Speech Action

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Peaceful Riots and Inorganic Cows

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This is the great age of absurdity, of self-evidently ridiculous words that are meant to be taken seriously. The evidence is seemingly infinite, but let’s begin with cows.

The Oakland, California school district, seeking fresh challenges after its wonderful success in teaching students how to read, write, and understand mathematics, has decided to take on the threat of global warming. It has reduced the cheese and meat component of school lunches (please go elsewhere to learn what this has to do with “climate”), and it promises that whatever bovine products are ingested by its students will be derived from “organic dairy cows.”

The Oakland school district is willing to eat not only a peach but a fully organic cow.

The reader’s challenge is to picture an inorganic cow. What does she look like — a thousand-pound vacuum cleaner, slurping up grass? And how do you get the meat out?

Visualization is the key to writing. Remember the command of the New Critics: “Show, don’t tell.” You could say that Prufrock is a nice but feckless gentleman, but it’s more effective to show him wondering, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Well, the Oakland school district is willing to eat not only a peach but a fully organic cow.

Senator Charles Schumer, a master of malaprop who is also the minority leader of the United States Senate, is constantly instigating Memorable Phrases. He has a childish glee about pushing such slogans as “Make America Sick Again,” which is what he claims Republicans want to do by repealing Obamacare. The slogan flopped; Americans failed to visualize that terrible ante-Obama time when the nation was sick. Yet Schumer joyously pursues his art. A recent attempt at immortal phrasing was his allegation (January 4) that a Republican plan to replace Obamacare “would blow a trillion dollar hole in the deficit.”

For some reason, the senator is always smiling, but he smiled with particular self-satisfaction when he said that. He thought he’d hit a home run. He hadn’t. Picture a deficit. Now picture a hole in the deficit. That’s not easy, but if you can, you’ll discover that it’s a good thing: a hole in the deficit means less of the deficit. So here was another absurd image, although no one seems to have questioned it.

This may be the place to bring up another visualization puzzle, one that I’ve been saving, like a good bottle of wine. It’s a delicious pre-election “news” story that appeared on October 22, on the PBS site. The story is entitled, “Clinton campaign ponders: What if Trump doesn’t concede?” It encourages the thought that Clinton would carry such Republican states as Georgia and Utah.

For some reason, the senator is always smiling, but he smiled with particular self-satisfaction when he said that.

Here’s what actually happened: Georgia — 51% Trump, 46% Clinton; Utah — 46% Trump, 27% Clinton, 22% McMullin (a Mormon spoiler candidate). The “red state strategy” was a tactic invented by Clintonworld to pump news venues such as PBS full of silly ideas (not hard to do) and cause panic among Republicans, who would then divert scarce resources to supposedly threatened states. But even PBS needs to cite some reason for its silly ideas. So, if anyone asked, For what reason could Democrats dream of taking Georgia with a candidate like Hillary Clinton? the answer was: Georgia “has had an influx of diverse voters in the Atlanta area” and is therefore “considered a future battleground state, with many Democrats comparing it to North Carolina.” The comparison was just; Trump won North Carolina by 4%, which was only a little less than the amount by which he won Georgia, and represented a sizable victory.

But what does “diverse voters” mean? Literally, it means nothing: diverse from what? All right-thinking Americans, however, should be able to interpret the code. Diverse means “good,” of course, but it also means “non-white”; and “non-white” means Democrat. Because diverse voters are all alike — right? In other words, they are the opposite of diverse. That’s the idea.

I’ll talk about blatant self-contradiction a little later. First I must entertain some other comments that make no sense but are supposed to be solemnly accepted. Here’s an example that centers around (please note my use of another common expression that is immune to visualization) the phrase on me, as in it’s on me. The it in this phrase is generally supposed to mean something like “the responsibility” or “the mistake,” although it invites earthier images. Anyway, please consider Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly’s declaration that the problems involving President Trump’s famous executive order — the one about entrance to the country by people from certain nations — were on him. In his testimony before Congress on January 7 Kelly showed a sad, indeed a revolting, affection foron me; it appeared to have become his go to phrase:

In retrospect, I should have, and this is all on me by the way, I should have delayed it just a bit in order to talk to members of Congress, particularly leadership of committees like this to prepare them. . . .

