What Century is This?

The attempt to delegitimize free speech continues, with growing advocacy of what would essentially be blasphemy prosecutions.

Here’s a professor at the University of Chicago who thinks it unfortunate that a strong interpretation of the First Amendment prohibits the government from “restricting the distribution of a video that causes violence abroad and damages America’s reputation.”

A strange understanding of the word “causes.” If a group called Avengers of Sicilian Honor decides to blow things up every time a movie is released that isn’t properly respectful of the Mafia, then is the movie causing the violence? Obviously, the entity causing the violence is the Avengers. One would have hoped a law professor would understand this.

Does criticizing a religion, to whatever excessive degree, automatically create violence in a way that criticizing the other things–the Mafia, for example, or cats, or the male gender–does not? See this post and discussion at Ricochet. In comments there, I said:

Why should *religion* be more protected from offensive speech than any other belief system…and what, precisely, qualifies as a religion? If we mock the extreme-environmentalist believers in a conscious Gaia, are we committing blasphemy? How about believers in astrology, or magical crystals? How about Nazi believers in the ancient Teutonic gods?

And why should beliefs with a supernatural belief content receive more protection than comprehensive but non-supernatural belief systems? A dedicated Marxist has as much emotional investment in his beliefs as does a fundamentalist Baptist or an extreme Muslim.

Who is going to decide that Muhammed and the Holy Trinity are protected from mockery, but the belief in astrology is not? Are we going to have a list of approved religions? Who is going to establish such a list, and based on what criteria?

The real criterion, of course, would be propensity to violence. If a group shows a propensity to violence when its icons are criticized, then it would in practice receive special protection under the 21st-century blasphemy prohibitions. Those advocating for such rules either don’t understand the incentive system this would create, or don’t care.

Last Wednesday, Zbigniew Brzezinski–yes, that Zbigniew Brzezinski, the one from the Carter administration–added his voice to the chorus of those calling for restrictions on free speech:

“I would like us to make it more explicit to the Muslim world: we not only condemn (the YouTube video), but if there are evil forces at work trying to provoke violence between us and you, we have the obligation to investigate and crack down.” (emphasis added)

Paul Rahe responds eloquently. He quotes from a speech made by Winston Churchill in 1938:

In a very few years, perhaps in a very few months, we shall be confronted with demands with which we shall no doubt be invited to comply. Those demands may affect the surrender of territory or the surrender of liberty. I foresee and foretell that the policy of submission will carry with it restrictions upon the freedom of speech and debate in Parliament, on public platforms, and discussions in the Press, for it will be said – indeed, I hear it said sometimes now – that we cannot allow the Nazi system of dictatorship to be criticised by ordinary, common English politicians. Then, with a Press under control, in part direct but more potently indirect, with every organ of public opinion doped and chloroformed into acquiescence, we shall be conducted along further stages of our journey.

And indeed, following the German takeover of Czechoslovakia, photographs were available showing the plight of Czech Jews, dispossessed by the Nazis and wandering the roads of eastern Europe. Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times, refused to run any of them: it wouldn’t help the victims, he told his staff, and if they were published, Hitler would be offended.

Returning to our own time, the incredibly courageous Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been mocked as an “Enlightenment Fundamentalist” by certain intellectuals and journalists.

Professor Rahe notes that the Obama adminsistration “tracked down the maker of the video. It released his name; it saw to it that his address was known,” thereby obviously exposing him to the danger of murder by Islamic fundamentalists. And soon thereafter, the Railway Minister of Pakistan offered a $100,000 bounty for anyone who managed to find and kill the film-maker. Rahe observes that this assault on the life and liberty of an American citizen, by an official of a government of a major country, received a very weak response from the Obama administration.

The administration thought it sufficient to chide him for his remarks and to comment that his conspiring to murder an American citizen was “inflammatory and inappropriate.” Otherwise, it did nothing. It could have lodged a formal protest with the government of Pakistan. It could have demanded the man’s resignation from his post. It could have sought a warrant for the arrest of the Pakistani politician when and if he stepped onto American soil. But, of course, it did nothing of the kind.

Free speech is under assault. It is under assault by radical Islamists who believe their writ to enforce the dictates of their religion extends to all people in all countries of the world. It is under assault by various thuggist Americans, most of them on the Left, many of whom learned in college that it is quite acceptable–indeed, that it is a moral duty–to shut down the speech of those who are “wrong.” Most of all, it is under assault, at a very basic conceptual level, by academics and journalists who would like to be able to “manage” the marketplace of ideas so that it conforms to their liking.

