracy is “broken”and that the monied interests in this country will henceforth be calling all the shots? Recall the words of Voltaire: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” Are we not, slowly and quietly, being “forced to stop asking questions”?

Let’s hope I exaggerate. But let us never stop asking questions — or reading thought-provoking fiction that has at its center profound truth.


Toothless Tigers

The situation in Syria goes from bad to worse. It is estimated that the government has been responsible for the death of at least 14,000 of its citizens. A recent story tells of the attempts to “broker” a peace settlement between groups that hate one another, a nearly impossible task. The story reads, in part,

GENEVA (AP) — An international conference on Saturday accepted a U.N.-brokered peace plan that calls for the creation of a transitional government in Syria, but at Russia’s insistence the compromise agreement left the door open to Syria’s president being part of it.

The story gives us a sense of the futility of this agreement: But even with Russia’s most explicit statement of support yet for a political transition in Syria, it is far from certain that the plan will have any real effect in curbing the violence. A key phrase in the agreement requires that the transitional governing body “shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent,” effectively giving the present government and the opposition veto power over each other.

In a word, neither side will agree to the agreement: one side wants Assad to remain as President, the other will not agree to any settlement of which he is a part. The U.N. sits in the middle attempting to get the two sides to agree to something (anything!) while all the time they know full well it will not happen. As one who has always advocated reason and restraint and who hates war and bloodshed, this situation is most disturbing. It would seem that increasingly violence is the only thing many people understand and an international group that lacks the power to back up its agreements is indeed a toothless tiger. The members can meet and come to a compromise of sorts, but the people in the streets will continue to kill one another. It’s not a new story, but it is unsettling to say the least.

Leibniz told us long ago that this was the “best of all possible worlds,” and he thought he had argued his point convincingly. But it takes a giant leap of faith to accept his argument. That was a leap Voltaire could not take and he ridiculed the notion in Candide — which he wrote after the earthquake at Lisbon killed thousands of men, women and children. There have been worse catastrophes and now that war includes war against civilians as well as combatants — a situation all civilized countries agreed would not happen when they signed the Geneva Accords — the earthquake seems a minor event. And, of course, our government, which signed those agreements, is very much a part of the problem sending drones into residential neighborhoods to “take out” known (or suspected) terrorists. Doesn’t this make us the terrorists?

One wonders where we have come and where this will lead. The world needs an international group with effective sanctioning powers and a world court with punitive powers as well. I am not an advocate of power except in the case that it will invariably lead to the resolution of conflict involving innocent victims. And I have always supported the idea of the United Nations: it’s important that people come together to discuss their differences. But I recognize that a debate society that makes agreements they cannot get the parties to buy into is not what the world needs in times of trouble. This is certainly the case in Syria. As the above story says in its final paragraph, The United Nations says violence in the country has worsened since a cease-fire deal in April, and the bloodshed appears to be taking on dangerous sectarian overtones, with growing numbers of Syrians targeted on account of their religion. The increasing militarization of both sides in the conflict has Syria heading toward civil war.

It does seem that the only thing people understand in the end is power. If people will not even sit down together then might does, in the end, make right. I cannot accept that even though it appears to be the case. Perhaps that is my leap of faith.