Lesson learned on me.

Lesson learned on me. Where is the lesson? It’s on him. No doubt pasted on him, somehow, somewhere — the lesson that has been learned. That’s what he literally said.

What does “diverse voters” mean? Literally, it means nothing: "diverse" from what?

Let’s move along to America’s sweetheart, Bill Gates. Patrick Quealy, one of this column’s most valued friends, writes in with sad news: Gates has issued another public statement. I can’t do better than to quote what Patrick said:

I have long believed that Bill Gates should not be listened to about technology, and I understand that many people disagree with me about this, but one would think we could all unite behind the idea that such a hapless twit is not an ideal person to lecture us about AIDS in Africa or education policy or whatever else his handlers have whispered in his ear that we ought to be concerned about.

To that end, I share this actual thing, reported on CNBC and elsewhere, that Gates said after meeting with Trump:

"I think that whether it's education or stopping epidemics, other health breakthroughs, finishing polio, and in this energy space, there can be a very upbeat message that his administration is going to organize things, get rid of regulatory barriers, and have American leadership through innovation be one of the things that he gets behind."

As Patrick understands, this kind of “exquisite noise” defies analysis and eludes visualization:

Is Gates cooking polio one more minute before it's ready to serve, and doing it in a particularly energetic kitchen? Or has he nearly completed a painting, a study of a viral particle, in a brightly lit studio? I don't know. But so far, from my admittedly privileged point of view, the worst thing about Trump's election is not any policy that has been proposed or implemented. It's that I had to read that f—ing sentence as a result of it.

I can’t improve on that. I can only add that Gates’ comments help me understand why the Help functions on Microsoft products are worse than the problems they’re supposed to solve.

Speaking of New Age benefactors: I’m sure we are all impressed by their ability to enjoy every word that comes out of their mouths. We have all noted the bovine (sorry — I’m still thinking about cows) acceptance of their words by the crackpot (I mean mainstream) media. For the next New Age item I am indebted to John and Ken, Southern Californians’ favorite talk show hosts. They are based in Los Angeles and pay special attention to the decline of that city, where ordinary living becomes less sustainable in direct proportion to the government’s concern with sustainability.

John and Ken recently uncovered a news story solemnly proclaiming the absurd fact that Los Angeles possesses a “chief sustainability officer for the office of the mayor” (yes, the office includes an officer), and that this man has

convened a group of about 20 civil servants and university scientists to determine how to bring the city’s temperature more in line with what it would have been if Los Angeles had never been developed.

The commune of experts reminds me of the passage in Ayn Rand’s Anthem about “the twenty illustrious men who had invented the candle.”But “what we are trying to do,” says the drone in charge of sustainability, “is create a research collective to help us reach our target. It’s a huge challenge.” An even huger challenge would be to explain (A) how we know what the temperature would have been if the city had never been developed and (B) how to convince anyone not on the city payroll or otherwise daft that a community clogged with traffic, bankrupted by welfare, terrorized by crime, and scammed by a vast, almost wholly ineffective school system can put up with perky little officials being paid to theorize about reducing the temperature. The Los Angeles Times pronounces the temperature idea “a noble goal.” That’s tough, skeptical news reporting for you.

The result was a press that remains the perfect image of the snobby, intellectually self-sufficient modern liberal reader, the only person who still cares what editorial boards and noted correspondents have to say.

