combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2007

Taking Aim at Commo
a scholium on style and usage

Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a style.
Jonathan Swift ["A Letter to a Young Gentleman, lately entered into Holy Orders" (1721)]

The Dilemma Within a Democracy:
Right versus Right

Most children have a good sense of right and wrong, knowing not to lie, steal or cause harm to another person. It's only as they mature that they become aware of contradictory pulls, such as the satisfaction of eating the entire bag of candy as opposed to furthering friendship by sharing, or defending against a bully and risking a beating. Every society establishes norms to deal with the dilemma of right versus right. Good parenting provides guidance. Schools teach citizenship and social skills. Laws ensure impartiality and fairness. But the conflict between the First Amendment's freedoms and the government's basic responsibility to protect looms large when it comes to censorship. It's another double bind of right versus right.

We all indulge in censorship at some time or another, not telling Mary that her new dress makes her look fat, insisting that it's okay that Josh goes to the ballgame instead of cleaning the garage, declaring that the blind date who never called again was a jerk anyway. We classify these instances as white lies. They are kindnesses seen as good manners.

Various groups have found their own reasons for censorship. Some pursue acceptable levels of decency within the movie industry or in children's literature, deleting offensive material. Corporations may find ways to keep information from the public, as when they combine cholesterol and hypertension drugs into one pill, reducing customer cost, but they also skirt patent expirations to maintain a higher profit. During wartime, it might be necessary to keep information from the enemy by censoring a soldier's mail, confiscating a journalist's films or altering statistics like casualty counts for the sake of morale. To some, these acts of censorship are seen as acceptable and necessary to maintain a balanced and safe environment.

As the information age expands, there are ever more sources of information available, along with devices that control. The worldwide web offers parental locks and spam filters to screen out what is undesirable. Videos and DVDs have ratings regarding violence and sex, as do movies. There is no doubt that we need protection against molestation, harassment and hackers of personal data. But like a TV reality show that has become increasingly bizarre, how much is enough?

Take, for example, the world of education. Schools are designed to educate and at the same time produce moral, upright citizens. Along with reading, writing and arithmetic, children are taught to be considerate, respectful and polite. They learn about our political and economic system through classes in social studies and history, furthering a sense of belonging. A teacher might even mention that our culture is based on a Judeo-Christian heritage, a lesson in morality.

But within that basic framework lies the temptation to influence, by which the late Justice Louis Brandeis referred to as "men of zeal." In years past Johnny would face Aunt Nelly's wrath and have his mouth washed out with soap for saying a bad word. Today's textbook publishers face a dizzying array of interest groups and governmental bodies who have taken it upon themselves to expurgate language that can sully the minds of impressionable children. It is in the nature of things that once in place, such groups work diligently to justify their existence. So attacking obscenity and vulgarity expands into other areas. Emotionally charged references to death, disease, and scary creatures such as mice and rats are to be avoided. Gender and race are other sensitive areas, with words ending in man altered to be gender neutral, while fictional characters in grade-school readers are mandated toward racial diversity, even when the change is ludicrous. From time to time, a hot issue like Intelligent Design hits the headlines, but by and large, the publishers quietly acquiesce, trapped by the profit line. Districts buy books based on community consensus. The larger the district, the larger the book supply. The strong influence of Texas and California pressure groups should come as no surprise. With so many interest groups dipping their fingers into the distribution pie, the flavors in learning soon lose their range. The concept of great minds grappling with diverse convictions in a free and open exchange is lost. Meanwhile, guidance from the classroom teacher on the value of ideas is seen as prejudicial and therefore forbidden. Critical thinking? Forget it.

Governmental bodies around the world have also used their clout to control information. The USSR under Josef Stalin was known to eliminate pictures of those who had been condemned to death, an eerie echo from George Orwell's novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. In 2002, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation upheld a ban on the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, a small NGO dedicated to truthful reporting of human rights abuses from the Caucasus conflict. In 1981, Wroclaw, People's Republic of Poland, forced newspapers to delete an announced countrywide strike. Recently, the United States House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform conducted a hearing on the silencing of government climate scientists. Addressed were the control of federal scientists' speech and writing, the power over research results, and retaliation against those who protest these acts.

We can assume that adults are armed with tools of inquiry that protect against this kind of censorship. But such tools are useless if there is no opportunity to hear the other side, be it from a free press or someone with an objective perspective and access to the public.

Of greater currency is the control of military information, with sins committed on both sides. In the days of the Republic, there was little reason to doctor information since primitive communication made announced events already a part of the past. But during the Civil War, the government managed to federalize telegraph lines, suppress opposition newspapers, restrict mail service and issue their own reports that were sometimes blatantly false. Journalists from competing newspapers found ways to visit the front lines, precursors to today's foreign correspondent. However, in their competitive zeal, writers would file stories that were false or at least strongly slanted – another form of censorship. Later, the Spanish-American War saw attempts to control military coverage, especially reports of atrocities.