Related posts:

Ace writes about The Normative Power of Law and the Emotional Power of Drama

Pam Geller notes that Occupy Wall Street protestors are supporting Muslim acts of vandalism against her pro-Israel, anti-Jihad posters:

OWS had sent out a notice earlier that day calling Eltahawy’s anti-free speech fascist vandalism a “righteous act” and saying: “If it wasn’t clear before, it is now obvious that the MTA is incapable of operating public transportation for the 99%.” At the hearing, one OWS brownshirt said to the MTA Board: “You all would be shivering if you knew what’s coming! Your days are numbered!”

See also my post Caught in the Attrition Mill

9 thoughts on “What Century is This?”

  1. Professor Eric Posner, the Left, and of course President Obama and his administration operate on the assumption that they will be the ones to rule on what is sacred, and what is profane. We already know with an ontological certitude that in their collective view anything in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are already fair game for any criticism, abuse, vandalism, threats, and actual killings that may come their way. The probably not accidentally coincidental timing of the re-display of “Piss Christ” during this controversy shows where the Left’s heart is. And, of course, the call for eliminating the First Amendment says what they think of the Constitution.

    If the producer of the admittedly excreble film is killed by agents of militant Islam, the reaction of the administration and the Left will be a combination of joy and satisfaction on one hand, and to press for restrictions on freedom of expression for their enemies in the name of “civility” and for the “safety” of those who would speak. We have already seen that they will not protect the free speech of an American citizen on American soil.

    They cannot comprehend that there is no divine [however they define it] mandate that they will always be in charge. And that freedom of expression is a rarity in human history. If they destroy it while they hold power, there is absolutely nothing to indicate that they will be able to successfully appeal to the concept when out of power.

    They would create an incentive structure that rewards and protects violent suppression of opposing views, from either side. They expect that only their side will be able to wage unlimited warfare against their political and cultural enemies; while remaining protected. If the Constitution continues to fall, they will be proved wrong.

    Human history is replete with what happens when the battle of ideas moves to the kinetic field. I am reading on the Thirty Years War right now. They could find themselves in Magdeberg.

    Subotai Bahadur

  2. We are definitely caught up in a war of ideas. Let’s hope it doesn’t move into being an actual war, with guns!

  3. It is not impossible that the result of the election next month could produce violence, especially if it is close. Should elections then be a matter of such concern? Certainly the Egyptian and Lebanese elections in the past several years have caused such violence. Maybe elections should be curtailed.

    “And indeed, following the German takeover of Czechoslovakia, photographs were available showing the plight of Czech Jews, dispossessed by the Nazis and wandering the roads of eastern Europe. Geoffrey Dawson, editor of The Times, refused to run any of them”

    Churchill’s writing was suppressed, not only by the Times but by his friend, Max Aitkin’s papers.

    Obama is capable of anything if not opposed by the majority. I don’t think it will come to anything like that but fools act foolishly. U of Wisconsin students were asked by a Breitbart writer if it was unfair that Obama was not allowed to use a teleprompter for the debate . Almost all of them agreed. One would have to imagine what the Teleprompter would accomplish but they readily agreed.

  4. One can sue for libelous speech. A case can be made for restrictions on speech that meets that criteria. Much hate speech can be proved to be libelous including perhaps the attack on Islam you refer too.

    Hate speech is not legal in Canada. The laws themselves are certainly not especially well written but I do support the concept. Certainly a difficult area to make law in but I’m not sure that ‘completely free’ is the right way to regulate a society based on ‘equal rights’ for all.

  5. PenGun – Libel is a tricky area to navigate internationally because the standards vary widely. There is a reason why Americans try to justify libel cases being tried in the UK. The standards are drastically different. I’ve no problem with actual libel but the abuse of libel law in other countries to chill free speech does not give me a great deal of confidence in the approach you suggest.

  6. ” A case can be made for restrictions on speech that meets that criteria.”

    Prior restraint is another issue. Certainly the US government is not allowed to suppress speech before it is given. We have many examples in our history, one of the most egregious is the Chicago Tribune’s disclosure of the breaking of the Japanese codes at the battle of Midway. Fortunately, the Japanese did not read US newspapers. The disclosure by the NY Times of the SWIFT program and surveillance methods were very damaging. Voluntary restraint used to work but not when a Republican is president. University speech codes are other examples where they have been effective until challenged in court. As long as they are not challenged, they can intimidate undergraduates. Few of the examples in Canada that I know of would be successful libel suits in the US.

  7. I’ve been mulling a response to this question over in my mind since this was posted a few days ago. For the last few days, I’ve been reading a book by Manchester called “A World Lit Only By Fire”, regarding the transition from the medieval era to the renaissance, and the parallels are interesting.

    The medieval mind was firmly based on certainties that were unchanging, immutable, and absolute. The church was monolithic, life was structured among the classes, and everyone knew what everyone knew to be true beyond any question.

    But, in a myriad of ways, the certainty began to show cracks, and finally break apart, as religion, science, trade, culture, politics, and the world itself were remade with new ideas and discoveries.

