Let's see what we have, just in the past week:
- The Justice Department prosecuted journalist Desiree Fairooz for laughing at a particularly absurd thing Attorney General Jeff Sessions said during his confirmation hearing. Fairooz was found guilty and is now facing a possible one-year prison term. For laughing.
- The FCC has launched an investigation of Stephen Colbert for his acerbic comments about President Donald Trump, which included a statement that "the only thing Donald Trump's mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin's cock-holster." Colbert is likely to be fined for obscenity.
- Across the Atlantic, Stephen Fry is under investigation by Irish authorities on charges of blasphemy -- which yes, is still a punishable offense in Ireland. Fry was being interviewed, and was asked by the interviewer what he would say to God if he had the chance. (Fry is a prominent and outspoken atheist.) Fry responded, "I’d say ‘Bone cancer in children, what’s that about?’ How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?" A complaint was lodged against Fry, and if convicted he could face a fine of €25,000.
- In Saudi Arabia, yet another atheist has been sentenced to death simply for being open about his beliefs. Unless the courts intervene -- and it is unlikely that they will do so, given that Saudi King Abdullah declared atheists to be terrorists three years ago -- some time in the next few weeks Ahmad Al-Shamri is likely to be taken out into Deera Square in Riyadh, forced to his knees, and publicly beheaded with a sword. Despite this, the Saudis are still our staunch allies, and (with no apparent awareness of irony) are members of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
And that's just in the last week. The trend is increasingly toward jailing (or worse) anyone who speaks up, anyone who holds unpopular opinions, and (especially) anyone who ridicules the people in power. As Voltaire put it, "To learn who is actually in power, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize."
At the same time, there is a huge push by the people who are on top to consolidate that power -- in part, by giving the impression that because there is dissent, they are the persecuted ones. Here are a few recent examples of that:
- Ken Ham, the science-denying founder of Answers in Genesis and the driving force behind the "Ark Encounter" theme park, got his knickers in a twist over the demand by American Atheists spokesperson Amanda Knief that a bench with a plaque saying "Men who will not be governed by God will be governed by tyrants" be removed from government property. But replacing it with a plain old secular bench? That, to Ham, is a direct slap in the face to Christians everywhere. "Atheists don't want freedom of religion," Ham snarled. "They want freedom from Christianity. They want their religion only in public... Atheists, like many against free speech, are intolerant & bullying people with their religion to remove Christian symbols... I encourage people to educate the public that atheism is a religion, an anti-God intolerant religion out to impose their religion on culture."
- Lizette Franklin, of Kinross, Scotland, has launched a campaign against UK discount store Poundland for a promotion called "OMG," that puts the acronym on signs for price reductions. Poundland says it stands for "Oh my goodness," but Franklin isn't buying it, and is trying to get Christians to boycott the store. "To me it expresses the name of the Lord and can be taken as disrespectful," Franklin said. "If it was to mean 'Oh My Goodness' they should have written it out... I am an absolute fan of the store. But when I saw this I was really in shock. It was as if the name of the Lord has been made fun of and disrespected all over the store. It is as if the name of the Lord was being used in vain to promote prices and this is revolting to say the least. This is disrespectful to us as Christians and should be removed at once."
- State Representative Rick Saccone of Pennsylvania, who recently announced a bid for the U.S. Senate, has said that he was motivated to run for office because "God has set out a plan for us. He wants godly men and women in all aspects of life. He wants people who will rule with the fear of God in them to rule over us. And if they don’t, then the evil side will take over and the government will control and run over the good people and so they have to stand up, that’s just part of it. If you don’t have good people in government, then you’ll have bad people in government—and when bad people are reigning over us, the people will not be happy." You may recall Saccone as the fellow who in 2012 sponsored a bill, which was ultimately (and fortunately) unsuccessful, to call that year "The National Year of the Bible" and to have "In God We Trust" posted prominently in all public schools. Because, apparently, having it on our currency is simply not enough.
And so forth. The general sense is that just being free to believe what you want is not sufficient; the symbols and slogans of that belief have to be everywhere, both private and public, or "religious freedom" is being trampled on. Free speech is also great -- as long as that free speech doesn't criticize or ridicule the dominant paradigm.
There can be no challenge to the hegemony of the ones in power.
This, however, is the ideology of fascism. If you can't criticize the government, if examining ideas is characterized as blasphemy, if (especially) the people in charge are convinced that they are ruling because it's the will of God -- you've taken a dangerous step toward totalitarianism.
We who believe in actual free speech can't let ourselves be cowed. It's time to take some chances and risk vocal dissent. We can't let the people running the governments in the world think that just because they can silence someone's voice, they've won.
I'll end with a quote from George R. R. Martin, who put the words in the mouth of his iconic character Tyrion Lannister. "If you tear out a man's tongue, you are not proving him wrong. You are only showing the world that you fear what he might say."