I want to be sure that everyone who reads my column understands that here I write and speak for myself. I don’t speak for any institution I am associated with, not for the Sino-Judaic Institute, a small faraway educational organization, nor for Illinois College, our own educational institution as old as Jacksonville, nor for Jacksonville itself, from my seat on the Historical Preservation Commission.
That is why I can represent them when they want me to wear a badge with their name. If I meet prospective students on campus, university administrators in Japan, or scholars at a conference, I identify myself with Illinois College. Over my signature on Sino-Judaic Institute letterhead, messages about membership, dues, grants, and finances leave Jacksonville. I am proud to write local homeowners about designating their houses as local landmarks, in the name of the Historical Preservation Commission.
By pledging allegiance to certain institutions with whom we want to identify, we don’t give up our rights to think about, talk about, even preach about contemporary issues. We simply must accept the responsibility to be clear about how, and especially when, we represent those institutions. Inevitably the line between being true to oneself and representing larger institutions gets fuzzy, since we cannot separate our public and private identities, as citizen or employee.
Right now I’m at home, my mother is in the next room, and my music is playing. The responsibility for what gets published here in my name is entirely mine.
If some authority comes after me because they don’t like what I say, no institution will protect me. But I’m still safe, because I am shielded by a power greater than institutions, the First Amendment to our Constitution.
Still the determined efforts of those who don’t want me to talk at all have surprised me. Because the internet offers virtual anonymity and unparalleled access, anyone who speaks out is yelled at, in every violent, disgusting, hateful way. It’s much worse for women who are attacked both for their views, and as unworthy of having any views. They are threatened with graphically violent sexual violation. Maybe that’s because the nastiest people in the blogosphere are angry men.
The freedom which enables me to write is really based on you readers. The First Amendment was adopted in 1791, but many times in our history that freedom did not effectively exist. I was born at the depth of the Cold War political hysteria, whipped up by conservatives of both parties, symbolized by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, but encompassing Presidents and Congress, FBI agents, labor leaders, and newspaper editors. Civil rights leaders, pacifists and feminists, who voiced ideas uncomfortable to the defenders of a racist, sexist, and militaristic status quo, were routinely deprived of this freedom.
The reinvigoration of our constitutional freedoms in my lifetime came from below, from ordinary citizens, from readers who wanted to end censorship by the powerful. I feel the protection of today’s readers, not just the few who agree with me, but the many who believe in my right to write. Surrounded by the shield of a free readership, opinion writers across America can do our work.
Taking Back Our Lives