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The Fate of Free Speech

Yesterday, I came back to London from Winchester, where I was at a conference about “threats to free speech.”  We’ll be publishing edited versions of the papers this winter in The New Criterion. In the meantime, I wanted to underscore the oddity of our topic.  “Threats to free speech”?  Haven’t we waged, and won, that battle?  After all, this is the 21st century. Areopagitica,  “a speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England,” was published in 1644.  The First  Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution in the 18th century. And then there have been all those later battles — over Ulysses, for example, as well as over other, less edifying publications -- that extended the domain of permissible speech. Not only could you criticize your senator or your president with impunity, but you could print and circulate material that, a few scant decades ago, would have earned you the avid attention of such entities as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice

How quaint the name of that organization sounds.  How much more enlightened and sophisticated we are.  We scoff at societies for the “prevention of vice.” As a society, we’re beyond all that — or are we?

In fact, free speech is like other freedoms: its victory is never permanent. Every generation must work anew to win or at least maintain it.  As André Gide once put it, “Toutes choses sont dites déjà, mais comme personne n’écoute, il faut toujours recommencer.” The hard truth is that, with the exception of certain modalities of sexually explicit material, speech is much less free today than it was fifty or a hundred years ago.

What are the major threats to free speech today? Perhaps the overarching condition that threatens free speech is the spread of political correctness. This has sharply curtailed candor about all manner of contentious subjects.  It is no longer possible, in polite society, to speak frankly about race, about differences between the sexes, or a hundred other topics — so-called “climate change,” for example, or the relationship between Islam and free speech.

It is extraordinary, is it not, that various Islamic groups, often with the collusion of Western politicians, including Hillary Clinton, are proposing to resurrect blasphemy laws , making it illegal — illegal —  to “insult” Mohammed or criticize Islam? The end of their efforts is a “global censorship regime.”  We’re not there yet, not quite, but we’re well on the road.  One sign of the success of this campaign is the systematic reluctance of Western leaders to describe Islamic terrorism as, well, Islamic terrorism.  The activities of the Islamic State, for example, are roundly, and fearfully, condemned, but in the next breath their homicidal savagery is delicately distinguished from Islam.  They’re "not Muslims but monsters," said Prime Minister David Cameron after “jihad John” beheaded a Brit, but a more candid man would have noted that the members of ISIS are monsters as well as Muslims.

It’s the same or worse in America, alas. After 9/11, President Bush assured the world that Islam was a religion of “peace,” ignoring the inconvenient fact that Islamic peace can be vouchsafed only when the entire world has been converted to that barbaric faith. At the end of the day, the options for non-Muslims are three: conversion, slavery (“dhimmitude”), or death. Which makes perfect sense in a religion whose very name means “submission.”

George Orwell was right when he observed that the first indispensable step towards freedom is the willingness to call things by their real names.  The cause of freedom is not aided when a director of National Intelligence says (and says with a straight face) that the Muslim Brotherhood is “a largely secular organization.”  Nor is it aided when the U.S. president, his secretary of State and other underlings lie about what caused the Benghazi massacre.

The triumph of political correctness has encouraged an epidemic allergy to candor.  The hope is that the embrace of euphemism will alter not only our language but the reality our language names. And to a large extent, it is working. Unfreedom does not become freedom by calling it free, but the misprision can help spread and reinforce the fog of self-deceit. Terrorism committed by Muslims is not Islamic terrorism but “anti-Islamic activity,” A Muslim Army officer who goes on a shooting rampage at Ft. Hood while shouting “Allahu Akbar” is guilty of  “workplace violence” not slaughter undertaken to advance the cause of Islam, etc., etc.

There is a sense in which the triumph of political correctness erodes free speech chiefly by negative means.  It promulgates speech codes, rules against “hate speech,” and the like, but I suspect that its gravest damage is done by instilling a timidity of spirit among its charges. A reluctance to speak the truth instills an unwillingness or even inability to see the truth. Thus it is that the reign of political correctness quietly aids and abets habits of complacency and unfreedom.

This atmosphere of supine anesthesia  is an invitation to tyranny. I was shocked to learn when at Winchester that Senate Democrats, led by Harry Reid, had actually introduced a bill to challenge key provisions of the First Amendment.  Yes, you read that aright. Democratic senators have proposed to gut the First Amendment. If passed, the provision would enable Congress to ban movies, books, and other forms of expression that bore on political controversies. Breathtaking, is it not? As far as I can tell from here, public response to this outrageous attack on free speech has been muted. Republican Senator Ted Cruz had the right idea when he proposed replacing the Democratic proposal with the text of the First Amendment itself. His clever rejoinder, however, was unanimously rejected by the Democrats at the hearing. The First Amendment protects free speech, especially as it bears on political debate.  But it is precisely such freedom that is anathema to those of our masters who prefer their citizens submissive.

It took several centuries and much blood and toil to wrest freedom from the recalcitrant forces of arbitrary power. It is a melancholy fact that what took ages to achieve can be undone in the twinkling of an eye. It seems to me that we are at a crossroads where our complacency colludes dangerously with the blunt opportunism of events.  Courage, Aristotle once observed, is the most important virtue because without courage we are unable to practice the other virtues. The life of freedom requires the courage to recognize and to name the realities that impinge upon us.  Day is Night. Peace is War. Love is Hate. Out of such linguistic capitulations, Orwell showed in 1984, totalitarian tyranny is born. We’ve all read the book. Have we learned that hard lesson?