Contrary to self-serving notions constantly floated by the mainstream media, America never did have a judicious, disinterested, Olympian press. During most of its history it had a press that was unapologetically partisan. Abuse and gross distortion were taken for granted. In the mid-20th century, the press tried to dignify itself by pretending that it was a profession like medicine or physics. The hallmark of professionalism was the science of moderating one’s language so that one could always say, “Who, me?” when confronted by examples of gross though covert partisanship. Its model was the man satirized by Pope, who “without sneering, taught the rest to sneer.” The result was a press that remains the perfect image of the snobby, intellectually self-sufficient modern liberal reader, the only person who still cares what editorial boards and noted correspondents have to say. This is a press that both sermonizes and believes its own sermons, never recognizing how radically they diverge, not just from fair play and a decent regard for truth, but from common sense and logic.

One example, of millions available, is an item in California Magazine; the subject of which is the mob violence that prevented gay libertarian — or is he a gay conservative or a gay rightwinger? — Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at a duly authorized and paid-for event at the University of California, Berkeley. Summarizing this event, the magazine says:

Before Yiannopoulos could utter a single inflammatory syllable, the event was disrupted, by peaceful protestors at first, then by “black bloc” property-destroying saboteurs.

You’ve noticed how the author stacks the deck against the victim, whose remarks (which he never got to deliver) are assumed to have been inflammatory. It’s an interesting word, much in use right now. It suggests a quaint idea of innocence. It pictures normal listeners or readers as the kind of bottles that, as their labels warn, should not be shaken roughly or brought close to an open flame. Look out — these people may blow at any second! But it’s not their fault; their contents are just inflammable. Following this logic to its quick and sorry end, one finds the moral of the journalistic sermon: anyone who, like Milo, plays around with inflammable human material deserves whatever he gets.

It’s an interesting concept of individual responsibility, yet it does have a logic. There is something else in that sentence, however — something that has no logic at all. It’s the words “disrupted by peaceful protestors.” One doesn’t expect violent self-contradiction from self-righteous smugness, but here it is. And it has become so common that most of the people to whom I showed those words reacted at first without any sense that something odd was happening. It took them a while to recall that, hey, there is no way that someone who disrupts a peaceful event is a peaceful protestor.

This is a flat contradiction in terms, so flat that you never see it outside the context of leftwing agitprop — or mainstream reporting. In normal life, no one imagines that a gang of people who walk into a busy intersection and force traffic to stop, in order to accomplish some purpose of their own, are doing something peaceful. Yet when this happened in downtown Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day, as part of a protest aimed (ridiculously) against the building of a pipeline 1,500 miles away, the demonstrators were reported to be peaceful. The same adjective is used for everyone who stops subways, occupies public squares, blocks freeways, enters other people’s offices and has to be carried out — the list is long and constantly growing. This is not peace, any more than it is peace when somebody blocks your driveway, enters your house, sits on your furniture, tries to prevent you from entering, and refuses to leave. Few of the demonstrators appear to believe their actions are peaceful — but the mainstream media do, even when the demonstrations are plainly directed against the freedom of speech that the media pride themselves on exemplifying.

One doesn’t expect violent self-contradiction from self-righteous smugness, but here it is.

On February 16, President Trump gave a press conference in which he excoriated the media for their unfairness to him. The unfairness is real, and deserved to be noticed, but I was struck by two other features of the event. One was my difficulty in locating any of the president’s comments that amounted to a complete statement. There might be a subject — but where was the verb? There might be a transitive verb, but where was the direct object? There were allusions, but what were they alluding to? You can get tired of this kind of thing, and I rapidly did.

But the second thing that impressed me was the fact that I kept on listening to the diatribe. It may have been a cheap pleasure, but it was pleasure nonetheless, just to listen to the crude and obvious smugness of the press get its due reward in the crudeness of its rejection. I think that most listeners felt that way. I can’t imagine that many of them, even if they happened to be modern liberals, were overwhelmed with sympathy for the press. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer wrathful, unformed sentences to the imbecile completeness of disrupted by peaceful protestors?




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Alice in Merkeland

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The Europeans, brainy people that they are, have always had a problem understanding the concept of liberty.

