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Thought Police clash with Jefferson

Rev. Jack Van Ens

Commencement speakers fondly urge graduates not to conform to the worst society offers. Protect in life what is best and reform the rest, keynote graduation speakers urge students. “Speak your mind and don’t settle for easy compromises,” graduates are told.What’s tough to endure are harsh critics who knock down what we prize in life. They use foul language, employ twisted logic, spew outlandish lies and usually are verbally obnoxious. How difficult to grant these naysayers free speech.No wonder “Thought Police” entice us to curtail speech we find offensive. Politicians rush in to protect values that make our nation strong. When offensive cusses are shut up, many assume, our best values are not pulled down. Democracy will thrive when political Thought Police are on their beat.Nothing is further from the truth believed Thomas Jefferson. Preserving what is noble and of high resolve occurs when we protect the rights of those who speak ignobly and are resolute in trash talking.Jefferson practiced what he believed about free inquiry. For a half century he groomed an educational dream. His passion fell back and lurched forward. Finally, Jefferson saw his dream gain traction. The University of Virginia opened its doors. At the school he founded, Jefferson defined academic freedom in a way that didn’t hire Thought Police to defend it. “Here, we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, not to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”Jefferson’s view of preserving free inquiry without benefit of Thought Police cuts across the grain of common sense. When truth withers under verbal assault and what’s precious in life is muddied by verbal bullying, our first reaction may be to protect it. Clamp down on the longhaired rascals who make sport of what our nation hold dear.Pro-business Federalists, counterparts to contemporary Religious Right conservative Republicans, distrusted Jefferson. They judged him godless and devious. He mastered the vice of indirection, they whined. Jefferson rarely body slammed his opposition but hit them below the belt when they least expected it. Newspapers controlled by Federalists saw themselves as truth’s vigilantes. They smeared Jefferson as an “infidel.” Shortly before the most acrimonious presidential election ever held-the election of 1800-when Jefferson butted heads with incumbent John Adams, the Gazette of the United States ranted, “THE GRAND QUESTION STATED. At the present solemn moment the only question to be asked of every American is ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to God-and a religious president or impiously declare for Jefferson and no God?'”If you were the mother of this vicious writer, wouldn’t you take some soup full of lye and wash out his mouth? Jefferson’s allies did not come off any better when castigated by the Federalists. They harped against Jeffersonians who, they alleged, were “atheists, infidels, drunkards, anarchists, libertines, deists, sniveling fanatics, reptiles, desperadoes, yelpers of the Democratic kennels, tools of a baboon, frog-eating, blood-drinking cannibals, gallican traitors, demons of sedition, slave-driving nabobs and scum of the political pot.” Still, Jefferson-like Christ before Pilate-uttered not a word on the Federal level to stop these invectives. Free expression was never totally free if Thought Police guarded it. Then free expression usually became less free. Wrote Jefferson, “No government ought to be without censors; and where the press is free, no one ever will. If virtuous, it need not fear the fair operation of attack and defense. Nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth, either in religion, law or politics. I think it is as honorable to the government neither to know, nor notice, its sycophants or censors, as it would be undignified and criminal to pamper the former and prosecute the latter.” In other words, lay off those who persecute and prosecute us by their unguarded words and repellant ideas.Of course, the Religious Right of Jefferson’s era had other ideas on how to preserve cherished virtues and keep mum those who suffered from oral diarrhea. Federalists during the Adams’ presidency pushed through the Sedition Act. It gave the government leeway to legally throw the book at editors and publications that criticized those in power. If convicted of saying or printing a diatribe against leaders in power, a critic could be fined no more than $2000, a huge sum for colonials. Or, this disturber of the powerful and righteous could be thrown in jail, but not for over two years.Who decided who spoke out-of-turn and deserved jail or a stiff fine? Federalists judges, of course. Does it surprise you that the Federalists, wrapped in Old Glory and waving their Bibles, prosecuted seventeen newspapers that printed kind words toward Jefferson. But these same literary fascists could not find one pro-Federalist newspaper that published anything out of bounds.The Good Book teaches, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11). When the silver suffers tarnish by dirty words and critics call the precious metal “fools gold,” why not call up Thought Police? Why not get them to crack down on scalawags who only desire to foment revolution in the body politic?Jefferson answered in 1779, “Truth is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from conflict, unless by human interposition, disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate.” The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available at local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado


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