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.
The mission of a free society is to maximize the number of voices, not to remove some from the national debate, even on the grounds of protecting them.
The protectors have it half-backwards, at the very least. It’s fine and dandy to provide security for those at risk, but the “hate speech” rules and laws give wrongheaded protection — moral and political protection — to those who incite violence against their critics. Nobody, and no group, should be sheltered from criticism, even vulgar criticism. Not Jews, not Muslims, not neocons, not liberals. Nobody. As it is currently played, the free speech game is wildly biased in favor of those demanding that their critics be silenced or punished.
These are the fruits of the wrongheaded doctrine of multiculturalism, the misguided notion that all cultures are equally worthy of respect — especially those that attack the core values of Western civilization.
How much media have you seen about the war against free speech? Not so much. The media have a heavy burden of complicity in all of this, needless to say. They should be up in arms, but they more commonly play politics as usual. The American cases noted above are symptomatic of a large universe of similar stories, and they are not subjects of the sort of media campaign that any self-respecting publication or network should be waging. Nor have the campuses rallied to the defense of unpopular (read “not politically correct”) advocates; students are censored, because their grades may well suffer if they demonstrate for the rights of “wrong-minded” individuals. They’re intimidated to cater to the requirements of the mysterious doctrine of “cultural proficiency.”
Finally, there is the failure of the political class to take up the cudgels on behalf of free speech. Yes, I know they have reason to fear the media, but if cowed they should go into a different line of work, or at least stop pretending to be leaders. American leaders, anyway.
Earlier: Back in 2009, PJM’s Andrew Klavan explored in video form the media’s chief message for conservatives — and pretty much everyone else who disagreed with the MSM and the president’s agenda: