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Vince Bzdek: Freedoms in First Amendment rise above Americans' differences

July 1, 2017 Updated: July 1, 2017 at 6:10 pm
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Gazette editor Vince Bzdek March 14, 2016. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

In the span of one day last week, I heard how The Gazette has become a mouthpiece for the globalist neo-communist left and, a few hours later, how we are a hopeless fount of "fake news" for the neo-fascist right. There's an old saying in journalism: If you're pissing off everyone then you must be doing something right.

What animates most journalists I know is not ideology whatsoever, but facts. And it's not necessarily because journalists are noble, ethical, unbiased creatures (though they are, of course). It's more that the pursuit and defense of a point of view is not nearly as interesting as uncovering something no one knew before. It's much more fun to be a curious human being than a walking, talking point of view.

An old colleague of mine, Tom Ricks, a former military reporter, just published a whole book about how hard - and important - it is to see the facts when politicians and other people are trying to hide or distort them. "Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom" is a book about the two men who last century most clearly saw the "facts" of totalitarianism, on the left and right.

Ricks makes the point that, once a upon a time, it wasn't so clear that communism and Nazism were two sides of the same coin. He writes that George Orwell, author of "Animal Farm" and "1984," alienated his friends on the left when he began to write that communism and Russia had become very totalitarian and Nazi-like. Winston Churchill was also ostracized by many of his colleagues in Parliament because of his persistence that no peace could ever be had - ever - with fascism. Churchill and Orwell saw that both systems gave the state far too much authority over individuals, stealing their basic freedoms away.

Ricks thinks the stubborn clarity of Orwell and Churchill has a lesson for us right now.

"I think in this country, we have especially recently started putting ideology over facts," Ricks said in a radio interview about his book. "And on this I blame both the left and the right. The left and the right both have a responsibility to tell the truth. I don't expect it of politicians. I do expect it of the media, that even when it's uncomfortable, even when it's not supporting your account, your view, your narrative, that the responsibility of journalists and honest intellectuals is to present the facts, to first observe the facts and not to suppress facts that disagree with your own personal views."

Ricks said his favorite Orwell quote came in an interview during the Spanish Civil War, which Orwell fought in and came to see as a dress rehearsal for World War II.

"I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting and complete silence where hundreds of men have been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories. And I saw newspapers in London retailing those lies and eager intellectuals building superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written, not in terms of what happened, but of what ought to have happened according to various party lines."

That experience led directly to Orwell's chilling line in "1984:" "Whatever the party holds to be the truth, is truth."

Ricks concludes his book with a passage about the essential importance of finding facts when all odds are against you.

"The fundamental driver of Western civilization is the agreement that objective reality exists, that people of goodwill can perceive it and that other people will change their views when presented with the facts of the matter."

A Washington politician of all people - a Republican senator from Nebraska who was in town for a conference - underscored the importance of this idea for me last week. Ben Sasse made the point that, at this political moment, we need to make sure our freedoms are not compromised or warped or overshadowed by our politics.

"I think we have a whole bunch of people in Washington who think that politics are the center of the world. They think Washington is the center of the world. That's not what our founders intended. As D.C. becomes more and more prominent in our politics and our economics, people who are addicted to politics, they take up an inappropriately large space in the national mindshare. And there are very few people in Washington right now who want to pause our legislative fights, and while lots of those legislative fights are important, there is a civic issue that's prior to that, that is the American idea."

When you boil it down, what is the American idea?

Sasse believes the American idea, what makes us a truly exceptional country, is "the five freedoms of the First Amendment." Freedom of religion, speech, press, association, and the right to petition for the redress of grievances.

"I believe the First Amendment is the beating heart of the American experiment," he said.

And he's "very worried" that the basic Americanism the First Amendment represents is under assault.

It was great to hear a reminder, from a Washington insider himself, that we ought to keep our political battles in perspective, and not lose sight, or God forbid undermine, the very things that make us most American while fighting those fights.

In his recent book, "The Vanishing American Adult," Sasse writes that the "First amendment is a roadmap for how a nation of 320 million people, with an inevitably wide divergence of opinion on theological, existential and cultural matters, can nonetheless guard against the tyranny of the majority and can respect everyone's dignity, everyone's natural rights."

We are more, so much more, than our politics, in other words. We are our freedoms more than our politics.

"Politics is not the center of everything," he told the crowd at the conference. "Politics is a means to an end. Politics is definitely not interesting enough to be an end." Our freedoms, rather than our politics, are what give us the framework for pursuing our happiness, for the work that gives us meaning, and the opportunities to live out our lives with others in the best way we can.

It was incredibly refreshing to hear a politician (Sasse) tell a journalist (me) that freedom of the press is one of the essentials that bind us together and make us American. It's just the kind of stubborn, contrarian clarity that Orwell and Churchill would have embraced themselves.

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