It’s one of the simplest concepts in the world. It means being left alone to do what you want. For Europeans, however — and, I regret to add, for many millions of Americans as well — it has always been the concept of doing what the state considers to be good. It didn’t take long for the French Revolution to define liberty as the freedom to destroy Catholicism. It didn’t take long for the German revolution of 1848 to define liberty as freedom for German nationalism. It didn’t take any time at all for the Weimar Republic to define liberty as the government’s taking money from the people and wasting it on social uplift projects.

Now comes Angela Merkel. First she decides, without consulting anyone, to force the German people — and if she had her way, all other Europeans — to liberate the Syrians by taking them in and supporting them all on welfare. Then, mirabile dictu, she discovers that way too many Syrians want to take that deal, and way too many Germans don’t. So to save her face, she decides to bundle up the Germans’ money — again, without anyone’s permission — and give it to Turkey, so that Turkey can keep the would-be immigrants from getting into Germany. Thus her open door policy becomes an invitation for the Syrians to come on in — to Turkey. And stay there, courtesy the Turkish government.

But again she discovers that actions may have consequences. The Turkish president, Recep T. Erdogan, an equally domineering personality, decides that he wants more out of the deal. He wants Merkel to shut up his critics — in Germany.

For Europeans, however — and for many millions of Americans as well — "liberty" has always been the concept of doing what the state considers to be good.

German TV aired a song satirizing Erdogan. Erdogan’s government demanded that the video be removed from access on the internet. A German comedian, or perhaps would-be comedian, then went on TV and recited a poem ridiculing Erdogan. Erdogan therefore demanded that the comedian be prosecuted under a law saying that you can be sent to jail for five years for insulting a foreign leader. There are plenty of laws in Europe decreeing that you can’t say or publish certain things; this is what Berlin, Vienna, Brussels, whatever, call liberty. Go figure. But while you’re figuring, Merkel has already authorized the prosecution.

You see, this screwy law not only threatens you with imprisonment if you say something that some foreign politician doesn’t like, but it leaves the power to decide on prosecution with your own politicians. So, if we had such a law, Obama would be authorizing pleas for someone to be prosecuted for satirizing Castro, and Cruz, or whoever the Republican president might be, would be authorizing pleas for prosecuting someone who satirized Netanyahu. Not only is it an authoritarian law, but it’s a politically arbitrary one.

The result, right now, is that the Erdoganish Turks are saying, as many Europeans always say under such circumstances, that “this has nothing to do with free speech”; Merkel’s supporters are saying that by authorizing the prosecution she is “standing up for the rule of law”; and she herself is saying that her action does not represent “a decision about the limits of freedom of art, the press, and opinion.” She further opines that “in a constitutional democracy, weighing up personal rights against freedom of the press and freedom of expression is not a matter for governments, but for public prosecutors and courts.”

It’s the old story. You have rights, granted. But these rights have to be “weighed” against other rights. You got your “personal rights,” see; but then, on the other hand, you got your “freedom of expression.” Entirely different! And somebody’s got to “weigh” them. So . . . let’s see here. I know! Let’s have the “public prosecutors and courts” do it. After all, they’re not the “government,” are they?

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

The comedian is in hiding. He’s right: this isn’t funny.




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Free Speech — A Losing Candidate?

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Consider these two arrangements of the same story:

  1. May 11 — Violence caused the cancellation of a Donald Trump rally in Chicago after Trump denounced people opposed to his candidacy. People who came to protest against Trump were fought by Trump supporters.
  2. May 11 — Violence caused the cancellation of a Donald Trump rally in Chicago after protesters entered the hall and fought with Trump supporters. Trump had previously denounced protesters who appeared inside his rallies.

Both versions are true. But the first of them is a piece of propaganda, designed to get people to vote against Trump.

It’s easy to write such things. Try your own hand at it — maybe you can get a job with one of those big media outlets that are spending a lot of time blaming Trump for the violence of their own allies, the ’60s refugees and college clones who want to make sure that only one Great Thought gets heard in America.

