Monday, February 04, 2008

Equivocational training

Mark Steyn is one of two prominent journalists in hot water with some of Canada's Muslims, who have filed a complaint against him with the British Columbian Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission for published excerpts from his book America Alone. Steyn has linked to an odd article by Lee Harris about the flap.

Harris begins with some historical notes intended to show that the idea of nearly unlimited freedom of speech is actually fairly new in British and American law, and was possible only after religious factions finally got polite enough not to rip one another's insides out. He then goes on to suggest that we are again back in a situation where the government may need to recognize limits on free speech for the original reason: because if it inflames a portion of the population, it puts the rest of the population at risk.
Today, because of Islam, the furor theologicus that we in the West thought we had put behind us is reemerging and can flare up in any part of the world. A cartoon or a film documentary that Muslims find offensive can set off a chain of reactions that lead to riots, bloodshed, the murder of innocents, and international crises. To continue to maintain, in the light of these troubling facts, that the state has no business watching what its citizens say is to indulge in a wistful anachronism. Even the most dedicated libertarian must surely realize that at some point the other members of his society may not be willing to pay the social costs of his freedom of expression. One may of course wish for a society to stand firmly behind those who have the courage to speak their minds; but it is simply naive to expect the general population to support them beyond a certain point.
Does Harris actually believe this — that one group should have the power, through threat of violence, to set certain kinds of criticism out of bounds? He says, "If speaking of Islam runs genuine risks of inciting violence, we cannot just pretend that it isn't so. We can be indignant about this and declaim loudly against it--but what good does such an approach really do? If criticizing Islam promotes bloodshed, then criticizing even more hardly seems like an attractive solution."


What to do? His answer, while superficially clever, is ultimately evasive.
Let offended Muslims file complaints to their heart's content. Make outraged imams fill out tedious forms. Require self-appointed mullahs, representing imaginary counsels and committees, to provide documentation of their grievances. Encourage them to vent through the intrinsically stifling bureaucratic channels provided by panels like the Alberta Human Rights Commission. Show them, nanny-like, that you care about their injured feelings. Patiently and silently listen to their indignant complaints, and let them, ideally, get it all out of their systems. Humoring, let us remember, is not appeasement, but often a clever way to coax troublesome children of all ages into behaving like civilized human beings.
If he isn't just showing off his sense of humor, then he is hoist by his own what-do-you-call-it. People can sometimes smile and shrug off criticism or even outright insults, but will never forgive being patronized.

Harris actually seems to realize how shallow his prescription is, and that the stakes are too high to be swept off the board with a little good natured clowning. He acknowledges that
it is the nature of the nanny state to bring up citizens who have been trained not to rock the boat. Under a nanny regime, the good citizen is one who is reluctant to speak his mind merely out of fear of what other people might think. For people already this cowed, even the threat of a minor bureaucratic hassle would be a powerful argument for keeping one's mouth shut, and for standing by while our hard-won liberty of discussion is steadily eroded.
Just as he seems to be about to take a stand for free speech and letting the chips fall where they may, he decides to go for the equivocation discreet.
Either we must clamp down on critics of Islam, mandating a uniform code of political correctness, or else we must let the critics say what they wish, regardless of the consequences, and in full knowledge that these consequences may include the death of innocents. This is not a choice that the West has had to face since the end of our own furor theologicus several centuries ago, but, like it or not, it is the choice that we are facing again today.
Well, Lee mon vieux, which is it to be? He comfortably dodges answering and leaves it up to us.


You will notice, if you read his whole essay, that he assumes it is impossible for a society to return, if that is what it takes, to the condition in which there is enough common ground that no one has to live in fear of violence or legal sanctions for speaking his mind. The diversity hook is in his gill. Harris can't imagine that Muslims could be separated from the rest of the world, so the rest of the world could get on with its business without endlessly worrying about being "sensitive" and inoffensive.

Since Harris won't make his own choice, I guess I have to. We should face reality and acknowledge that Muslims and the West have completely different assumptions about the purpose of society and how life is to be lived, and that it's futile and dangerous to keep trying to pretend otherwise. Only stopping and reversing Muslim incursion into the West can preserve both freedom and safety.

Harris must have put a lot of time and work into writing that article. Too bad he had to leave it to me to finish it for him.



David Foster said...

As the Third Reich rose to power, there were people in the West who similarly thought that speech should be controlled to avoid offense to a potentially violent entity. Winston Churchill spoke of:

"the "unendurable..sense of our country falling into the power, into the orbit and influence of Nazi Germany, and of our existence becoming dependent upon their good will or pleasure...In a very few years, perhaps in a very few months, we shall be confronted with demands" which "may affect the surrender of territory or the surrender of liberty." A "policy of submission" would entail "restrictions" upon freedom of speech and the press. "Indeed, I hear it said sometimes now that we cannot allow the Nazi system of dictatorship to be criticized by ordinary, common English politicians." (more here)

Nor was this phenomenon limited to Britain. I was just reading today about the film that was made from Remarque's great (but sadly neglected) novel, The Road Back. The producers, in the United States, heavily edited the film to avoid giving offense to the Nazi government.

Michael Tams said...

Mr. Darby,

If by "too bad" you mean "too bad I'm not this fool's editor" then, yes, I agree: too bad. You did a fine job finishing the work for Harris, and while I agree with your point - too bad we have this festering infection that keeps us from recognizing the truth - I think it is good that wise people like you can point out the dangerous nature of that sort of incomplete thinking. In short, bravo.


P.S. Thanks for your kind words in the preceding post. Your blog is truly one of a kind.

Rick Darby said...


I knew that Hollywood had a brief kissy-fest with the Soviet Union during World War II (Mission to Moscow, etc.) but I didn't realize that it actually tried to avoid offending Germany before the war. The Road Back (the novel) must be neglected indeed; Remarque is out of fashion, and the only thing anyone remembers is All Quiet on the Western Front.


Maybe Lee Harris did originally write something stronger, only to have his editor at the magazine (a neocon publication) tone it down. As you probably know, writers are usually at the mercy of editors. The blogosphere must be proof of God's essential goodness to every penny-a-liner ink-stained wretch.

Anonymous said...

In the UK, the manner in which New Labour - and the liberal-left generally - deals with Muslims, has seemed to me to be that of primary school teachers dealing with 'challenging' pupils. Indeed, for New Labour the entire society is one big classroom - brightly coloured with lots of activities. Play nicely.

Free speech is for the staffroom.