Thursday, February 09, 2006

Glorious Victory, Or Not

So... That sleazy political commisar George Deutsch is out of a job at NASA. And on the same day, it turns out that the BLM isn't going to censor OSU's forest research after all, at least for the time being.

So I should be happy, right? Ahh, if only that were so.

I'm distressed by a trend I've noticed recently. The Oregonian, our local fishwrapper, editorialized about the OSU controversy recently, and while they argued against the attempt to censor the study, they also felt the need to tell us they personally doubted the study's conclusions. This sentiment was echoed in today's paper by various members of the Oregon and Washington congressional delegations. The Oregonian also recently offered the bland boilerplate US newspaper editorial about those notorious cartoons, defending the Danish newspaper while explaining that the cartoons themselves are oh, so very terrible. And not letting the public see 'em so they can decide for themselves, of course. That's a given.

It seems that if you stand up in defense of the principle of free expression, you're always, always supposed to turn around and offer a pious, ritualized condemnation of whatever touched off the controversy. This, I suppose, is to demonstrate that you're taking a moderate, sensible, responsible position. It was Voltaire, I think, who originated the old cliche about disagreeing with what someone says, but defending their right to say it. Which is all fine and good, so far as it goes. But defending someone's right to speak doesn't obligate you to offer any opinion whatsoever about what they said. At some point, all you're doing is showing off your own pristine ethical bona-fides. It does the target of the criticism no good whatsoever, and quite possibly a lot of harm. The target ends up with lots of vocal "defenders" but no actual allies, and these so-called defenders will go out of their way to bash the target for any petty reason they can find, just to prove they're acting purely on noble high-minded principles and aren't actually siding with anyone.

If you're a scientist whose study's just been bashed by a major regional newspaper and much of the local congressional delegation -- all of whom are confirmed non-scientists -- your careeer's bound to suffer in the future. It's not fair, but that's how it is. Furthermore, the controversy's absolutely going to have a chilling effect on any future research in the area, whether by you or by anyone else. How is it that the mainstream media folks keep celebrating one "victory" for free expression after another, and yet in practice the boundaries of what it's permissible to say keep shrinking? It doesn't seem to bother them one bit, so long as their own hands remain absolutely clean.

It feels odd to be lecturing the media about how to defend the First Amendment, but they don't seem to have much of a clue about what's at stake anymore. If everyone tut-tuts about how a certain idea ought to be off limits (while remaining legal, technically), the result is an informal ban. The effect is the same, in the end. Avoiding offering any opinion either way about a scientific study would've been the easiest thing in the world to do. They could've offered a platitude about respecting the scientific community's ability to figure things out themselves. But no. Condemning the content of speech they're busy defending is pretty much habitual at this point. And by offering uninformed opinions about someone's research, they're buying into precisely the same notion so beloved by GWB & Co, namely that there are no objective, testable truths, only political opinions. And "God" help you if you have the wrong ones.

The way to defend free expression, is to defend it, period. Don't try to split hairs or finesse the issue, don't wring your hands about it, don't look for gray areas to hide in. Don't bash anyone for going out on a limb and causing controversy; they're taking much more of a personal risk than you are. Don't concede any rhetorical points whatsoever to the would-be censors. Period. Otherwise you're fighting a rear-guard action, and constantly losing ground. You may be retreating honorably, but you're still retreating. That's just wrong. When it comes to free speech, never give an inch. Never.

I don't have as much to say about the departure of that Deutsch kid. Only that (per DC tradition) the official reason given for his departure was entirely untrue, and as usual nobody batted an eye. The real reason he's out is that he was an embarrassment and a political liability. But for some reason it's not OK to say that. It's not even OK to explicitly disavow his idiotic blather about the Big Bang and give that as the reason he's gone. I mean, that wouldn't be precisely true either; I imagine his feelings about the Big Bang mesh up precisely with GWB's opinion on the subject, and he had every reason to think he was just doing the president's bidding, in his own clumsy and inapt way. But people would've bought it. Instead we get this technicality about him allegedly lying on his resume and not having a college degree after all. Since Deutch apparently quit Texas A&M for the purpose of working in the Bush-Cheney campaign war room, they had to have known about his lack of a degree before now. And it didn't bother them one bit until the blogoverse dug it up and spread it far and wide. But the resume thing gave them a non-controversial reason to ditch the guy, and once they had their political cover, he was outta there, with the whole thing framed up as a non-political, purely HR matter.

I guess this is just how the game is played. Spokesperson gives a bland and obviously false reason for whatever just happened. It's an obvious lie and everybody knows it, but no matter. Instead of being insulted, the press happily plays along, uncritically buying whatever's being offered, and relaying the lies to the public with no analysis of any kind. Everyone goes home happy, even though not a single true word was spoken, and thus the media once again helped someone in power deceive the public. You'd think they'd be a bit more skeptical after their recent role in helping the administration lie to a mass audience about Saddam and WMDs. But that doesn't seem to have happened so far, and I'm starting to doubt it ever will.

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