On Thursday, Andrew C. McCarthy and I hosted a conference on “Free Speech in An Age of Jihad: Libel Tourism, “Hate Speech,” and Political Freedom” at the Princeton Club in New York.
Sponsored jointly by The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and The New Criterion, the day-long conference brought together more than a dozen prominent commentators–and an audience of about 200–to discuss the ways in which “soft jihad” is undermining freedom of expression in the West.
We described the problem thus in the program for the conference:
Over the last several years, proponents of Islamic jihad have increasingly turned to the courts and government agencies in their effort to suppress criticism of radical Islam. The result has been a proliferation of libel suits and so-called “hate speech” actions that aim to curtail free speech and further the cause of radical Islam. Although generally initiated in countries less hospitable to free expression than the United States, these actions have had a profound “spill over” effect on American authors, journalists, and publishers. The aim of this conference is to provide an anatomy of these efforts to suppress free speech, to examine the way such actions aid and abet the spread of radical Islam, and to consider some possible responses, legal as well as journalistic, to the threats they pose.
Many people who have commented on the event have characterized it as a conference about “libel tourism.” It is a natural abbreviation–and one, moreover, that I abetted not only with the above description but also with “Terrorizing Publishing,” my op-ed that The New York Sun published on April 10, the day of the conference. But libel tourism, while certainly an important part of our discussion, describes only a part of the problem. In the first place, the practice of “venue shopping” in an effort to muzzle authors is only one tactic employed by Islamicists whose goal is not only to suppress criticism of radical Islam but also to propagate its spread and, indeed, its hegemony. Libel tourism is but one weapon in the multifarious armory of militant Islam.
There is, however, another, more interior, aspect of the problem of “free speech in the age of jihad” that has not yet received the attention it deserves. The unhappy truth is that the threat to civilization in the West comes not only from our enemies but also from within. This was a theme I touched upon in my introductory remarks at the conference and the Mark Steyn developed with his characteristic blend of humor and admonitory insight in his luncheon talk, “The Dimming of Liberty: Legal Jihad and the Criminalization of Resistance.”
Mark’s talk ranged widely, but its central message, he noted, was summed up by the historian Arnold Toynbee: Most civilizations, Toynbee wrote, die from suicide not murder. We in the West preen ourselves on our high standard of living, our freedoms, our pleasures. But what beliefs, what backbone, underwrite those material triumphs? Radical Islam is a fanatical, often a murderous, faith. The welfare-state liberalism of the West is less a faith than a perpetual grievance.
In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek, hearkening back to Tocqueville’s analysis of “democratic despotism,” noted that “the most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the in the character of a people.” The nature of that change was partly an enervation, partly an effeminization. One of the most penetrating meditations on the nature of that alteration Hayek discerned is James Burnham‘s book Suicide of the West. Written in 1964, that book, like its author, is largely and unfairly forgotten today. Burnham’s was a first-rate political intelligence, and Suicide of the West is one of his most accomplished pieces of polemic. “The primary issue before Western civilization today, and before its member nations, is survival.”
Suicide of the West is very much a product of the Cold War. Many of the examples are dated. But Brunham’s message is more pertinenet than ever. In the subtitle to his book, Burnham promises “the definitive analysis of the pathology of liberalism.” At the center of that pathology is an awful failure of understanding which is also a failure of nerve, a failure of “the will to survive.” Liberalism, Burnham concludes, is “an ideology of suicide.” He admits that such a description may sound hyperbolic. “‘Suicide,’ it is objected, is too emotive a term, too negative and ‘bad.'” But it is part of the pathology that Burnham describes that such objections are “most often made most hotly by Westerners–think of those promulgating the gospel of multiculturalism in our universities–who hate their own civilization, readily excuse or even praise blows struck against it, and themselves lend a willing hand, frequently enough, to pulling it down.”
When it came to facing down the mortal threat of Communism, Burnham noted that “just possibly we shall not have to die in large numbers to stop them: but we shall certainly have to be willing to die.” The issue, Burnham saw, is that modern liberalism has equipped us with an ethic too abstract and too empty to inspire real commitment. Modern liberalism, he wrote,
does not offer ordinary men compelling motives for personal suffering, sacrifice, and death. There is no tragic dimension in its picture of the good life. Men become willing to endure, sacrifice, and die for God, for family, king, honor, country, from a sense of absolute duty or an exalted vision of the meaning of history. . . . And it is precisely these ideas and institutions that liberalism has criticized, attacked, and in part overthrown as superstitious, archaic, reactionary, and irrational. In their place liberalism proposes a set of pale and bloodless abstractions–pale and bloodless for the very reason that they have no roots in the past, in deep feeling and in suffering. Except for mercenaries, saints, and neurotics, no one is willing to sacrifice and die for progressive education, medicare, humanity in the abstract, the United Nations, and a ten percent rise in Social Security payments.
The Islamofascists have a fanatical belief that theirs is a holy mission, that incinerating infidels is their bounden duty. For them suicide is a gateway to paradise. For us suicide is just that: suicide. The question is whether we believe anything with sufficient vigor to jettison the torpor of our barren self-satisfaction. There are signs that the answer is Yes, but you won’t see them on CNN or read about them in The New York Times. One part of the purpose of “Free Speech in an Age of Jihad” was to describe the threat that radical Islam, in its more bureaucratic and legalistic avatars, poses to the West. Equally important was the effort to remind us that the threat to West civilization lies as much with our response–or rather, our lack of response. Western democratic society, I noted in my introdcutory remakrs, is rooted in a particular vision of what Aristotle called “the good for man.” The question is: Do we, as a society, still have confidence in the animating values of the vision? Do we possess the requisite will to defend them? Or was the French philosopher Jean François Revel right when he said that “Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is trying to destroy it”? The jury is still out on those questions. How we answer them will determine the fate not just of Western journalism but Western civilization itself.