But before I share any more of my own great thoughts, please take this brief version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test. Have you already concluded that I who am writing this am a supporter or a detractor of Donald Trump?

Others spoke of their campaign for “compassion and understanding,” thus making theirs the first riot ever staged for compassionate purposes.

If your answer is Yes, you have jumped to a conclusion, and you will interpret all subsequent sentences as further proof of your opinion. You will also conclude — or you have already concluded — that I am either a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe, or an American patriot who just wants to see something done about the mess in Washington. I’m sure your ability to divine these things will be gratifying to your self-esteem.

But if your answer is No, then you are qualified to read what follows. Reading involves, among other things, the ability to identify what a piece of writing is about. This piece of writing is not about Donald Trump or my opinion of Donald Trump. It’s about a massive default from the principle of free speech.

Trump’s rally on March 11 was shut down by a mob of leftists, many of them carrying Bernie Sanders signs. Sanders was not behind the action, but his political faction was massively involved. In the for-once-apt words of a police union spokesman, “it was a planned event with professional protestors.” A week or weeks in advance they had planned what they were going to do and how they were going to do it. Once in occupation of the hall where Trump was supposed to speak, they alternately shrieked in well-rehearsed apoplexy and danced and giggled with delight. When attempts were made to interview them about what they were trying to do, most refused to admit knowing any motive. Others spoke of their campaign for “compassion and understanding,” thus making theirs the first riot ever staged for compassionate purposes.

In short, this was the gross and obvious use of a mob to deny free speech and assembly to one’s political opponents.

That being, as I said, obvious, I confidently awaited the outrage that must surely follow, even from the American political establishment. But I was disappointed. Every online headline I saw made it sound as if Trump had attacked his own rally; every article arranged the story so as to picture “violence” being spontaneously ignited by the presence of people who support Donald Trump, or actually and solely begun by them. The worst headline I saw — but there were probably even worse — was this from the Washington Post:

‘Get ’em out!’ Racial tensions explode at Donald Trump’s rallies

In truth, the only connection with “race” was the presence of Black Lives Matter activists and other people screaming about Trump being a “white supremacist,” which of course he is not. Trump is a jackass who happens to be white. Other people are jackasses who happen to be black. In neither case does race matter. But if you want to claim that someone is a white supremacist, just go to the Washington Post, and they’ll give you a headline. That headline is your license to destroy the right of free speech that allows the Post to enjoy its own ridiculous life.

Similar events continue. When protesters disrupteda Trump rally in Arizona on March 19, after trying to prevent Trump from even reaching the venue, the CBS News headline was “Violence Erupts at Donald Trump Rally in Tucson.” Clever, very clever. Omit the human agents — the people who want to shut Trump up — and make it appear as if Trump were some dangerous natural phenomenon that may “erupt” at any time. The message? Get away from Trump.

if you want to claim that someone is a white supremacist, just go to the Washington Post, and they’ll give you a headline.

This is shameful dishonesty. But silly me, I was half expecting leading Democrats to be embarrassed by the mob behavior of some of their supporters. Had it been a Republican mob that attacked a rival political campaign, we would never have heard the end of the Democrats’ outraged demands that all Republicans immediately repudiate such fascist tactics. For the Democrat establishment, however, Trump was the fascist. Sanders showed not a hint of shame about his followers, and no questioner tried to get him to. Mrs. Clinton lost no time in denouncing “the ugly, divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump, and the encouragement he has given to violence. . . .” “If you play with matches,” she said, after exhaustive research in America’s vast storehouse of domestic clichés, “you can start a fire you cannot control.” Well, that much was to be expected from such an implacable proponent of objective law as Hillary Clinton.

