OPINION / ESSAY by Dr Keith Pochick @keith_pochick
When the canary falls silent. The perilous state of the first amendment.
Amendment I. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
I grew up in the coalfields of Appalachian Virginia, but I never had to go underground and dig coal for a living. I count myself fortunate, because although it is a job worthy of pride and respect, it is a dangerous and back-breaking one. While mine safety has improved by leaps and bounds over the years, one never needs to look very far back to find a deadly mining accident or explosion somewhere in the world. For reasons I won’t explore in this essay, coal miners are a dying breed. They are a gritty and dedicated lot whose traditions and experiences imbued them with a worldly wisdom. One of my favorite coal mining fables involves the caged canary, which, decades ago, was brought underground with the miners on every shift. The canary wasn’t there to give the miners a pleasant diversion from their difficult work or dark, cramped quarters. It served a very practical purpose. When the canary went silent, the miners knew that there may be dangerous levels of toxic gas (particularly carbon monoxide) in their tunnels and caves. If the canary fell dead to the bottom of its cage, it was most certainly time to go up and get out, lest the miners suffer the same fate. A parable was born. The ‘canary in the coal mine’ came to refer to an entity whose sensitivity to danger should serve as a signal to all. When the proverbial canary looks sick, it is a warning to evaluate a situation for grave threats.
Growing up in Virginia gives one a unique perspective. We Virginians spend our formative years immersed in history, and almost daily are reminded of the role our state played in the development of the Union. We’ve been on both sides of history, and our pride is tempered with a healthy dose of humility. When Massachusetts started a fight it couldn’t win back in 1775, we came to the rescue. Our generals and officers brought incredible vision and leadership, while our rank and file soldiers and riflemen showed admirable skill and bravery. Continental soldiers were overjoyed at the arrival of Virginia Riflemen to any camp. Daniel Morgan’s Virginia Riflemen are credited for the rout of the British at Cowpens, the beginning of the British retreat through North Carolina and toward the Atlantic. This retreat ended at Yorktown, Virginia, where the most famous Virginian of all forced the surrender of British General Cornwallis and proved that the Declaration of Independence wasn’t just a piece of paper. I smile when I consider how that glass of Madeira must have tasted to Washington when he learned that the Redcoats were sealed in, and that the brutal and seemingly hopeless War for Independence was won.
Less than a hundred years later, South Carolina shot its mouth off and started a war, and our state was compelled to come to its aid. I was taught in high school history class that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery – it was fought because of the vastly different economic and trade interests of the Northern and Southern states. It took me a few years to realize that this theory was absurdly false, and that my teachers somehow wanted to perpetuate the notion that the Confederate cause was noble. In an attempt at charm, some Southerners still refer to the war over slavery as “The War of Northern Aggression.” To this day, they refuse to acknowledge that their side wanted to continue treating an entire race of people as livestock, and that the Yankees fought for what was right and just. Virginia seceded, but lost almost half of its territory to the Union, as the hillfolk from Appalachia failed to identify with the cause of the Tidewater gentry. The scar on the map runs literally through my hometown, and is still there for all to see – a sobering reminder of the division still present in America.
What an epic, bloody, devastating fight that was. A couple of years ago, on the afternoon before I ran a half marathon in Northern Virginia, I visited the beautiful Manassas (Bull Run to a Northerner) Battlefield Park. It was a crystal clear, warm September day. I strolled along alone reading markers and reflecting upon the clash of ideologies, and the bloodshed that can bring. A few years before that, I was heading west on Route 460 between Petersburg and Roanoke on a sweltering, still August day. My old Wrangler’s top was down, and if I drove fast enough, the wind cooled me a little. It was a trip I had made a few times between Kitty Hawk, NC and my hometown in Bluefield. I stopped at the Virginia Diner for peanuts and ham like always (you understand if you’ve been there), and after getting back on the road, I soon saw signs for Appomattox Courthouse. I figured every American, and certainly every Virginian, needed to see the history there. Shunning the guided tour, I explored alone. As I peered into the windows of the courthouse, I could almost sense the relief that Grant and Lee must have felt as the surrender papers were signed. The carnage was over – no more men were going to die because of their orders. It was a quiet, spiritual moment for me. My state had fought on the wrong side, and although the Virginians most certainly fought valiantly, we had lost. I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t a better life lesson than getting into a fistfight – and losing. So, as a philosophical Virginian, it is kind of my birthright to choose battles very carefully. I find it best to first confirm that the fight is justified, then that I am joining the right side. Most times, these two variables are so unclear that my best course of action is not to join the fight at all. But my heritage ensures that when I decide to fight, I am compelled to fight furiously and persistently, because I know that honor and history could be at stake.
I’m sure the rise of European fascism in the early to mid 1900s started innocently enough. Pardon my woefully simplistic summarization, but post WWI Europe was decimated by its loss of population due to war and disease. The economy and infrastructure were in shambles. Naturally, the leaders of those nations shouldered the blame. Enter the brash and charismatic nationalists. They incited the already angry populace with rage against the system and inspired it with promises of vast improvement. Nationalist propaganda flourished and these new leaders were swept into power rather quickly. The new dictators possessed a shrewd understanding of the importance of protecting and increasing their own power. Anyone who criticized them was an enemy. The nationalist leaders arbitrarily assigned entire ethnic and religious groups as scapegoats, providing lightning rods for the suppressed angst. They surrounded themselves with foot soldiers who swore to intimidate, muzzle, or kill those who questioned their tactics or policies. The Italian Blackshirts were a patched together army of goons who successfully silenced everyone opposing Mussolini. Some were former military men conscripted into service of ‘Il Duce’; others volunteers hoping to gain favor and spoil. Once the stories of their brutality spread, the use of force became less and less necessary. The people began to “self-censor” for fear of the regime’s retaliation. It was a dark time for human rights, and a black hole for free speech.
