When Words Kill

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 June 16, 2017|
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As every young American is taught (or used to be taught) the Constitution’s First Amendment protects free speech. “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

We can say whatever we want. And that’s as it should be. Societies constraining the freedom of speech have invariably slid by degrees from centralized authoritarian control to totalitarian despotism.  Dissent is silenced. Liberty dies.

But do First Amendment liberties imply a corresponding civic duty, a responsibility to voluntarily restrain ourselves; to understand that words have consequences?

In January, 1945 Paris had been liberated for five months, but German armies still contested pockets in Alsace-Lorraine and the Atlantic coast. Even though the Vichy government had been routed and de Gaulle’s provisional government had assumed power, Paris was a haunted, anxious place. Apprehension and revenge were still in the air.

Most of the summary justice and settling of scores were over. The French legal system had been restored. If there was any further retribution meted out to collaborators it would be done legally, adhering to tradition and law. It was in this atmosphere that judges, attorneys and a jury assembled at the Palace of Justice on Ile de la Cite, mere steps from Notre Dame Cathedral, to begin a trial to ask and answer a central question: Do words matter?

During the Nazi occupation tens of thousands of Jews were arrested, transferred to detention camps and thereafter loaded on to trains to the East. As the world later learned, most were murdered in Auschwitz. By early 1945, Vichy officials directly responsible for these crimes had been tried, convicted, executed or imprisoned. Others were in hiding or had already fled the country.

Robert Brasillach

What made the trial just starting at le Cite so unusual was that the defendant, facing the death penalty, had had no direct part in any of these crimes. He was not a politician, a policeman, a government functionary, a jailer or even an informer. In fact, he was never accused of reporting on the whereabouts of a Jew in hiding, of revealing the true identity of a Jew posing as a non-Jew or in “fingering” anyone. The defendant was on trial for the words he wrote.

Robert Brasillach had been the editor of the collaborationist Je Suis Partout (I Am Everywhere) during the Occupation. In this role he penned a host of pro-German and anti-Semitic essays noted for their vitriol.  

The questions before the convened jury as well as French public opinion were these: Were Robert Brasillach’s words, both spoken and written, responsible for the actions of others? Did Brasillach provide the moral, ethical and philosophical rationale for the crimes of the Vichy government, their politicians, functionaries and enforcers? Did his words incite vigilantes and individuals in acts of intimidation and violence against ordinary Parisians accused of undermining the regime or participating in the Resistance?

In other words, can the person who encourages violence be held accountable for the violent actions of the person so encouraged?

Brasillach’s paper during the Occupation

Due to the protections of the First Amendment cited above, US citizens are shielded from government interference with the irresponsible expression of their free speech. But that doesn’t imply they are immune to fierce criticism and censure from their fellow citizens.

In countries without equivalent Constitutional protections, as was the case in France in 1945, the State could circumscribe limits on speech and could exact legal punishments for infractions. The prosecution in his trial argued that Brasillach’s years long series of published jeremiads had poisoned the atmosphere and resulted in harm, indeed death, to others.

Brasillach was an important literary figure in France, a member of its intellectual elite, which was split on his fate.  Jean-Paul Sartre and others argued that the writer/artist is always responsible for what he writes or says and must be held accountable by society and law.  Albert Camus and other prominent writers, artists and journalists argued that the writer/artist must never be constrained or subject to censorship or retribution in any way, regardless of what he says or writes, because to do so would be to weaken the exercise of free expression, which is the foundation of a free society.

In the event, as the jury was stocked with veterans of the Resistance and the judge had been tainted by his previous association with the Vichy regime, the verdict was not surprising: guilty. The sentence: death by firing squad.

James Hodgkinson: Left-wing protestor

Many of those who had argued for Brasillach’s culpability were appalled, appealing to de Gaulle to commute the sentence. It was signed by many of France’s greatest writers and artists: Francois Mauriac, Paul Valery, Jean Cocteau, Colette, Arthur Honegger, Jean Anouilh. De Gaulle gave it a momentary glance; then turned it down. “The intellectuals also have their responsibilities,” he said. Brasillach was executed the next day.

Robert Brasillach remains one of very few citizens in free Western societies to be executed for “intellectual crimes” rather than military or political actions. His sensational trial is worth remembering at this particularly contentious and potentially dangerous moment in our own national saga.