    We have experienced an almost cyclical repetition of this sort of redefinition several times since then.

    The divine right of kings, the ordered structure of society, the political power of the churches, and a hundred other settled questions were all unsettled again by new ideas, the most fundamental and revolutionary of all being that, just as Luther posited the possibility of individual redemption without an intermediary, the Enlightenment posited the individual as the source of all rights, powers, and values, not the rulers, nobles, or churchmen who had claimed that attribute in the past.

    But, just as it took centuries for the churches to finally accept the various scientific ideas that contradicted the bible, for the most part at least, so also has it taken centuries for the concept of the individual to struggle with the resistance of the powerful against any such idea that ordinary people might have the power to decide their own lives without direction and control from above.

    Ideas take a long time to percolate through a society, and there is always a counterattack from those who are threatened by the new construct.

    The 19th century was a cauldren of arguments aimed at refuting the primacy of the person, and the ascendent power of the collective, whether it was described as the race, or the state, or the nation, or the class, or some other euphemism.

    The 20th century, far from being the American century, as some have claimed, was in fact a worldwide laboratory experiment in the efficacy of these various collective alternatives.

    As the old regime of kings, emperors, and aristocrats committed suicide in WW1, all the new theorists of state power were ready to embark on their roads to utopia, all convinced that blood, or economic law, or the will of the nation, or the will of god, would guide them to an earthly paradise.

    One after another, the utopias collapsed, or were blown apart, in oceans of blood and misery. The millions of dead, and more who were crippled in mind, soul, and spirit, will never be counted.

    But two great, and historically powerful, ideas have remained to contend down to the present day with the iea of individual rights—the scientific welfare state, and the theocratic autocracy.

    It is no surprise, then, that they have formed an alliance aginst liberty, and work industriously in every conceivable area to limit the rights of ordinary men and women, and exalt the authority of the state, and the primacy of the allegedly divinely revealed word.

    What century is this?

    It is, once again, a century in which those who desire to live their lives free from endless constraints, and the insatiable demands of the various parasites whose sole purpose is to control others for their own power and benefit, must be constantly vigilant.

    We are on the cusp of an enormous social and cultural upheaval, as the progressive vision, which has slowly built up the gargantuan state as the final arbiter in any and all issues and questions, begins to totter and collapse under the weight of its own fantasies, as those fantasies collide with the realities of life on a very real planet, whose laws, whether of physical dynamics, or economic structures and their functioning, cannot be denied indefinitely.

    As Prof Mead has been describing, the blue social model is breaking up on the rocks of eonomic, moral, and intellectual bankruptcy. It is the task of those who venerate individual rights and liberties to work indefatigably to ensure that the world belongs to those who value the dignity of the individual person, and the independent mind, and not to those who would place shackles on both for their own insidious purposes.

    The only true revolution is that which said that the individual is the source of all. That revelation was the culmination of all those who spoke out to defy the powers of the medieval world, to launch the renaissance, to explore the world, and to reach out to the stars, as Voyager has apparently just accomplished.

    We cannot allow the future to be picked to death by an endless stream of faceless, and soulless, bureaucrats, nor beheaded by a howling pack of pre-medieval theocrats, nor controlled by an unholy alliance of the two.

    That is the century we are in.

  8. }}} We are definitely caught up in a war of ideas. Let’s hope it doesn’t move into being an actual war, with guns!

    Oh, I *do* hope it does. If they start something we’ll finish it. Because any time they start something, any time the wolves stop howling and go on the prowl, the sheep suddenly recall why they actually have sheepdogs.

    And we sheepdogs are VERY good at what we do, when we’re allowed to do it.

  9. }}} The laws themselves are certainly not especially well written but I do support the concept.

    Then you are an idiot on multiple levels, both for supporting ANY law which you know to be “poorly written” and for supporting the concept of “hate speech” itself.

    “A function of free speech under our system of government is to INVITE
    DISPUTE. It may indeed best serve its high purposes when it induces a
    condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are,
    or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and
    challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have
    profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.”

    – Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas –

    I realize, you Canucks aren’t “under our system of government” — but if you can’t grasp, for example, that 125 years ago, the racists all over the world would have happily defined speech in support of racial equality as “hateful”, then you’re a moron.

    “The only social order in which freedom of speech is secure is the one in
    which it is secure for everyone… and, as those who call for censorship
    in the name of the oppressed ought to recognize, it is never the oppressed
    who determine the bounds of the censorship. Their power is limited to
    legitimizing the idea of censorship.”

    – Aryeh Neier –

    When considering a restrictive law, imagine your worst nightmare in charge of the government’s prosecution of that law. If that doesn’t chill your enthusiasm for that law’s restrictions, then go ahead and support it. If it does, then use a lick of common sense and presume that your worst nightmare, at some point, WILL be in charge.

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