This couldn’t happen today, right? Our Constitution is too strong, our traditions too sacred. No one person could possibly cripple our First Amendment. On the contrary, I believe the First Amendment is much more fragile than most think. Reread the First Amendment at the top of the essay and explain to me how it could possibly condone the creation of a “Muslim registry” or an outright ban on immigration to those practicing a particular religion. Some think it is petty and kind of cute when our President tweets his displeasure with a sketch comedy show. “He just has a thin skin,” say his enablers. When he randomly tweets a suggestion to revoke citizenship or imprison flag-burners, it seems to arrive wildly out of nowhere and without reason or provocation. He essentially refuses to have a traditional ‘question and answer’ style press conference, instead preferring to announce policy via YouTube and continue meaningless campaign rallies, even though the election has long been decided. When he does hold a press conference, he will dodge any challenging question or source he deems unfriendly. It should now be clear to all Americans that these initially bizarre and certainly unprecedented tactics have a very specific goal – to silence his critics. The flag-burning condemnation had a definite purpose. He used an example of a widely unpopular act to test the waters for a precedent. Our President thinks that if we agree that flag-burning is treasonous, surely we will agree that openly criticizing the man holding the highest office is also treasonous. The fact that he has eschewed tradition and attacked free speech to this degree is deeply disturbing.
Still yet, many say it is inconceivable. No President can impose significant limitations on the First Amendment. Allow me to offer some reminders of what we recently thought inconceivable. Remember when we said there was no way he could win the GOP Primary? Remember all those bigoted statements and utter lack of policy which would crucify him in the polls? Remember when he went up against a vastly more qualified opponent, with the odds stacked solidly against him, sure to suffer a crushing defeat? He has beaten the odds and challenged conventional wisdom at every turn. He has a propaganda machine of “news” sites running fabricated stories which inspire hate crimes and armed ‘independent investigations’ of pizzerias. Twitter trolls already function as Trump’s online “Blackshirts.” White supremacist groups have staged rallies at state universities where followers shout, “Hail Trump!” while rendering the Nazi hand salute. Hate crimes against those in the Muslim, LBGT+ community, and Latinos have taken a terrifying upward turn. One could argue that the SCOTUS, though sure to tilt 5-4 conservative after the upcoming controversial but inevitable Gorsuch confirmation, will prove to be an impenetrable line of defense for the Constitution. Its Justices serve lifetime appointments and never face the anxiety of an election, which allows them to freely serve the people and uphold our nation’s sacred values. We should pray and demand they do their jobs, vehemently opposing every unconstitutional measure Trump proposes or executive order he enacts.
Nonetheless, we would do well to check on the canaries once in a while. If a Democracy were a coal mine, then critics of its leader are the canaries. If and when Trump’s critics in the media (Keith Olberman, Alec Baldwin, George Takei, SNL, the New York Times, Esquire, CNN, Mother Jones, The Daily Beast, etc.) fall silent, it is time to come up out of the mine with our fists up, ready to fight. The First Amendment cannot protect itself. As I approach forty years as an American citizen, I finally understand why the Second Amendment directly follows the First. It is no mere coincidence. The Second Amendment is there to protect the First. It will upset many lefties to read this, but the Second Amendment is vital to the survival of our rights, and our nation itself. Without it, all the other rights are just ink on yellowed parchment paper. Though the left has recently dedicated a lot of energy toward passage of reasonable gun control measures, it is time to table that movement and focus our efforts on preserving the Amendment which resides at the top of the Bill of Rights. A few months ago, I bought a subscription to ‘Mother Jones’ magazine, even though I can read most of its content for free. I did this because we can’t expect to get high quality, honest journalism for free. If a paper can’t pay for skilled and diligent writers and staff, its quality invariably suffers. I ask all Americans who are critical thinkers to take a similar action – find a respected news source and buy a subscription. Support the survival of the First Amendment and fight the propaganda which preys on bias and masquerades as news.
Additionally, we must steel our resolve. It is a cultural paradox that idiots will fight over any ridiculous and inconsequential thing, while most critically thinking scholars lack the courage to fight, even when fighting is unequivocally warranted. Our impending fight may, to a large degree, be fought in the press and on social media. This underscores the critical role of the press and free speech, as well as Trump’s aim to subdue and control it. But understand that if you value and romanticize Democratic ideals like those enumerated in the First Amendment, forces have already aligned against you. It is likely that these forces won’t limit their war to Twitter and Facebook. Trump continues to follow the playbook of other narcissistic totalitarian leaders, as one of his first moves as President was to find an enemy and start a war. I pray his recent moves as Commander in Chief are merely posturing, but even so, it is a clear effort to increase ‘compulsory patriotism,’ a practice explored by a high school friend of mine. I encourage you to read his article – I can only hope it challenges you like it did me. Trump’s first war will be a war for his own ego. It will serve the purpose of quieting those who criticize him. “Are you with us, or against us?” the people will shout at his critics.
For years, my dad has tried to give me his near antique .38 Smith and Wesson revolver. I’ve resisted. My wife and I know the statistics on guns in the home and accidental child deaths. We both cried while watching the coverage of Sandy Hook. I went to Virginia Tech. Guns may well be evil, but they are a necessary one. I finally decided to accept that .38. It is kept securely and safely away from my kids. I’m sure it won’t do much if and when the Blackshirts come for me, but it is a symbol of my will to fight if I have to. If the canaries go silent, we will have two options: pipe down and get in line, or ball up a fist and continue to speak our minds. Which will you choose?
Keith Pochick, M.D.