Free speech under threat”: isn’t that, in Western democracies anyway, an anachronism, an antique item from the fusty cabinet of disused historical curiosities?1I mean, haven’t we waged, and won, the battle for free speech? After all, this is the twenty-first century. Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England, was published in 1644. It stands as a landmark in the coalescence of free speech (unless you happened to be Catholic). Other landmarks followed in short order. As the historian Jeremy Black notes in his essay below, the 1662 Licensing of the Press Act fell into disuse when Parliament declined to renew it in 1695. Britain then began to nurture a fourth estate conspicuously free from official government censorship (the preferred word today is “regulation,” which to some ears sounds softer than “censorship”). In 1765, the power of the secretary of state to haul an author or proprietor of a newspaper before the Star Chamber was declared illegal. Since that time—until recently, anyway—the British press had been gloriously, and sometimes ingloriously, rambunctious, delighting in scandal, airing the dirty laundry of ministers and other worthies with cheery abandon, checked chiefly by Britain’s strict libel laws.
In the United States, the First Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution at the end of the eighteenth 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 also 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 to our twenty-first-century ears! How much more enlightened and sophisticated we are than our prim and circumspect forebears! We scoff at societies for the “prevention of vice.” As a society, we’re beyond all that—or are we? It is an interesting question, I believe, whether, when it comes to the Larry Flynts and Cosmopolitan magazines of the world, we are freer or merely coarser. I suspect that what Rochelle Gurstein called “the repeal of reticence” has been a dubious blessing at best.
The situation is different when we turn from the prurient to the political—to what, after all, has always been at the core of free speech: the right to discuss freely and criticize robustly the actors and actions that determine the political fabric of our lives. Free speech, it turns out, is like other freedoms: its victory is never permanent. It is a melancholy truth that the right of free speech, like other civilizational achievements, must constantly be renewed to survive. That was one of Edmund Burke’s central insights, but one that is regularly forgotten—until reality intrudes upon our reverie to remind us. Every generation finds that it must work anew to win or at least to maintain the freedoms bequeathed to it by earlier generations. What was argued for and won yesterday is today once again up for grabs. Which moves patience and perseverance to the head of the queue of political virtues. You already made the argument. But it always turns out that you must make it again. 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 (or indeed truthfully) about race, about differences between the sexes, or a hundred other topics. Consider the topic of “climate change,” the latest “Green” talisman for what, just a few years ago, was the specter of anthropogenic global warming. As several of the essays below note, Mark Steyn, writing in National Review, published a few tart but appropriate words about the litigious climate-change fantasist Michael Mann. Result: a libel suit that should instantly have been laughed out of court but that has dragged on for many months while the attorney’s meter keeps rising. I am confident that, at the end of the day, Steyn and NR will be exonerated. But the end of the day may be some days off. Which is an illustration of Andrew McCarthy’s observation that “the process is the punishment,” especially in cases in which the government decides to bring its nearly unlimited coercive powers to bear upon an individual, a corporation, or even a sovereign state.
Political correctness covers a multitude of depredations. On one side, cautious attitudes range from an understandable desire to stay away from controversy to overt appeasement and cowardice. On the other side, there is an active attempt to exploit the weakness and contradictions of liberalism, an ideology that preaches tolerance but that is all-too-often rendered impotent in the face of demands that would extend tolerance to the point of intellectual or political suicide.
Several of the essays below dilate on the issue of Islam and free speech. It is extraordinary, is it not, that various Islamic groups, often with the collusion of Western politicians, including former Secretary of State 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 “Jihadi John” beheaded a Brit, but a more candid man would have noted that the members of isis are monsters as well as Muslims.
Even as I write, officials in Sydney are cleaning up after Man Haron Monis, an Iranian refugee, took more than a dozen hostages at an upscale café downtown. He forced his captives to display a black flag carrying the Shahada creed in white Arabic lettering—similar to the flag that isis has made infamous—for the benefit of the TV cameras. That episode left two innocent people (as well as Monis) dead. “This is a one-off random individual,” Manny Conditsis, Monis’s former lawyer, insisted. “It’s not a concerted terrorism event or act. It’s a damaged–goods individual who’s done something outrageous.” But then Conditsis went on to note “His ideology is just so strong and so powerful that it clouds his vision for common sense and objectiveness.” Ah. And what, pray tell, was the substance of that “strong and powerful” ideology? Why, for example, did this Muslim cleric insist on displaying a flag whose legend reads “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger”? In his essay below, the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle reminds us that jihad is alive and well in Sydney. Monis might have been deranged. He certainly was a violent, low-life character. But that does not mean he wasn’t also a committed Islamist. His terrorism may not have been “concerted,” as his former lawyer put it. But he did what he could with the tools available. Two people, as I mentioned, are dead as a result.
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 Islam. 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. Daniel Hannan’s essay below provides amusing and informative examples of some contemporary Newspeak. 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. (See Andrew McCarthy’s essay below.)
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 also 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,” according to a former British Home Secretary, just as a Muslim army officer who goes on a shooting rampage at Fort 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. As Douglas Murray notes in his essay, self-censorship is the harvest. 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. 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, as Orwell showed in Nineteen Eighty-Four, totalitarian tyranny is born. We’ve all read the book. Have we learned that hard lesson? It was to gain a deeper understanding of that question that we convened this discussion.
1 “Free Speech under Threat: How Anglosphere Values Are Being Undermined by Fear, Political Correctness, and Misplaced Concerns about Privacy,” a symposium organized jointly by The New Criterion and London’s Social Affairs Unit, took place on September 26, 2014 in Winchester, England. Participants were Jeremy Black, Anthony Daniels, Christine Emba, Andrew Gimson, Daniel Hannan, Daniel Johnson, Roger Kimball, Andrew C. McCarthy, Michael Mosbacher, Douglas Murray, John O’Sullivan, David Pryce-Jones, and Keith Windschuttle. Discussion revolved around earlier versions of the essays printed in this special section.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 5, on page 4
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