That dull roar you heard a few days ago? It came from the countless gasps of horror when The Washington Post reported that the Centers for Disease Control had discouraged the use of certain words.
According to The Post, policy analysts were told not to use seven particular terms: fetus, transgender, vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, evidence-based, and science-based. This led to stern editorials about "thought control, Trump-style," warnings that the directive was an "attack on science," and so on. Having the government tell people which words they may and may not use is doubleplusungood, was the widespread consensus.
And of course it is. But to borrow from Kipling, "you need not stop work to inform us; we knew it ten seasons before." Those exercised over the news about the CDC are coming rather late to the party.
What's more, the backstory may be less dramatic than the initial alarms about the dark night of fascism spreading across the land. Apparently career staff, not political appointees, suggested eschewing the seven dirty words so as to avoid inflaming conservative members of Congress who would be voting on CDC funding.
Yet you can't blame people for thinking the administration was checking off box No. 1 on the "How to Impose a Dictatorship in 10 Easy Steps" worksheet. After all, the Trump administration has, in the grand tradition of Soviet censors, been erasing references to climate change and global warming from government websites almost since it entered office.
So why should the Trump administration be any different? It's hardly the first to declare certain words off-limits, and it won't be the last.
Guffaws erupted across the country in 2000 when the Clinton administration announced that it no longer would refer to outlaw regimes as rogue states. "We are now calling these states 'states of concern,'" Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said.
The Obama administration likewise was extremely skittish about linking terrorism to radical Islam, going so far as to refer to the Fort Hood shooting as an act of "workplace violence" and to purge FBI materials that were deemed Islamophobic.
California has adopted legislation that, under rare circumstances, could lead to jail time for anyone who uses the wrong pronoun when referring to a transgender person.
But when it comes to Orwellian efforts to erase politically incorrect terms, politicians can't hold a candle to the nation's colleges and universities.
Last year Princeton banished the word "man" from the campus lexicon in an effort to be more gender-inclusive.
James Madison University went even further, distributing a list that was seven pages long, rather than seven words. Among the things you should avoid saying at JMU: "I know exactly how you feel," "Love the sinner, hate the sin," calling disabled people "courageous," and calling old people "cute."
The University of Michigan warned students to avoid numerous other words, from "crazy" and "insane" to "gypped" and "illegal alien." A professor at Washington State threatened to flunk students who used the words "male" and "female" or other "racist, sexist, homophobic,transphobic, xenophobic, classist or generally offensive... hateful or oppressive language." (She was later overruled.) Elon University banned "freshman."
At the University of New Hampshire, "American" is "problematic." The University of California system doesn't want people to say that America is a land of opportunity, or that "Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough." Gwinnett College in Georgia shut down student Chike Uzuegbunam's Christian proselytizing because it constituted "fighting words."
The list could go on and on. Indeed, many universities still maintain speech codes that prohibit a wide range of expression, and limit demonstrations, pamphleting, and the like to small free-speech zones, effectively rendering the rest of campus a watch-what-you-say zone.
Is this mere whataboutism—the attempt to deflect criticism by bringing up something off-topic, as when Trump supporters deflect concerns about the president by bringing up Hillary Clinton's emails? Far from it. In fact, it's quite the opposite.
The concern over Trump administration censorship, real or imagined, is justified and sensible. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, as a fellow said. So consider the results of a recent poll, which found that only 40 percent of college students think the First Amendment protects hate speech, and 20 percent agree that it's acceptable to use violence to shut down a speaker.
Eventually those students, having been indoctrinated in institutions that routinely told them what they could and could not say, will graduate. Some will go into government. The rest will judge how government acts, and vote accordingly. And when some future presidential administration decides to banish certain inconvenient words, those former students will not consider it "thought control." They will consider it standard operating procedure.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.