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Free speech impediment
A liberal mind does not make a liberal agenda


Cuesta College’s Jackie Marcus received threatening e-mails for teaching a "liberal" agenda in the classroom.

The year could have easily been 1920. We were having a glass of wine at a cozy restaurant in the old town of Pismo Beach. Across the street is a two-story, white-brick building with dark blue awnings over the angular windows that reminded me of Hollywood in its silent film days. Palm trees line the street and an antique lamp adorns the hotel window. The only thing missing is the horse and carriage.

The fog transformed the town into a silent film of grays and whites, when my friend recalled Russia's brilliant poet, Osip Mandelstam, and how his life came to an untimely end in prison for merely writing a poem that poked fun at Stalin.

Perhaps it was our conversation that turned to politics, the demise of our liberties under Ashcroft's Patriot Act and the threatening e-mails I received from a fundamentalist supporter of Bush who accused me of teaching a "liberal agenda" in my philosophy class and of being a "communist," that brought to mind the Russian Intelligentsia.

If I'm to be charged, like Socrates, of "corrupting the youth," which translates into questioning political policies, then let's examine the accusation in light of Russia's history.

According to Masha Gessen, author of "Dead Again," there would be no Russian Intelligentsia without the Russian poets, especially when Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Mayakovsky, and many other extraordinary writers emerged during the early 1930s.

Writers, teachers, and artists were murdered during The Great Terror years under Stalin's purge. Akhmatova survived, but she was mentally tortured without being physically harmed or arrested. Even before Stalin, she had suffered the death of her first husband, Nilolay Gumilyov, a brilliant scholar who was arrested and then shot by the Bolsheviks in 1921. And when Stalin came to power, she could do nothing to save her son, Lev Gumilyov, from being arrested and exiled to the labor camps. She watched her friends disappear, one by one, into the death camps.


You will not live again.

You will not rise from the snow

Twenty-eight holes from the bayonet

Five from the gun.


I have made a shroud for my friend,

Sad cloth.

She loves, loves blood

This Russian Earth.

-Dedicated to Nilolay Gumilyov

Anna Akhmatova, 1921


In the land of liberty for all, we've had our own dark history of blacklisting individuals for their political beliefs; the fact that I was made a target for attack brought back the McCarthy days of oppression.

Why did this angry woman and her friends launch a massive e-mail assault? Under her insistence, the Dean of Humanities asked me to remove the Cuesta College logo from my own "paid for" philosophy web site for policy reasons.

I agreed on the grounds that I never intended to speak for Cuesta College as far as my political views were concerned. Given the study of environmental ethics, the links on my web site informed my students about the Bush administration's corporate policies that allow industries to pollute with impunity.

True, I let my students know-because they asked-that I'm a liberal for a variety of reasons: mostly for the protection of our environment and constitutional rights. But that should not justify the actions of a group of vindictive conservatives who are not Cuesta students.

They stole my picture from my web site and wrote slanderous lies about my person and my class and then proceeded to use my photo as a target for insults and threats on their national message board. I received threatening hate e-mails from places like Texas, Alabama, and Tennessee.

If my Republican antagonists knew anything about my class and my students, they'd realize that college students are independent thinkers; they're perfectly capable of arriving at their own conclusions. The witch-hunt tactics and the vile e-mails demonstrated hostility instead of reason, fanaticism instead of intelligence.

During Akhmatova's time, if you so much as whispered a word of criticism against Stalin, you were dragged off into the night and no one would explain why you were arrested.

Under the Patriot Act, citizens are being arrested and our government is not required to explain the charges. Currently, our Bill of Rights is nothing more than an empty document. By the end of the semester, my students not only know their rights, they walk away with a lasting appreciation of our civil liberties and how important it is to protect them. Ah, there I go again, teaching a liberal agenda . .

If I'm to stand accused of being a "communist" by a woman who never met me, let's remember how the writers and professors were the first to be imprisoned under Stalin's regime. Akhmatova's prophetic vision of Russian culture was summarized by the poet in the following way:

"As the future ripens in the past / So the past rots in the future- / A terrible festival of leaves."

Akhmatova predicted that Russia could experience a Great Awakening, and that the arts could flourish, but instead, she saw signs of "culture rot," of writers falling into stagnation and sterility, a culture that will inevitably bear dead fruit.

Cultural advancements are impossible when artists and teachers are forced into silence. It's a sad day in America when a philosophy teacher is called into the dean's office for questioning Bush's motives for his preemptive, unilateral attack on Iraq, for wanting to protect endangered species and old-growth forests.

In "Instead of a Preface for Requiem" Akhmatova wrote:

"In the terrible years of Yezhovism I spent seventeen months standing in line in front of the Leningrad prisons. One day someone thought he recognized me. Then, a woman with bluish lips who was behind me and to whom my name meant nothing, came out of the freezing torpor to which we were all accustomed and said, softly (for we spoke only in whispers), "- And that, could you describe that?"

And I said, "Yes, I can."

And then a sort of smile slid across what had been her face.


No, it was not under a strange sky,

Not strange wings that gave me shelter-

I was in the midst of my people,

There, where, in their misfortune, my people were.


Have Americans entered a blizzard of fear where we must speak in whispers? The Russian Intelligentsia not only represented the educated-poets felt ethically bound to write about the terrible conditions of political oppression, poverty, and despair.

How would their poetry change things? Change always begins with awareness. Silencing political discussions, whether we're talking about violations of individual rights to privacy under the Patriot Act, or questioning laws that allow energy industries to pollute, are warnings that we're entering a new technological age of policing each other, of standing on guard for fear that someone will report us to the authorities.

Back at the restaurant in Pismo Beach, I could see the pinkish-red neon light, "Hotel Landmark," glowing softly in the dark, and the fog gave us the feeling that time is a product of the imagination.