But let us return to the problem of fouling the well you drink from, which is the giddy enterprise of the Washington Post and other journals that value free speech mainly because it’s good for people who agree with them. Consider Trump’s Republican rivals. Long victims of media slanders about their party’s supposed alliance with the supposed racists and violence-mongers of the Tea Party, Republicans might be expected to insist on free speech and fair play for everyone, but especially for themselves. Well, don’t expect anything like that. When push came to shove at the Trump rallies, they preferred to blame the victim, a fellow Republican, and try for a cheap political advantage.

Ted Cruz asserted that if you talk as Trump does, “you’re creating an environment that only encourages” violence. This from the man who has been mightily, and unfairly, blamed for inciting the wrath of other Republican senators — by refusing to give up his right to free speech.

John Kasich repeated, like a mantra, “Donald Trump has created a toxic environment . . . Donald is creating a very toxic environment, and it’s dividing people.” Note to Kasich: what is a “toxic environment”? Another note to Kasich: Aren’t you “dividing people” whenever you disagree with somebody? A third note to Kasich: why are your clichés of a higher intellectual quality than Donald Trump’s?

Republicans might be expected to insist on free speech and fair play for everyone, but especially for themselves. Well, don’t expect anything like that.

But it was left to Marco Rubio — who as I maintained last month is not a bad talker, so long as he’s talking one-on-one and about something specific, instead of standing on the balcony to deliver the papal blessing — it was left to Rubio to deliver the most inane remark of this supremely inane political season:

Presidents and presidential candidates cannot just say whatever they want.

I guess not. And I guess that’s what makes their sayings so profound, so probing, so candid, and so trustworthy.

Republican operatives were singing from the same page as the candidates, or vice versa. To cite one of many examples, Guy Benson, political editor of Town Hall, an outlet for conservative and sometimes radical conservative ideas, and attempts at ideas, used an interview with Fox on March 17 to accuse Trump of “fomenting violence.” To cite another, Doug Heye, a “Republican strategist and advisor,” lamented to Fox’s eager ears that attention had been stolen from Rubio’s campaign by the riot in Chicago, while his interviewer, Shep Smith, noted that some people thought the riot was actually contrived by Trump. To be fair, Heye then said that although Trump used “bigoted” language, he was “not a bigot,” and he himself would vote for Trump if he were nominated.

Let’s pause for a moment, and meditate upon these samples of the Republican mind at work.

If you’ve ever suspected that the political leaders of our nation are just not that bright, here is new evidence. Trump’s political appeal is known to result very largely from his warfare against the politically correct Left, an ideological formation that is feared and despised by almost everyone in the country who doesn’t have a Ph.D., work for a Human Resources department, or hold office in a safe Democrat district. In fact, it’s hated and despised by many people who do fit those descriptions; they’re just afraid to admit it. And as Trump’s Republican opponents have good reason to understand, this aspect of his political appeal is very strong. They also know that Americans traditionally resent blatant attempts to shut people up. They may try to shut people up themselves — specific people on specific occasions — but in the abstract, at least, they dislike the process. They have a feeling that it’s unfair, undemocratic, counterproductive. That feeling also is very strong.

In these circumstances, what would any Republican politician with brains more powerful than a bowl of jello have to say about the politically correct attacks on Trump’s rallies? He would say, “As you know, I am opposed to Donald Trump’s nomination on the Republican ticket. Nevertheless, I believe that all Americans should condemn the dastardly attempt of political radicals and supporters of the Democratic Party to do something that has never been done in American politics — prevent a candidate from running for the high office of president of the United States,” etc., etc., etc. Anyone could write that speech, which would appeal to virtually everyone in the country and position the speaker as morally superior not just to the Democrat mob but also to Donald Trump, whose own protests might be written off as merely self-interested.

Even a child might pity the obvious phoniness and insensate self-interest of Clinton's attempt to escape from being criticized.

