Thomas Hobbes, the great philosopher of absolute monarchy, laid down the basic rules according to which tyrants should control the thoughts and actions of their subjects. “For,” Hobbes wrote in his masterpiece, Leviathan, “the actions of men come from their opinions, and the way to govern men’s actions…is to govern their opinions.”
Therefore, the ruler must impose a rigorous censorship on all publications. He must select the censor — in Hobbes’s words, “who shall examine the doctrines of all books before they are published” – and must indicate acceptable and unacceptable ideas. In Hobbes’s ideal state it would be impossible for anyone to act against the ruler, because they could not even formulate the ideas that could underlie such an action.
No doubt all leaders have wished that one time or another that they could simply ban offensive or annoying ideas from the minds of their citizens, and even democratic leaders have tried to eliminate such words from the public square. “Hate speech” is now banned by force of law in many democratic countries, and, if its definition is sufficiently expansive, can be used to silence opponents. We see this at work in some of the recent efforts to silence administration critics by calling them “racists.” Racism falls under the “hate speech” rubric, therefore “racists” can be silenced.
Politicians aren’t the only ones who followed the Hobbesian rules of suppressing language they don’t want to hear. “Educators” have been doing the same thing for decades, with the foreseeable results: an increasingly ignorant population, with real knowledge replaced with politically correct stereotypes and myths. Have a look at this scary report.
Efforts of this sort usually don’t work very well in America, although they have been more successful in recent years. We’re very fractious people, we love to argue, and we don’t take kindly to efforts to muzzle us. Even newspapers and journalists who are normally sympathetic to President Obama get angry when they are locked out of major events, as they were at the nuclear security summit in Washington. This prompted the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank to erupt: “World leaders arriving in Washington for President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit must have felt for a moment that they had instead been transported to Soviet-era Moscow.”
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.