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P.J. O'Rourke -- 'Radio Free Europe, Freedom Of Speech, And Liberty'

In the pages of "World Affairs Journal," renowned humorist and longtime journalist P.J. O'Rourke discusses Radio Free Europe's ongoing mission to provide free and accurate information and to promote an "attitude of liberty" around the world.

P.J. O'Rourke

August 13, 2010 | World Affairs Journal

The job of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is straightforward: To provide free speech. RFE/RL broadcasts in 28 languages to some countries where there is very little free speech and to other countries where there is none. Since American taxes fund this free speech, it’s valid to ask, “What for?” Many people, especially people raised in democratic societies, would answer, “because free speech promotes democracy.” But that idea gives RFE/RL a mission that is both too simple and too complicated.

Too simple because “promotes democracy” makes democracy sound like a commodity, a product, a brand of snack food that RFE/RL is supposed to be selling. And the State Department, the president, and Congress can measure how much of this product has been sold. A congressman can say, “I thought we were promoting the heck out of democracy in Iran, and all of a sudden sales go flat. Let’s cut our losses. Let’s get out of that market.” But democracy is not some new snack food — Squid Chips ’N Cheese — which everybody loves on first bite. People who wield autocratic power, in particular, aren’t biting. Democracy is not that simple, and neither is free speech.

On the other hand, “promotes democracy” makes RFE/RL’s mission too complicated, too difficult, even impossible. Great thinkers have been promoting democracy since ancient Athens. Now RFE/RL is expected to do, with a few broadcasts, what legions of genius orators have been unable to accomplish for 2,500 years.

America is the strongest military power in the world. The American military promotes democracy. There have been a few difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan. But RFE/RL is expected to do, with some cheap transistor radios, what the US Army, Navy, and Marines haven’t been able to accomplish with billions of dollars worth of guns, bombs, airplanes, and helicopters.

In fact Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s real mission is neither frighteningly complicated nor terribly simple. RFE/RL delivers information. Information is the essence of what might be called the “Attitude of Liberty” — the feeling of being free.

People must, of course, feel free of physical and economic oppression. But first they must feel free of ignorance.

People need to be able to look around, people need to see. Even people who are locked in a room are more free in a room with the lights on than they are in a dark room — where they’re bumping into each other and the furniture.

There’s power in the Attitude of Liberty — a sense that one has some knowledge, some understanding, and therefore some control, if only control over one’s own ideas.

The strength of America is not economic, military, or diplomatic. The strength of America is an idea — an idea of a place where people have information, understanding, and control over their lives. Once, during the civil war in Lebanon, I was stopped at a Hezbollah checkpoint by a teenager with an AK-47. When the young man saw my American passport I was subjected, with a gun muzzle in my face, to a twenty minute tirade about “great American satan devil.” I was told that America had caused war, famine, injustice, Zionism, and poverty all over the world. Then, when the boy had finished his rant, he lowered his gun and said, “As soon as I get my Green Card I am going to Dearborn, Michigan, to study dentist school.”

Information is the source of citizenship. Without information no one can even attempt to build a civil society.

RFE/RL is important in its work of providing information and even more important in its work of trying to make that information accurate. RFE/RL isn’t always perfectly successful in making information accurate. It couldn’t be. No organization or individual is ever perfectly successful in making information accurate. I speak as a reporter. We get things wrong. Ask General McChrystal. What’s important is the attempt. The effort to provide accurate information combats rumor, conspiracy theories, scapegoat hatreds, and blood libels.

Ignorance creates a worldview that is hostile to liberty because ignorance excludes the information, the understanding, and the sense of self-control necessary to the feeling that one is a free person — a free person in one’s heart no matter how oppressed in one’s body.

The communication of accurate information is the basis of trust among individuals, a trust that can be extended beyond family, clan, tribe, or small group of associates. This extension of trust is the foundation for the agreements that are at the heart of a free and democratic society. We need communication because we need agreement.

But we also need communication because we need disagreement. Argument about issues, argument based on accurate information, is also at the heart of a free and democratic society. It is by means of informed argument that those of us who live in free societies are able to “fight without killing.”

Indeed, in a sense, informed argument allows us to “fight without winning.” In a democracy no side wins — forever. The other side can always come back with a different argument. And maybe the next time the other side is right. Information keeps changing, therefore ideas keep changing, therefore minds keep changing. John Maynard Keynes was once tasked with inconsistency in his statements about economics. Keynes replied, “When my information changes, sir, I change my mind. What do you do?”

In a democracy we don’t call these changes war, we call them politics.

One more important aspect of liberty is the free market. I don’t claim this because the free market makes people more prosperous — though it does. And I certainly don’t claim this because capitalism is always wonderful — it often isn’t. The importance of the free market to liberty comes back to the job that RFE/RL does — communication.

The free market is about information. Actually it’s about just one piece of information, but it’s an important piece. The free market tells us what a given person will pay for a given thing at a given time. The free market is not an ideology or a creed or something we’re supposed to take on faith, it’s a measurement. It’s a bathroom scale. I may hate what I see when I step on the bathroom scale, but I can’t pass a law saying I weigh 160 pounds. Authoritarian governments think they can pass that law — a law to change the measurement of things.

The Soviet Union didn’t collapse because of Reagan or Thatcher or missile bases or Star Wars: It collapsed because of Bulgarian blue jeans. The free market was trying to tell the Communists that Bulgarian blue jeans were ugly and didn’t fit, that people wouldn’t wear Bulgarian blue jeans — not, literally, to save their lives. But the Kremlin wasn’t listening, and the Berlin Wall came down.

Finally, communication makes one more great contribution to liberty. When we communicate with people we are assuming an equality among people. Just talking to people indicates that those people are not people who “aren’t worth talking to.” In a free society all people are worth talking to.

In a free society all people must be communicated to, and we must be able to get communication from them in return. People must be able to talk back. People must be able to communicate with the political structure. People must be able to communicate certain information to the leaders of the political structure. Information such as, “You’re fired!”

And this is one of the best things that RFE/RL does. It doesn’t just make itself heard. With its call-in shows, its interactive social media, and its broad network of local correspondents and stringers, it allows its listeners and online visitors to have their say as well. Even the Taliban has been known to call talk shows at the Kabul bureau and argue with the moderator and guests.

This assumption of equality among citizens that RFE/RL exemplifies in its communication is the opposite of the exercise of arbitrary power. The exercise of arbitrary power means some people definately aren’t worth talking to — they’re only worth killing.

The denial of education to women or the denial of political rights to minorities is the creation of whole categories of people not worth talking to. And if you won’t talk to people, you certainly won’t listen to them.

Liberty is people being heard when they say what kind of society they want to live in and how they want to live in it. The simple and direct lines of communication that RFE/RL has opened — and spends all day and night keeping open — are the lines that guide the way to democracy. Thus it isn’twrong to say that RFE/RL “promotes democracy.” But it’s the kind of democracy promotion that rolls off the tongues of people, not the kind that’s stuffed down their throats.