During World War I, reporters submitting articles to Stars and Stripes had to first go through review, checked by the Military Intelligence Service headed by Major Frederick Palmer, formerly of the Associated Press. Facts about engagements, casualties and troop identification were prohibited unless they had already been reported in official communiqués. In addition, the government maintained control of transatlantic cable lines and mail. Media reports were subject to the Committee on Public Information's censorship regulations and the 1918 Espionage Act's restrictions.

World War II brought further press curtailment as the government established its Office of Censorship after the attack on Pearl Harbor, reviewing all mail and incoming field dispatches, prohibiting pictures of American casualties and censoring information for the purpose of national security. All this was enhanced by the film industry that provided a further outlet for censorship, applauding the heroism of American servicemen while sanitizing the horrors of war. As to the realistic settings, it's worth noting that the assistance from the Defense Department through the use of aircraft carriers and helicopters and boot camp training for actors came free, but with the caveat that they had veto power over the content. This relationship continues to this day. For the most part, the public acquiesced, repeating mottos such as loose lips sink ships, and careless talk costs lives, willing to trade freedom for security.

This changed during the Viet Nam War. Without the powers granted by a declaration of war, the government was unable to restrict access to the battlefield. Aided by video cameras, photojournalists brought stories and pictures of the war into American's living rooms, in newspapers and on television, disputing the optimistic military briefings scornfully referred to as the Five O'clock Follies. Today's historians see the Tet offensive as a turning point with the American public finally catching on. The fact is that people were armed with information not available before, and they began to make their voices heard.

Having blamed the press for being instrumental in "losing the war," the military changed its approach, re-appraising the opposing needs of military security against the public's "right to know." After the contentious press blackout during the 1983 Grenada invasion, the military developed a system of press "pools" wherein a small group of reporters could get closer to the action, accompanied by military escorts. This system was refined during the Panama invasion and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Today, some journalists freelance on the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan, filing stories whenever the opportunity presents itself. Others are individually "embedded" into a military unit, witnessing the action of that group first hand. Yet many editors are wary of such protective covering and see a potential loss of objectivity, killing the story before it's even written. Instead of a slanted report, there is no report at all.

Then there is the Internet. Some say that bloggers are filling the gap left by a media beholden to political or corporate interest. But open information is just that, ranging from erudite to asinine, little of it confirmed. Teachers traditionally accept nothing but peer review periodicals for research paper citations, and with good reason. A journalist is under the same requirement, with editors demanding two or three verifications of sources before going to print. Even Wikipedia makes mistakes. Meanwhile, one-sided opinions filled with logical fallacies are replete on the Web, another form of censorship.

History is replete with heroic stories of principle and sacrifice. But where do we stand when there are competing claims of legitimacy? Does the existence of predators and child molesters require that we shut down the Internet? Does current morality justify excising the literature of years past? Should a government protect its citizens with the most well prepared military possible while hiding the ugliness of war from those at home? Does The First Amendment contain freedoms we can barter at will?

During wartime, fighting troops are aware they could be asked to die for their country. That's part of the job description. But they are not alone. Over the years journalists have given their lives as well. The Associated Press says the death toll for the Second Indochina War exceeds the 67 correspondents killed covering Allied forces in World War II and the 18 killed in the 1950-53 Korean War. The Iraq count is currently at 93. Less dramatic are the sullied reputations, ruined careers and broken relationships brought about by conflicts between right versus right.

In a moment of frustration, Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America declared that "I have a right to compose a song or write a book or make a movie about anything I choose, but a theater owner has a right to say 'no, I don't want to play it,' or a retail video store says 'no, I don't want to stock it.' That's called freedom. That's called democracy."

On a more sober note, the late Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes stated, "The greater the importance of safeguarding the community from incitements to the overthrow of our institutions by force and violence, the more imperative is the need to preserve inviolate the constitutional rights of free speech, free press and free assembly in order to maintain the opportunity for free political discussion, to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes, if desired, may be obtained by peaceful means. Therein lies the security of the Republic, the very foundations of constitutional government."

The First Amendment declares that "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." This, in addition to its power to protect, is the primary function of the government – of, by, and for the people.

Our forefathers warned that eternal vigilance is the price of democracy. Even better was Demosthenes safeguard against despots, namely, distrust. A viable society requires people to think. No one said it would be easy. But how exhilarating it can be when, on occasion, we work it through and get it right.

contributed by Beth Staas

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