Commentary: New Hampshire’s Orwellian pursuit

NH Senate chambers
The New Hampshire Senate meets during a session last month. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

I want you to imagine something for a minute. It’s 2023 and Democrats have control of the New Hampshire Legislature. Given the roller coaster economics of the last 15 years, coupled with soaring wealth inequality, the Legislature decides that the state simply cannot condone capitalism anymore. The free market is dangerous. It’s unpredictable. It can be endorsed by the government no longer. 

A bill is written to bar any state employee, including schoolteachers, from talking about capitalism. No teacher can talk, let alone teach, about the free market. No state employee dare utter words about capitalism on state computers or any written document produced with state resources. 

If you think this is crazy, you haven’t been paying attention. 

The New Hampshire House has already passed legislation like this, just replace capitalism with systemic racism and sexism. The Senate Finance Committee voted along party lines to put similar legislation into the state budget, which goes to the Senate floor this week. 

Let’s be very clear. Should this legislation pass, and should Gov. Chris Sununu sign it, we will have ourselves a whole new ballgame. Suddenly, state censorship is OK. We have a precedent. 

It’s hard to observe the New Hampshire Legislature’s pursuit of this so-called “divisive concepts” legislation and not think George Orwell must be shaking his head somewhere, muttering, “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” 

This type of legislation may be specific to state employees, but its impact will be much more widespread. Silencing state employees from discussing a topic will have a chilling effect across the state, like a ripple on water. And if we are being honest here, that is surely the desired outcome – to exile a subject from our state entirely. If only we could solve our problems by refusing to acknowledge them. 

Think I’m pushing too far with my initial hypothetical about capitalism? Try this one on for size. How about Democrats back legislation to bar government employees from talking about guns or even referencing the Second Amendment? Imagine the state printing constitutions that omit that one little amendment. 

Given the rate of gun violence in this country and the number of school shootings, it would not be beyond the pale for legislators to say that teachers should not utter any speech that suggests guns are a good thing or even acknowledges that the Second Amendment exists. 

If Republicans pass the “divisive concepts” legislation this session, they will not have a leg to stand on should Democrats pursue such legislation down the road. 

The New Hampshire Legislature is a pingpong ball, routinely going back and forth between Democratic and Republican control. It would be shortsighted for either party to assume it can retain control of the Legislature, even with gerrymandering looming large before us. 

When shared norms are violated, such as New Hampshire representing liberty, which it can no longer claim allegiance to if our government opts for censorship, then new norms are written. We are witnessing this right now. If the “divisive concepts” legislation is enacted, we will have a new norm. One of government censorship. The first bricks of Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” are being laid. 

I would bet a decent amount that Republicans will laugh off my hypotheticals, believing that Democrats would never do such a thing. 

And yet, politics is an imitation game. If the new political front is one of censorship, controlling the debate by literally banning subjects, then do not be surprised if there is a tit for tat here. Once censorship becomes acceptable, it may not take long for it to become the norm. 

Given the power of precedent, I also would not trust a single Republican who argues that this “divisive concepts” legislation is a one-off. I fully expect that if Republicans get their way this time, they will come back for an encore. 

We could be on the verge of a multi-year effort to systematically ban certain topics from the mouths of government employees in order to avoid debating those topics on their merits. 

So, for those who believe New Hampshire should ban so-called “divisive concepts,” ask yourself this: What topic do you cherish? What subject do you believe it imperative that we discuss as a society? What topic would scare you the most to see the government declare off limits? Because that may be next in this new world of state-sponsored censorship.  

If our state – if our country – is going to ever bridge the partisan chasm that has fractured society over the past several years, it is going to come through dialogue. It will come from people’s willingness to discuss contentious issues, not with the goal of pointing fingers, but with the genuine goal of understanding. This legislation moves us in the opposite direction, away from dialogue, away from the pursuit of understanding. It says our state would rather censor dialogue than nurture it. There are Orwellian days ahead if this is the new norm, New Hampshire.