As Americans we would never countenance the State to intervene in the limitation of free speech or in acts of coercion or retribution against any citizen because of what they said or wrote.  As Richard Corliss wrote about the travesty of the Brasillach trial, “A writer who loses his soul is not as dangerous as a nation that loses its mind.” In any case, the First Amendment constrains the government from doing so.

But it still begs the question. Even if Brasillach should not have suffered the death sentence for his writings, did his words kill? We’re not going to jail or execute writers for their words, however incendiary. But de Gaulle’s assertion remains, as a matter of moral if not legal responsibility.

Does it matter when Kathy Griffin holds up, Isis style, the bloody severed head of the president of the United States; that Madonna speaks at a rally, “I’ve thought lot of blowing up the White House;” that Snoop Dog shoots Trump in the head in a music video; that Joss Whedon tweets “I want a Rhino to f*ck Paul Ryan to death;” that Oscar winner Mickey Rourke threatens to beat Trump with a baseball bat; that Marilyn Manson kills Trump in a music video; that a ham-fisted production of Shakespeare’s play stages an exceptionally brutal assassination with Caesar cast as a blond coiffed Trump (to the approving cheers of the Central Park audience)?

If Brasillach’s words incited emotionally susceptible Parisians to turn in their Jewish neighbors, to snitch on members of the Resistance or murder dissenters of the Vichy regime; could the images and words of Hollywood celebrities, media pundits or unrestrained partisan politicians have helped incite James Hodgkinson to attempt mass murder at a baseball park in Virginia?

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About the Author:

Ron Maxwell
Ron Maxwell wrote and directed the movies, Gettysburg, Gods & Generals, and Copperhead. His website is: www.ronmaxwell.com
  • URstandingwhere

    The 2nd Amendment shares a portion of the blame. Words do not put a weapon in a wack jobs hands.

  • Like everything else France did during the second world war, the execution of Brasillach was just a convenient pose. They would just as likely have made him a hero of the Republic if the war had gone the other way. Remember, nihilism – by definition – can sometimes result in accidental virtues. France is above all a nihilist and narcissist culture, so do not make the mistake of thinking that just because the French did something which seems good that they were good – even a clock that does not run is right twice a day, as the old saying goes.

    As to this sentence: “As the world later learned, most were murdered in Auschwitz”

    This part – “as the world later learned” – this is not true. This is simply not true and it is the typical western historical omission due to a guilty conscience.

    In 1942, Polish heroes like Jan Karski actually infiltrated Auschwitz and then escaped occupied Poland and informed the Allies. The Allies knew about the extermination of Jews for many years and did nothing. Many did not believe the Poles. A US Supreme Court judge told the Poles that what they said was simply impossible. Polish foreign minister Raczynski, on the basis of his information submitted his note “The mass extermination of Jews in German occupied Poland” to the governments of the United Nations in November of 1942 – and nothing.

    In short – the world learned pretty much right away that the extermination of Jews in concentration camps was underway – and the world did nothing for the Jews just as it did nothing for Poland in 1939.

    The entire West is complicit for this crime – not just France. France is of course a cowardly nation that reneged on its’ promises to defend Poland and allied themselves with Nazi Germany and thus bears great responsibility for the Holocaust, but England and America also showed their yellow streaks during the war and did not care at all about the death of the Jews.

    I would not advise Americans to look to France to learn any lessons. American civilization, while of course not perfect, is in all respects superior – including our approach to the question of free speech and responsibility for speech.

    • CM DeNeve

      To me it is incredible and extremely disrespectful to the many sacrifices that were made to suggest England and America are cowards who did nothing. Even if they knew and believed the reports, were they supposed to wave their hands and make the German Army instantly disappear so they can go in and liberate the camps? No because it was going to take a long and bloody war and great effort by all the allies to win. They paid the price.

      • As Pope Francis and many others have said, they could have bombed the railway lines being used to transport victims to the concentration camps. But to do that they would first need to believe the Polish reports that the concentration camps existed. They did not care.

        I have as much respect for the English as they had for Polish liberty:

        ZERO.

        Which is more respect than they deserve. Their conduct during the war was a disgrace to Christian civilization.

        • bdavi52

          Seriously? Zero??

