The War On Free Speech

silence

In 1946, Martin Niemoller wrote a damning bit of prose to illustrate the rise of fascism and the cowardice of the intellectuals (including himself) who let it happen.  Here is one of the original versions.

First they came for the Communists —
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists —
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists —
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews —
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me —
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

In the 21st century, they may call themselves innocuous names, profess their moral authority and say they speak for the betterment of society.  But don’t be fooled.  This is all about power.  This is about who controls the flow of ideas.  This is about silencing the opposition.  And the pattern is exactly the same.

First they came for Hate Speech —
And I didn’t speak out
Because it sounded like a good idea.

Then they came for Controversial Speech —
And a lot of people didn’t speak out
Because they didn’t want to get lynched on Social Media.

Then they came for Offensive Speech —
And most people didn’t speak out
Because the ones who did were losing their jobs.

Now they’re coming for Opinion,
And everybody is too frightened to speak out.

So when they come for Free Speech,
Don’t be surprised
When there’s nobody left to defend it.

Two Tales Of Tyranny

tank-man

Thirty years is a long time.  It’s more than a generation.  It’s on the very edge of living memory.  So it’s no surprise that not many people know that today marks the 30th anniversary of two very important events in the history of tyranny.  One — under the diligent efforts of an oppressive government — fading from view; the other, largely forgotten for very different reasons.

In the spring of 1989, protests across China were gathering momentum.  They called for the total reform of the Communist government, and their epicentre was Tiananmen Square.  The Square had been occupied by thousands of students from Beijing’s universities since the middle of April.  On May 20th, the Chinese government declared martial law and ordered the students to leave.  In an unheard of act of disobedience, the students refused.  Two weeks later, on a warm evening in June, Deng Xiaoping called in the military, and the protesters in Tiananmen Square began hearing reports that the People’s Liberation Army was on the march.  What they didn’t know was the unarmed citizens of Beijing were fighting a desperate battle to stop the tanks.  All over Beijing, ordinary people had crowded into the streets to defy the People’s army – human barriers facing totalitarian steel.  The army didn’t care.  They had their orders.  They opened fire.  Stunned and enraged, the people fought back.  They threw up makeshift barricades and pelted the trucks with bottles, stones and Molotov cocktails.  But there was never any doubt: shopkeepers and office workers are no match for professional soldiers with automatic weapons.  Hundreds were killed that night, thousands injured and the trucks rolled on; their objective, the students in Tiananmen Square.  By midnight, the Square was surrounded and the young people were given an ultimatum: leave Tiananmen, or face the consequences.

There is no definitive account of what happened next.  Some say hundreds more were killed, but the Chinese government insists that there were no further casualties.  What we do know is most of the students did not leave voluntarily.  (There are videos of them, amid sporadic gunfire, shaking their fists at the soldiers and singing The Internationale.)  But we also know that, by mid-morning, the students were gone, and later, when a crowd of people (mostly parents looking for their children) approached the Square, the soldiers once again opened fire and then called in more tanks.  (We have a famous photograph of one man’s brave attempt to stop them.)  Whatever happened in the dark, early hours of June 4th, by the end of the day, the Chinese Spring was essentially over; ironically, crushed by the People’s Liberation Army.

Halfway around the world, June 4th, 1989 was Election Day in Poland.  But this was no ordinary election because, for the first time in 50 years, there was more than one name on the ballot.  For the first time since Hitler and Stalin had carved up the country in 1939, Poles had an opportunity to choose who would rule them, and millions were determined to make that choice.  In the big cities, the turnout was cautious; still, thousands waited patiently for their turn at democracy.  In other parts of the country, small towns were virtually shut down as everyone who could, went to the polling stations.  By the end of the day, it was clear that Lech Walesa’s Solidarity Party had broken the power of the Communists.  They’d won every seat they were allowed to contest in the Sejm (parliament) and 99 out of 100 seats in the Senate.  Their victory was so overwhelming many thought Moscow would annul the vote and send in the Red Army. (It had been done before.)  But Mikhail Gorbachev was not Leonid Brezhnev, and in 1989, the Soviet Union had its own problems.  The results were allowed to stand.  It was the first tear in the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe and dominated world politics for 45 years.  Here was proof that the Communist State was not invincible.  Within four months, the people of Berlin had pulled down the Berlin Wall.  Less than a year later, most of the other Warsaw Pact nations had held their own free elections, and Germany was reunified.  Within two years, the Soviet Union itself collapsed: the Cold War was over.

Today, no one much remembers Lech Walesa, the Soviet Union or the Cold War, and China’s economic power has made it expedient to shut up about Tiananmen Square.  Besides, our world is much more concerned about who’s wearing what on the Red Carpet and which celebrity wrote something unfortunate on Facebook five years ago.  But we need to remember these tales of tyranny because — even though eventually the pen is always mightier that the sword — there are also hard occasions when the sword wins.

News Of The World (2019)

earth

Generally, North Americans believe that the rest of the planet is inhabited by angry people who hate us, so it follows that most media outlets don’t concern themselves with “foreign” news.  However, as spring slowly slides into summer — and there’s not much going on locally except baseball and basketball playoffs — a few items slip across the ocean, just to prove we remember that the rest of the world is still rotating.

In Hong Kong, a couple of thousand people held a march to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.  (Yeah, it’s been 30 years!)  Meanwhile, in the rest of China, nobody much noticed because officially the Tiananmen Square Protest (read Massacre) didn’t happen.  Oddly, most of the marchers look as if they weren’t even born when Deng Xiaoping ordered his tanks to clear out the student protesters and reaffirm Mao’s maxim that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

The European elections are over and, like 99.99% of North Americans, I have no idea what just happened.  First of all, it looks as if everybody and his sister gets a political party in Europe, and aside from the Greens, they’re all known by a variety of acronyms.  Plus, aside from the far right and the far left, to the untrained eye, they all look remarkably similar.  Then there’s the question of who represents who.  Here’s just one example (and this scenario played out all over Europe on Sunday.)  According to the media, in France, Madame Le Pen kicked the crap out of Monsieur Macron — except Le Pen’s group got 23.3% of the vote and Macron’s got 22.4%.  That’s less than a 1% difference!  And, according to my math, this means the majority of French people (54.3%) voted against both of them.  I understand that Europeans have been playing at politics for a lot longer we have and – look around — it’s worked out pretty well.  Besides, given our recent electoral history, we have no room to point fingers.  However, from this side of the Atlantic, it all looks like Game of Thrones – minus the dragons.

And finally, back in Asia

There’s a serious problem on Mount Everest – overcrowding.  Apparently, so many people want to stand “at the top of the world” that climbers have to form a line to reach the summit.  That means standing around in the cold and the wind and the lack of oxygen, waiting your turn.  And this year, the wait time is anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour and a half.  The problem is, like tourists everywhere, these idle alpine adventurers are dropping tons of trash on the pristine mountainside – which (from the pictures I’ve seen) isn’t pristine any more.  And, unlike most tourist attractions, there aren’t any janitors up there to clean up the mess.  As much as I worry about climate change, I’m beginning to think it’s going to be bucket lists and selfies that destroy this planet.

Tune in again next year for more news of the world.