When Speech Has Consequences

Back in the Cold War times, we used to say that Russian writers were significant because they’d get punished for what they wrote; American writers, who could write and say anything, were treated as insignificant. That was the irony: the freer the speech, the lower its value. As if “free as in speech” really were the same as “free as in beer,” and the economic law of supply dictated its price. Not that any of us wanted to see speech restricted, and therefore more precious.

In Putin’s Russia, publishing an op-ed can secure you dismissal from your teaching job and a new but dangerous career as a “national traitor.” Let’s hear it for the new generation of Enemies of the People! In one step aimed to force the traitors out into public visibility, the Ministry of Education has, I hear, distributed to all schoolteachers a stack of PowerPoint slides and directed them to use class time to present the official view on the annexation of the Crimea and Russian destiny.

This is no joking matter. Nor should those of us who live under a less coercive regime envy, even for a moment, the dangerous meaningfulness of the Russian public intellectual.

Meaninglessness? Follow me. In February 2003, I was one of about three million people worldwide marching against the invasion of Iraq. It was already obvious that the purported “weapons of mass destruction” were a pretext and that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks–obvious, at least, if you didn’t watch TV but read The Nation. We brandished handmade signs and cluttered up the main arteries of certain cities. I was coincidentally in New York, so got to exercise my voice and legs, not to mention my free speech rights, on Broadway.

We were, of course, ignored. “Taking it to the streets” used to be a powerful mode of action. Now it’s just a traffic jam on the way to whatever destination our Fearless Leaders have determined for us.

But it shouldn’t be this way. The right of the people to express grievances and offer policy advice does not reduce to punching one or another pre-set alternative on a ballot every four years. Americans and Europeans have become passive, acquiescent, mere spectators in the political forum, ┬ábecause the rulers have treated them as such and folks can tell when they’re wasting their time. Frustration and outrage burst out in other ways, for example in voting for nonsensical “protest candidates” or in ill-directed episodes of violence.

The Occupy movement was something of a self-righteous kitchen sink, but it was healthy and ought to be revived. Now that temperatures are moderating, who wants to go to the park and chant “Down with” something? (Hey there, students of Taiwan.)