          You do realize that Britain declared war on Germany two days later? And that Poland, beneath the onslaught of 90+ enemy divisions, collapsed entirely only 33 days after that? What more would you have liked Britain to do?

          And do you truly think that there is anything anyone could have done in those 35 days between Invasion and Collapse that would have changed the outcome?

          • Seriously zero. Britain and France violated their treaty obligations which were only made to turn Germany against Poland in the first place. They never had any intention of helping Poland, only using Poland to defer war with Germany, increase the likelihood of German-Soviet war and bargain Poland away in favor of Soviet concessions elsewhere. Britain and France were enemies of Poland during World War II. Dishonorable and cowardly enemies from day first to day last. By comparison the Poles conducted themselves with honor and valor on all fronts.

            Do I think something could have been done to change the outcome? Yes: maintaining the Polish-German non-aggression pact of 1934, perhaps augmenting it with Beck-Ribbentrop and thereby defering Molotov-Ribbentrop instead of allowing the British to maneuver Poland into a losing two front war. At the very least this would have meant that Hitler would have begun the war by invading France and then Britain – both preferable outcomes by far. It is difficult to speculate beyond that juncture.

          • bdavi52

            No, my friend, not years (or why not decades:) in advance of the invasion, but between September 1 and October 5? Could anything substantively different have been done by the British which would have affected in any real way whatsoever the inevitability which was the Polish collapse? I would suggest the answer is an emphatic no.

            Certainly entirely different international strategies could have been undertaken at different times by different leaders making different decisions under different policy banners.. perhaps shifting the geo-political ground established by Versailles…. perhaps shifting the causes which drove the 1st War…. perhaps changing the nature of the alliances which might have constrained Hitler (or prevented Hitler entirely). All these things are possible given perfect hindsight, perfect foresight, and perfect reasoning in a world which allows do-overs. Sadly, we have none of those things.

            But to spend time bemoaning the past and decisions made or not made by the long-dead NOT in any effort to learn what might be more appropriate as our histories tend to cycle, but rather to castigate and blame seems only exquisitely pointless. To go even further and indict Britain/France for their Polish/Eastern European foreign policies undertaken almost 100 years ago …calling them “dishonorable and cowardly enemies of Poland” seems both childish & petulant (and clearly untrue, given only the single-dimensional fact that the invasion of Poland keyed the British & French declarations of war). They may not have valued Poland as a 1st tier ally….they may have been indifferent to many of Poland’s priorities…but obviously they did not consider Poland an “enemy”, not at least if we believe they also considered Germany an enemy.

            In the end we arrive exactly where we are having done exactly what was done.

            From any number of perspectives researching and building an in-depth understanding of the nature of the strategic relationships which criss-crossed Europe in the early years of the 20th century, particularly as they related to the growth of Nazi Germany and the 2nd World War is and would be a highly worthwhile venture. Clearly one, it seems, which would appeal to you. Further, it would help enhance our understanding of Western international relations and potentially improve our ability to see our options more clearly and maneuver more surely going forward. Maybe.

            But truthfully, history is always infinitely clearer than the fog of the present. And historical analysis proceeds always without the urgency of Now and the press of Tomorrow. But if we are to truly understand the past, as Collingwood might have put it, we must know it well enough to make the actions taken and the decisions made not simply intelligible but reasonable, even defensible. Allowing ourselves to ‘know’ only what they knew then, within the context within which the whole was set as that whole was understood, at the time, only by them — that is what enables us & frees us to say with high degree of surety, neither Britain nor France considered Poland an “enemy” in the late 20’s and early 30’s. A pawn, very definitely… a piece on the board which was less valuable than their own, certainly…one clearly they were ‘able’ to sacrifice….but an enemy, a force & people to be destroyed?? No, I see no evidence of that at all.

            And I see nothing gained at all (save perhaps a strange kind of personal satisfaction) to declare your hatred of a nation (the Britain/France of the early 1930’s) which no longer exists because of actions taken by people long dead. We might as well blame them & hate them for their actions against the colonials, pre-Revolution.

