Public opinion seems to have done a quick handstand

Some 24 years ago in the twilight of the Cold War, there seemed to be cultural and psychological differences that allowed residents of some nations to accept authoritarianism and others to cherish their independence.

Colleagues and I set out to map these differences and create an index that would define population groups by their opinions on freedom of expression and censorship. That project came from the old idea that people get the government they deserve.

We presumed that Russians wanted to have a czar, so residents there were high on acceptance of censorship. Latin Americans, we thought, highly valued professionalism, so they would accept rules that required university degrees for reporters.

Individuals differ, but the average of their opinions, we thought, could be calculated and compared to the opinions of residents of other countries.

There is a lot of evidence to support that. The British accept an official secrets act. Costa Rica once tried to force anyone reporting for a newspaper to be a member of the Colegio de Periódistas. Some Latin countries still do.

Naturally, we considered the United States with its First Amendment as the perfect standard by which all other countries should be judged.

The idea has some merit and grew out of the scholarship on dimensions of freedom of the late, great John Calhoun Merrill of Louisiana State University and the University of Missouri, although he had no part in the planning.

A little while later the Iron Curtain collapsed opening up previously inaccessible countries to academic study. The jubilation of the destruction of the wall between East  and West seemed to be a ratification of the idea that all peoples would seek freedom and free expression if given the chance. That was the dream.

The index project never got completed because of time and other endeavors, and, in retrospect, clearly we were naive.

Today such a project would have to consider fear of personal safety and other factors that cause citizens to accept the actions of their governments.

There once was a time when many newspeople thought that the public was prone to defend free expression and their reporting.

If a heavy-handed authoritarian figure rose up to squelch the press, the people would rise up and duplicate the final scenes in “Frankenstein” along with the torches and the pitchforks.

Richard Nixon had been run out of office for spying on Democrats and other members of the public. He had an enemies list. He used the Internal Revenue Service to attack opponents. He was soon gone.

What would have happened if The Washington Post learned Nixon’s crew had intercepted 56,000 messages of innocents?

The mood of the U.S. public seems to have changed drastically since 1974 or 1989, and what was considered attributes of the public mind are clearly false now.

Imagine a new index questionnaire that asked respondents:

1. How likely are you to allow federal officers to inspect your shoes as you walk barefoot through the airport?

2. How strongly would you oppose letting security guards xray you down to your undies before you board a plane.

3. Would you call yourself concerned or unconcerned if thousands of your fellow citizens were prohibited from flying in airplanes for reasons that were not disclosed to them?

4. How strongly would you support rounding up Muslims and putting them in camps to keep our country safe?

Obviously we must begin working on a totally new index.

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