Ambitious censorship is still being challenged by the public at large, but it can work quite well on government employees. A restrictive speech code for government workers and officials could be extremely effective, for the simple reason that violators can be fired or exiled to small offices at the end of long corridors. We should be very concerned at the recent spectacle of the Obama administration attempting to eliminate certain words and phrases from American policy documents and statements concerning Islam. If the reports are accurate, our analysts and policymakers can’t use expressions like “radical Islam,” “Islamic extremists,” “Islamists,” and “Islamic terrorists.” As Barry Rubin quietly observes, this sort of censorship can have a devastating effect on both analysis and policy:
Suppose I’m an intelligence analyst in the State Department, Defense Department, armed forces, or CIA, and I’m writing about one of these groups or this ideology. How can one possibly analyze the power and appeal of this ideology, the way that ideas set its strategy and tactics, why it is such a huge menace if any reference to the Islamic religion and its texts or doctrines isn’t permitted?
Good question. And there is a very unpleasant answer to it. When Barry talks about “the way that ideas set its strategy and tactics,” he takes us right back to Hobbes: ideas drive actions, and if the ruler doesn’t want to be challenged, he must eliminate ideas contrary to his own. This president does not want conflict with the “Muslim world,” part of which is however in open conflict with us. He therefore resorts to censorship of the kind that was parodied in an old rhyme:
“For, he argued razor-witted, that can’t be which is not permitted.”
It’s the political equivalent of King Canute’s order to the sea to halt its annoying tide. And it’s likely to produce a similar result. We’re not going to stop flowing any more than the ocean did, and Obama’s not going to be able to resist us any more than Canute dominated the waves.