          • It is not necessary to hate a nation in order to blame it. It is likewise not childish to preserve historical memory. The benefit of preserving this memory is that in order for nations to defend their liberty they must identify enemies and learn from mistakes. All of the actions undertaken by Great Britain during the war had the effect of destroying Poland, therefore Great Britain was an enemy of Poland. Poland had many enemies. There is ample historical evidence of this to my mind. Of course this would require greater elaboration.

          • It’s alluring not just engaging!

    • bdavi52

      True enough — at least in part.
      But we really should distinguish between “The World” in its civilized entirety, and “the world” which consists only of that particular, small, and very powerful subset which represents its Leaders.

      The wider world, as a whole, as the total of the 130M individuals who were serving, or were farming or were working, or were raising families and reading newspapers at the time — THEY did not know, did not recognize or have any real reason to understand the horrors which infested Europe (beyond the horrors of the Nazi occupation itself). Their leaders, on the other hand, (some of them at any rate) very clearly had knowledge of the Holocaust — but even then that knowledge was scattered, incomplete, and only selectively available. It also, to your point, ran counter to what basic, humane, experiential common sense would lead them to believe.

      We all deny, ignore, downplay & dismiss what seems unreal. Even in the face of evidence, we shake our heads and say, “Surely that can’t be representative!”, or perhaps even go so far as to shrug and say “War is hell”. Add to that basic human tendency to de-prioritize what is either beyond reach or beyond the scope of current strategies and you have what happened in both East & West as the immensity and horror of the Holocaust became increasingly evident.

      But you go significantly too far in your condemnation of the West for its relative ‘inaction’, re: direct intervention in the Holocaust….and you seemingly fail completely to recognize or understand the immensity of the tasks required to prosecute, simultaneously, a multi-theater war against both Japan and Germany/Italy (a war which cost the allies 20M+ dead). We absolutely cannot & must not confuse and conflate the actions & decisions of the Allies (or specifically the actions of the Western Allies), whose primary concern was the defeat of the German war machine, with the horror perpetrated by the Nazis.

      “The entire West” was not complicit in the murder of 20M innocents…. It did not show cowardice in the persecution of the war… and very clearly it cared deeply about the murder of the Jews (and the additional millions who died in the camps). Did it do everything it could have done, as we see things now? Certainly not. And we can learn from the mistakes. But an important part of that learning includes the recognition that it was the Allied defeat of Germany (at the cost of 20M dead) which did, in fact, end the Holocaust which otherwise had no end save total annihilation.

      • We do not “all” deny, ignore, downplay & dismiss what seems unreal. Polish culture, unlike British or French culture, is keenly aware of imponderabilia.

        The war was won by the Soviet Red army during the battle of Kursk in 1943 after which Germany lost the ability to mount major stragic offensives and in Stalingrad. The Soviets alone suffered 20 million dead. The war consumed over 50 million. I assume you made a typo.

        Berlin fell to the Polish army constituted in the East and their Soviet allies (here I boast as of course the Soviet forces were bigger, but the Polish general Rokossowski saved Moscow and was one of the commanders at Kursk). Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet forces.

        As to the West; Britain was complicit in starting the war. France was a Nazi collaborator. Both France and Britain violated their treaty obligations to Poand which were made only with the aim of inciting a German-Soviet war. The Western allies then purposefully held off on opening a Western front for as long as possible and entered the war towards the end, sustained a relatively small number of casualties against an enemy that was already defeated and in total retreat. I could add that German occupation of Western Europe was relatively benign.

        Naturally the topic is indeed vast, so I will presume we simply differ in our interpretation of history rather than our grasp of facts.

        • bdavi52

          Let’s not be silly.
          Of course we all play the deny, ignore, downplay & dismiss game. We do so whenever we are confronted by the unknown, the uncomfortable, the unwanted, the unreasonable & unexplainable. It is a natural human reaction to anything and everything which does not easily fit our pre-existing intellectual schema.

          And the Poles are no different from the British, French, Americans, or Japanese (or 5000 other nations and cultures which might be named). How could they be? You, for instance, right here in these pages deny, dismiss, ignore, and downplay any part of the truth which does not fit the narrative you have adopted. It’s understandable; most of us do the same (though the reasonable among us might be willing to admit that perhaps there are other ways to see the truth than the single one we trumpet). We all are human and prone to error, omission, and exaggeration.

