We’re a fractious people, always have been, and our politics have been especially colorful. I’m a nearly lifelong fan of John C. Calhoun’s line about Henry Clay: “Like a mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks …”. Our political candidates have been mocked for their love affairs, their wooden legs, their false teeth, and their drinking habits. It’s not elegant, but rude, insulting talk is one of the products of free speech.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that free speech around the world is still a rarity, and seems to be becoming even rarer. Lots of countries have the death penalty and other violent punishments for “insulting the state” or “the leader.” In religious states, such talk is branded blasphemy; in all too many secular states, unrestrained criticism of favored groups falls under the arbitrary classification of “hate speech” and is suppressed.
Citizens and subjects of such places are not at all like Americans; they learn habits of mind and mouth that are quite different from ours. They learn to be silent about any subject that could arouse the displeasure of the thought police, and they learn to speak in code, using words to mean things very different from their dictionary meanings. If they are unhappy with their lot or see ways things could be improved, they don’t dare reveal their true feelings openly and explicitly.
That means they can’t think their way to new ideas, because creativity requires trial and error; it needs open criticism, it relishes the destruction of bad ideas.
Free societies are so much more productive and creative than the others in large part because of open debate, just as scientific discovery demands testing all manner of hypotheses. Once you lose the habits of the free mind, it extends to all areas of endeavor. Stifling free speech crushes creativity in all areas of life. And once the censors get their teeth into us, there’s no stopping them.
In my youth, there was a fine cartoon which showed two nasty-looking men outside a movie theater with “CLOSED” on the marquee (I think it was Lady Chatterly’s Lover), and one said to the other: “You know, I enjoyed censoring the movie so much, I think I’ll go censor the book.”
There’s no stopping them. So it’s always urgent to fight the censors, and to embrace free speech, rudeness and all.
That’s not happening nearly enough. Have a look at a few recent cases here at home, and then at a frightening event overseas:
● Four students in Oxnard, California were reportedly suspended for chanting “USA! USA!” at an athletic event. The school superintendent, incoherently, said that he was trying to advance the concept of “cultural proficiency,” whatever that means. The kids are back in school, but the matter is still open. They and their cohorts had better watch their language.
● Apparently, it’s very dangerous to criticize a judge in Indiana.
● If you’re criticizing the president, you’d better not … drink water or something. If you do, your ideas won’t get reported. Only your thirst will make headlines. You don’t think that’s censorship? I do.
● Segue to Denmark, where the estimable journalist, editor, and free speech advocate Lars Hedegaard answered his doorbell when he saw a mailman there, only to have the guy draw a gun and shoot at his head. Blessedly, the would-be assassin missed, Hedegaard swung at him, and the guy ran off.
We can all be thankful that the killer missed, but Lars is now “under protection,” in the usual undisclosed secure location, surrounded by men and women with guns of their own. This may reassure you, but in practice it’s another form of restriction of free speech. Like Salman Rushdie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Geert Wilders, and others before him, Hedegaard is so well-protected that he no longer appears in public (not even on TV). He’s been taken out of the public square; the censors have thereby won at least a partial victory.