But that’s not what happened. It was one of those moments when the fortunes of the Grand Old Party were magically aligned with those of high principle and popular sentiment, and the GOP not only missed the moment but disgraced it. Its candidates and spokesmen actually thought that their own self-interest was involved, not with the assertion of ideas that almost everyone holds, but with the petty advantage to be sought by suggesting that their chief opponent deserved whatever bad things happened to him. In the process, they gratified the politically correct people who can barely force themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton, let alone some low-life Republican, and they morally outraged the legions of Trump supporters whose assistance they themselves require for victory.

It seems very childish to point this out. But our politics (not without the help of Donald Trump) have become so childish that anyone who knows that C-A-T spells “cat” is operating with an enormous intellectual advantage over the other kids.

I should have reached this conclusion about the prevalence of baby talk and infantile tantrums when Hillary Clinton went before the Benghazi committee and screamed, with well-rehearsed outrage, “What difference does it make?” Even a child might pity the obvious phoniness and insensate self-interest of her attempt to escape from being criticized. Yet the august organs of public opinion hailed it as an unanswerable defense of her actions. Only later did they sense that there might have been some slippage in the public relations department: everybody but them considered Clinton’s tantrum the worst performance ever presented on TV. So why should I be surprised by the need to suggest that America’s deep political thinkers may have missed a few other things — things that even some non-pundits understand?

Among those things are the following reflections:

  1. It’s wrong to blame the victim, whether the victim is sensible or not, likable or not, or any other not. A woman who is robbed while walking down a dark street is not responsible for being robbed, even though “she should have known better” than to walk that way. A man who ventures into “a bad neighborhood” with an expensive watch — ditto. A person who makes rude remarks from a public stage is not to blame if someone organizes a mob to kick him off the stage. Even a blowhard who goes around saying, “If anybody tries to kick me off this stage, I’ll hit him in the face” is not to blame if, yes, somebody tries to kick him off the stage. We are not living in the old Soviet Union, which had such tender feelings that any rude remark became a provocation. Weighing rights on the scale with provocations is an excellent means of getting rid of rights, and that’s why it is the consistent practice of dictatorships.
  2. Whether Donald Trump was being jocular or not when he suggested to his listeners that if somebody caused trouble, people in the audience would be justified in taking physical action against that person, those remarks had nothing to do with the invasions of his rallies. If talking offhandedly about violence actually incited violence, then half the stand-up comics and three-quarters of the leftwing demonstrations in this country would be guilty of inciting violence. If Trump had said absolutely nothing about any kind of violence, the people who turned out to “protest” his alleged racism and sexism would still have turned out to “protest” his alleged racism and sexism. That’s what their signs said they were doing. Logically, anyone sincerely moved to protest Trump’s rude bellowings would want to do so by exhibiting the opposite behavior. But that’s not what makes a mob. For that you need bullhorns, filthy slogans, and, yes, actual violence. When other Republicans maintained that Trump was getting what was coming to him, they were siding with people who would cheerfully raise the same kind of mobs against them.
  3. When it comes to free speech and free assembly, it makes no difference whether someone is pleasant or unpleasant, or even whether he is a “racist” or some other offensive something. Free speech isn’t about allowing your sweet old grandmother to discuss how much she’s always admired Mother Teresa. Neither she nor her admiration requires protection. It’s unpopular views and unpopular people that require protection, and they are guaranteed protection by our national charter.

So much for my review of ideas that should have occurred to everyone, but obviously have not, although there is nothing more important in the realm of words than everybody’s right to use them freely.

Washington Post,




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The Tyranny of the Sensitive

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It has been a tough month for free speech on campus. A Yale professor was ostracized for her reasoned response to the campus’ censorship of Hallowe’en costumes. A University of Missouri professor called for “muscle” to oust a student journalist trying to cover a campus protest. And over a hundred Dartmouth students swarmed the campus library to curse and bully other students who chose not to wear black clothing and join their protest. Several professors and administrators have been forced to apologize or resign, while others express nervousness over how to continue challenging their students to think critically and learn well in an environment of increasing intimidation.

