Rich Mayfield: Free speech keeps us free |

Rich Mayfield: Free speech keeps us free

Rich Mayfield

Perusing the news from Beijing put me in mind of a passage from Joseph Heller’s fine evocation of the absurdities inherent in the institutional mindset: “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.”

Yossarian and Orr came vividly back to life as I read of two elderly Chinese women who have both been sentenced by China’s Public Security Bureau to one year of “re-education by labor” for following the Beijing government’s procedures on public protest, eerily reminiscent of the absurdity of Catch-22. The two women, Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Wang Xiuying, 77, were merely obeying the intricately proscribed directions the government provided for lawful protesting during the Olympics. The only problem for these elderly two, and the rest of the Chinese population who similarly sought to peacefully demonstrate, was the government’s clear intention to never allow any demonstrations to ever take place. The number of applications that were filed varies between sources but at least 77 brave folk made the trek to the Public Security offices. At last count, none of the applications were accepted and several of the applicants haven’t been heard from since.

China promised a problem-free Olympics and they pretty much pulled it off if you don’t count an occasional old lady or two being tossed into the slammer. But weren’t the opening and closing ceremonies spectacular?

In similar fashion, Robert Mugabe, the long reigning and ruthless dictator of Zimbabwe, has recently relented from his hard-line against those who would oppose him, particularly those who would oppose him in this past March’s supposedly free and fair election. According to recent reports, Mugabe has gone on record as welcoming a coalition government, democratically represented by his followers and his noble opponents. Unfortunately, these noble opponents have been disappearing at an alarming late recently. Just this past week, three newly elected members of Zimbabwe’s Parliament were taken into custody only hours after the opening session. Eight others are in hiding. It seems President Mugabe, like his comrades in China, doesn’t take kindly to criticism. Opposition is always welcome as long, of course, as nobody does any opposing.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is.”

In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly declared that every May 3 would be celebrated as World Press Freedom Day. Judging from these two egregious events and others, the U.N .may want to rethink having but one day each year. Perhaps a monthly reminder would be more appropriate. A number of years ago, an attorney friend of mine from Denver was visiting Russia, meeting with legal scholars from around the region. The conversation turned to the stability of governments and the role of the law. When asked what he thought made his nation’s democracy strong, my friend simply replied, “A free press.” The ability to challenge conventional thinking in a public manner makes for the strongest of democracies. Whenever dissent is stifled, democracy is threatened. Be it from bureaucrats in Beijing or bullies within the Beltway.

We in America have long struggled with this critical tension. Expressing criticism of current governmental practices often leads to personal attacks and the questioning of one’s patriotism, even sanity. Ironically, history has shown us over and over again it is these very critics who continue to strengthen the fundamental principles this nation was founded upon.

Another author familiar with the paradoxes inherent in institutional power, George Orwell, reminds us: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”

The Eagle County commissioners are Sara Fisher, Arn Menconi and Peter Runyon.

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