          [And no, no typo, I counted only the dead — for these purposes — of Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union (those who died of military cause/armed action/or were deliberately killed)]

          You are right though, we differ significantly in our ‘interpretation’ of the facts (which number in the billions and which are grasped and totally understood by no one) which comprise World War 2. And we equally differ — quite radically — in our use & understanding of the words, ‘complicit’, ‘cowardice’, and ‘indifference’. And what the heck, we also differ in our understanding of the phrase “war was won”.

          And bizarrely, none of these things have anything to do with the subject at hand.

          I leave you to your gnashing.

          • Gnashing at the rotting conscience of Westerners is indeed a past time I engage in now and then. Naturally it is all very well to announce that we all share certain vices except this in fact ignores the historical record which of course is one where Poles fought honorably and valiantly on all fronts and risked the death penalty to save the Jews while the British and French played the part of cowards. You may call it gnashing, but I call your reaction the typical resentment of inferior cultures to a morally superior one.

            The Poles are in fact very different from the British, the French, the Americans and the Japanese.

            All of this has everything to do with the subject at hand. The original article draws a lesson from a historical occurrence. How can we draw lessons from history unless we understand it properly?

          • bdavi52

            Exactly my point.
            And when we attribute ’emotional character’ and socio-pathologies to entire cultures/nations as a function of foreign policy decisions made at a time and within an context we only dimply understand, we skip blithely by real understanding to wallow gleefully, instead, in petty name-calling. (“typical resentment of inferior cultures to morally superior ones”).

            That’s not understanding history properly — that’s just silly boys playing in mud puddles.

            Nothing wrong with that of course for those of us who like the squishy-squishiness of mud — but no place to draw a lesson.

          • I have a very good understanding of the context within which the British made their foreign policy decisions in the 1930s and 1940s and draw very serious lessons from both it and the immediate aftermath. The superiority of Polish culture to British culture is not petty name calling but a very sober assessment of recent history. The only reason many Westerners do not see this is because they do not know history. I admit that I am perhaps a bit blunt in starting this position, but such has been my experience that Westerners are too casual in dismissing uncomfortable facts.

            Perhaps it would be more useful to our conversation of you could state where you think I am incorrect? I am not under the illusion that I am in possession of some sort of absolute truth, rather I find that Westerners simply do not know the history of the second world war well enough to make well thought out judgments. I assure you that while I do not expect everyone to agree with me, my judgments are not knee jerk but rooted in long thought and study.

          • bdavi52

            I’m sure you do.
            And I’m sure we could enjoy a long and detailed discussion of the ins & outs of European foreign policy in the early years of the 20th century.

            I simply have no use for the assignment of personality idiosyncrasies & quirks to nations or cultures (past or present).

            It can be fun to talk about the superiority of Polish Culture or the inferiority of French culture (though perhaps not French cuisine) or the Angriness of American Culture, but II see no real purpose in it beyond voguing (and I leave that to Madonna).

          • What French cuisine? What kind of people eat snails and frogs legs? People who are starving. The French simply took the starvation diet of their poorly governed absolute monarchy and called this pitiful kitchen a “cuisine”. Posh. Polish food is superior to French “cuisine”. While the French were picking snails out of the grass Poles were roasting hogs. While they ate their snails and frogs Poles ate real food and still do. Polish cuisine is superior to French. Certainly Belorussian could be even better than Polish. But French cuisine? Bleh! That is not food for men. Why even American food is superior! Wendy’s is better than “French cuisine.”….

          • bdavi52

            Definitely would enjoy the discussion!

  • No. Absolutely not.

    The founders assumed a largely Christian, largely literate population – people, in other words, who could be trusted with the power of speech. If you don’t like today’s consequences, the answer is education, not coercion.

    Canada has thought police (aka Human rights commissions) – it is not working out well for the country.

    • Karl Marx

      Actually, the Founders had rather different ideas about libel and slander than we do. For them, free speech was not a license to besmirch the reputations of others without consequences. To do so could be answered with a duel, as Hamilton and Burr showed. Similarly, sedition and incitement to riot has always been punishable under common law.

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  • Karl Marx

    Nobody cares.

  • QET

    As with Sinon in the Aeneid, Brasillach was merely “the wretch ordained by fate; the public victim to redeem the state”:

    All prais’d the sentence, pleas’d the storm should fall
    On one alone, whose fury threaten’d all.

