Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul, a political activist in Thailand, was recently sentenced to 18 years in prison after being convicted of three counts of insulting Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Her case won’t make very many waves throughout the world, it being yet another routine example of political repression is a country that has been slipping away from democracy at a rapid pace in the last decade. Every time an item like this appears in the news, one or two lonely paragraphs from the AP or Reuters, giving a brief glimpse into places in the world that aren’t all that free, it reminds me how suspect the nature of mankind truly is, and the remarkable power that agreements based solely on ideals of empathy and respect hold in a country like the United States.
Freedom of expression has been a touchy subject of late here in the United States. The descent of the healthcare debate into tomfoolery (and the brandishing of weapons in crowded places) has made the reasonable appear tyrannical, and the unreasonable appear downright insane. The great tragedy of personal freedoms is that people are free to be stupid, but such is the price of liberty. Not blood, as some would have you believe when they refer to “watering the tree of liberty.” Rather, our great contribution to Enlightenment ideals has been our tolerance. That’s right. Tolerance. We tolerate our misinformed idiots to an extent that is rare in human existence. We allow vileness and pettiness to occupy prominent places on publicly owned spectrum and in personal confrontations with our leadership. We allow its influence to spread and poison rationality because apparently it’s good for democracy.
We do this because we recognize the very real dangers of the slippery slope. A legislative tool as old as leadership itself, the slippery slope, i.e., laws that pick away at freedoms a little bit at a time, can turn good intentions into a flood tide of oppression, making once great nations the embodiment and loci of evil on earth. Such are the origins of the vehemence of current anti-government rhetoric in the United States. But it is all too clear we are not uniquely blessed with wisdom, even though for a time during our nation’s birth we were.
I think about this whenever I ponder true encroachments on our freedoms, such as our more horrifying conduct in the war on terror, and then I contrast that with the rhetoric that has been consuming the healthcare debate. Then I think about those places that have never gotten beyond the idea that opinion against the grain is intolerable, such as Thailand, where leadership demands absolute loyalty with real consequences for those who dare to disagree, and this total swirl of words, images, ideals, beliefs, and morals make me feel blessed that there is an American document from 220 years ago, with real force of law, that lets me say what I think and by extension think what I want — that there is no tyranny of thought. All of it is encapsulated in 45 of the least poetic yet most eloquent words in the English language:
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.