Call me weird, but one of my favorite subjects in school was Math. Geometry was my first choice, but I was also fascinated by percentages and the way they could predict how likely the chances were …
Call me weird, but one of my favorite subjects in school was Math. Geometry was my first choice, but I was also fascinated by percentages and the way they could predict how likely the chances were for a thing to happen.
Nowadays, though, percentages have a good chance of making me lose sleep. The election polls are nerve-wracking enough, but the percentage that really haunts me is from a national survey that was done several years ago.
The poll was in the format of multiple-choice: a “Yes” or “No” to a long list of questions on a wide range of topics.
One of the questions was, “In the case of a national emergency, should the government be able to close down news outlets that are not telling the truth?” Forty percent of Americans said “Yes.”
That’s Four-Zero. In fairness, the question sounds somewhat innocuous if you don’t consider the implications. After all, who doesn’t want to know the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what’s happening, especially in situations of emergency?
But a few history lessons reveal how dangerous and destructive this course of action would be. That’s because inevitably, the moment a government—or anybody else—gains the power of censorship, “the truth” becomes whatever the censor wants it to be...or rather, what it wants the public to believe, for the censor’s own purposes.
This bypassing of the First Amendment (which certainly wasn’t First by accident) has two main outcomes. The first is that any person who receives an “approved” version of the truth is extremely apt to make decisions that are not in their best interest, or the interest of their fellow citizens.
The second, and worse, case is that the easiest way to do away with non-approved information for good is to shoot the messenger. Literally.
Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and other authoritarian leaders have killed thousands if not millions of dissenters. Citizens who were “not thinking right.” The dictators’ reasoning was that their country would be better and more unified as a result—and with every massacre the leader’s power would increase and thus make him able to create a yet better and more unified country, even if it’s one whose population is steadily shrinking and whose number of graves is steadily increasing.
Do I believe that under the right (actually, wrong) circumstances, America could become a fascist country? Lately, yes, I do. And the 40 percent of folks who’d be OK with censoring the news media is just one of the reasons why.
The really frightening part is the 11 percent that, in case of crisis, would make for a public majority on shutting down our nation’s free press. I’ll always think of the term as “freedom of the press,” even though so much of our news isn’t pressed onto paper these days, but sent by electronic means. And I’ll never forget the evenings, 50 years ago, when I would stand in the press room of the Eagle and watch the first copies of our weekly paper come sliding out of that giant-seeming machine with a clattering sound almost as harmonious as a freight train. Besides the noise, what my memory retains most is the smell of printer’s ink. It was a scent somewhere between paint and motor oil, and people talked about certain old-timers having printer’s ink in their veins. Figuratively, of course, but I wondered if enough years of sniffing the oddly appealing fragrance might have the same effect.
Eleven percent of a very changeable and fractious population is a fairly thin thread for our entire democracy to hang by, these frightening days, but it is what it is.
In the meantime, in the middle of the night, I sometimes find myself saying a prayer for us and crossing my fingers at the same time. A mixed metaphor, for sure. But all you can do in this life is play the percentages.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org