  • bdavi52

    Words, of course, do have consequences, infinite and uncountable consequences. The question is, should words have ‘special’ & additional consequences defined and applied by the State.

    And the answer quite clearly — given our fundamental Freedom of Speech — would seem to be absolutely not — save in specific cases & circumstances constrained by the Law, re: Contracts, Slander, etc. On the other hand, as of this morning, Massachusetts just found 20 yr. old Michelle Carter, who sent texts to her teen boyfriend urging him to kill himself, guilty of involuntary manslaughter. And we’re all well familiar with the Washington shooting and the endless speculation that the killer was ‘triggered’ by vicious/inflammatory Democratic rhetoric.

    Given the Carter case, should the federal courts now hold the Democratic Congress responsible? Or Kathy Griffin? Or Snoop Dogg? Or Joss Whedon? (or any of the thousands of commenters on internet blogs who say equally terrible things?)

    Or do we draw a line and deliberately exclude the State as arbiter of acceptable and unacceptable speech?

    The 1st Amendment would seem to say we should.

    And that means, to answer Mr. Maxwell’s question, that we rely entirely upon the social & moral consequences which inevitably follow intemperate speech to slow, to modify, to filter, to civilize our subsequent dialogues. That means we rely entirely upon what would seem to be the increasingly antiquated notion that as a culture, we share a common set of social/moral/ethical standards which naturally work to moderate our behavior.

    Given what we see happening everywhere around us (particularly in the so-called institutions of Higher Education), that hope may be a bridge too far.

  • joanbob

    Many states have laws that embody the legal principle of complicity. While complicity is not actually a charge, it permits prosecutors to charge someone with a crime, so long as they played a role in helping someone commit it. For example, in Colorado, “a person is legally accountable as principal (the person that committed the crime) if, with the intent to promote or facilitate the commission of the offense, he or she aids, abets, advises, or encourages the other person in planning or committing the offense.” Colorado Revised Statute section 18-1-603. This principal is also found in federal law. 18 U.S.C. section 2(a) says: “Whoever commits an offense against the United States or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal.

    Complicity obviously recognizes that the right to free speech is not absolute. For example, such statutes could plausibly be used to prosecute those who urge political violence to kill Republicans, or if an imam preaches hate and urges his followers to kill the infidel. The point is, free speech is not absolute under American law. There are limits to it. The law also constrains the right to plan a murder or to encourage the violent overthrow of the government or the assasination of any of its officers. 18 U.S.C 2385.

  • E. +Goldstein

    “If Brasillach’s words incited emotionally susceptible Parisians to turn in their Jewish neighbors, to snitch on members of the Resistance or murder dissenters of the Vichy regime; could the images and words of Hollywood celebrities, media pundits or unrestrained partisan politicians have helped incite James Hodgkinson to attempt mass murder at a baseball park in Virginia?”

    Of course they could and it is safe assumption they did. So what? If you are going to live in a free country, you live with the consequences of freedom, good and bad. The alternative is a totalitarian state that uses some bureaucrats idea of what should be said. We have already surrendered much of our freedom for security (think TSA for example). If we surrender free speech little remains.

    Limiting free speech will become a major issue soon. Google and Facebook are under pressure to censor speech in the EU and they will want to make the rules apply to the US to make their job easy. Big money is about to be put into promoting censorship.

    • R.L.

      “Limiting free speech will become a major issue soon. ” It already is. When leftists can demand, and be permitted to stifle free speech, we are already headed down a very slippery slope. In addition they have already been permitted to disallow any words with which they disagree. It has become so bad that we cannot even use those words when posting here. Think of the “N” word, or the “F” word which used to mean cigarette, but was then associated with gays.. In fact I am not even sure i am allowed to write the word gay which meant happy way back when……

      • E. +Goldstein

        The control of allowed speech is a gate to controlling what people believe. When Hitler came to power one of the first things they did was make the official greeting “Heil Hitler,” which accustomed people to thinking of Hitler as their leader. Prohibiting the use of the “N” word associated a whole range of negative meanings to people who did use it whether true or not. That is the power of propaganda.

        The left has made people afraid to use mere words through this simple propaganda technique. Now Google will add huge cash to the left’s drive for power.