Masha Gessen wrote that during Akhmatova's time, poetry and philosophy were the cultural activities of the youth. She asks why this was so, and answered, "Perhaps the young people discovered in the poetic word a new and vital way of expressing their sensations and perceptions." The study of humanities is the door to cultural diversity.

The role of the philosopher, from Socrates' experience, could not be taken lightly. He understood that logic, alone, is not enough. Faith in something larger than ourselves is also required. Without diversity of thought, without the freedom to think and question, cultural creativity dies.

"If a poet wrote a poem today," wrote Akhmatova, "he has no idea whether he will write one tomorrow or really ever again." For Osip Mandlestam, laughing at the leader of their country led to a miserable prison sentence, torture, and finally death.

Jackie Marcus teaches philosophy at
Cuesta College.



No need to whisper


Businessman Charlee Smith argues there’s nothing to fear, unless you’re a terrorist or are in the habit of speaking irresponsibly.


Currently, nothing chaps my hide more than to hear someone say, "Our Bill of Rights is now nothing more than an empty document."
This knee-jerk response to the actions of our government as it works to balance security with privacy rights while waging the international fight against terrorism is effective political campaign jargon. Intelligent people use outlandish statements like this because they are the quickest way to get attention and support. We are, however, a nation based upon checks and balances, and checking out the facts can alleviate most fears.

Some of the provisions of the Patriot Act, passed by Congress in 2001, are the main focus of the "lost rights" issue. I was irritated by the Act, but only because of the name. Putting the label "Patriot" (Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) on the Act, while clever, sent me the message that it would be un-American to oppose it, and I don't like to be force-fed. It is, however, a bad name on a good product.

The Act does provide for the option of indefinite imprisonment without trial of non-U.S. citizens whom the attorney general determines to be a threat to national security. The government is not required to provide detainees with counsel, nor is it required to make any announcement or statement regarding the arrest. The law allows a wiretap to be issued against an individual instead of a specific telephone number.

It permits law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant and search a residence without immediately informing the occupants-if the attorney general has determined this to be an issue of national security. As part of a criminal investigation and with court approval, investigators can obtain previously unavailable personal records. The act also allows intelligence gathering at religious events, along with many less controversial, but very effective, provisions.

Many people have stated that under the Patriot Act, U.S. citizens have been arrested without the explanation of charges. The reality is that only two U.S. citizens have been detained indefinitely as enemy combatants since 9/11, and this is based on a 1942 law.

One citizen, Yaser Esam Hamdi, was captured in Afghanistan fighting with an enemy combat unit. The other, ex-convict Addullah Al Muhajir (aka Jose Padilla), became an Al Qaeda operative in Afghanistan and Pakistan and was arrested upon arrival in Chicago for allegedly planning to explode a radioactive "dirty bomb" on U.S. soil. Sure they lost their rights, but that is the rule of the "game" they decided to play.

Terrorism, as Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week after a bomb killed 39 in a Moscow subway, is the "plague of this 21st century." The fact that no bodies have been blown apart by Islamic terrorist bombs in U.S. cities since 9/11 is a testament to the correctness of measures and actions taken by President George W. Bush.

But nothing made by man is perfect. Some portions of the Patriot Act do use too broad a brush, such as one that bars the giving of expert advice and assistance to organizations with ties to terrorists, which was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in January.

The Patriot Act is a compromise. I'm sure there are zealots in the Justice Department who would love to round up every young male of the Islamic faith in America or build a computer system that would automatically monitor the electronic activities of everyone in this country without the authorization of a court, but it won't happen.

Despite notices of its death, the Bill of Rights is alive and well. Many aspects of the Patriot Act simply update past laws for surveillance to include the more modern forms of communication. Just as there is no "right" not to pay sales tax on Internet transactions, there is no "right" to have your e-mails treated differently than your telephone conversations under criminal law.

The source of most recent cases of true rights violations can be traced back to political correctness, not federal law.

The incident at Cal Poly when Steve Hinkle was not allowed to place a flier announcing that a speaker who was to appear on campus is one example. Another occurred at the University of Washington last October when students sold the same type of cookies with prices that ranged from 25 cents to a dollar, depending on the race of the buyer, with the highest prices to whites.

This was a political demonstration that attempted to mock affirmative action by applying liberal social policy to the price of cookies. A sign above their booth said: "Affirmative Action is Racism." Two students who were offended by this tore the sign down and threw a box of cookies at one of the sellers' heads. In both cases, individuals exercised, and got approval of, a right not to be offended (which does not exist), while the exercise of free speech was ruled by college officials to be hurtful and against their rules.

The communication revolution of the past decade has changed many things. An individual's ideas can now be disseminated with incredible speed. It's virtually impossible to "speak in whispers" electronically. A simple e-mail can end up in all 50 states overnight.

If you create your own web site that expresses political or religious views, you had better be thick-skinned. You will be criticized. You will receive words that hurt. Just don't cry "foul" when it happens.

Respect is not a civil right. As Wendy McElroy says, "No one can claim a 'right' to the emotional or intellectual approval of anyone else. Indeed, to mandate such respect is to violate rights because human beings should be free to assess what is right or wrong, admirable, or detestable for themselves."

Not one American citizen has been arrested under any post 9/11 federal law for something that they have said or written. So don't let fear be the cause of silence. Some common sense must be used, however. While the constitution gives us freedom of speech, it does not protect us from some of the consequences of our speech.

We all have the right to say anything to our spouses, but you won't stay married long if you do. Some Hollywood actors have seen their careers slide due to their outspokenness, but I'm sure some have no regrets. Sometimes getting things off your chest produces a far better spiritual reward than any monetary gain that can come from silence.


Charlee Smith is a businessman who lives in the North County.







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