This unrest roiling on campuses provided an appropriate backdrop for the documentary Can We Take a Joke? when it premiered at the prestigious DOC NY film festival in mid-November. Apparently, no — we can’t. Not any more. The right not to be offended seems to have trumped the right to say what we think. And young people seem to be leading the way toward censorship and controlled speech. According to Greg Lukianoff, executive director of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), fully 47% of 18–34 year olds said they think the First Amendment goes too far. “That’s terrifying to me,” Lukianoff says.

It should be terrifying to all of us. Penn Jillette observes, “Outrage has become a powerful political tool for shutting down dissenting voices.” Comedian Jim Norton adds, “There is a strange sense of empowerment in being offended.” Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution warns, “One of the first ways you know a society is turning authoritarian is the comedians start to worry. When they start going for the comedians, everyone else needs to sweat.”

The right not to be offended seems to have trumped the right to say what we think.

Well, start sweating, because comedians have indeed become the target. Ted Balaker, director of Can We Take a Joke?, interviews more than a dozen comedians about their experiences not only on college campuses but in comedy clubs and on television. Many tell chilling stories about being shouted down and even threatened with physical violence and arrest for saying things that the shouters consider offensive.

Yet other people go to a comedy show for the very purpose of being outraged and offended. They delight in it. Lisa Lampannelli, known as the “Queen of Mean,” is about as outrageous and offensive as they come. Her act makes fun of every ethnic group and social minority. Nothing is “off the table” for her, including rape, HIV, and cancer. She says she uses humor to help people confront fears and stand up to them. She reports that people will call her ahead of time to say, “My friends and I will be in the fourth row on the right. Please make fun of us!” Others are not so fortunate.

But if you think you’re immune from the Outrage Police because you aren’t a comedian or public figure, think again. Social media has turned us all into public figures. Can We Take a Joke? also tells the story of Justine Sacco, a young woman who tweeted an ill-conceived joke just before boarding a plane from Heathrow to South Africa. By the time she landed, her tweet had spread around the world; her employer had fired her; and angry cybermobs were issuing death threats against her and her extended family. Two years later she still cannot work, date, or go out in public because her unfortunate history is just a Google search away. Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, warns, “We are all just one dumb joke away from sharing Justine Sacco’s fate.”

If you think you’re immune from the Outrage Police because you aren’t a comedian or public figure, think again.

Lukianoff laments, “I interned with the ACLU and studied censorship back to the 16th century, but nothing prepared me for how easy it is to get in trouble on the modern college campus.” Comedian Karith Foster adds, “College is supposed to be a place where you grow and explore, where you find out who you are and find your own voice.” Sadly, college campuses are turning into a place where voices are silenced, and it’s coming from the students, not from the administrators. Like many of his peers, comedian George Carlin stopped performing on college campuses. “I hate to say it, but all the censorship is coming from the left. That caught me by surprise,” he said.

Can We Take a Joke? is an important film that asks us to open our eyes to the progress that is lost when voices are silenced by force rather than changed by persuasion. “Words can be offensive and hurtful, but they are not the same as violence and they can be countered by other words,” Rauch reminds viewers. Watch for the film in theaters over the coming months. We also hope to screen it at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in July.


Editor's Note: Review of "Can We Take a Joke?," directed by Ted Balaker. The DKT Liberty Project, 2015. 75 minutes.



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Confused on the Concept

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is one of those “liberals” who cannot resist the temptation to invent new rights (for government) and destroy old ones (for people). In response to the latest round of terror conspiracy charges, she has issued a public statement, which reads as follows:

I am particularly struck that the alleged bombers made use of online bombmaking guides like the Anarchist Cookbook and Inspire Magazine. These documents are not, in my view, protected by the First Amendment and should be removed from the Internet.

I am particularly struck by the senator’s inability to distinguish reading about something from doing it. Perhaps she believes that no one should know the chemical composition of dynamite, because such knowledge might be used to destroy a public building. Perhaps she believes that Hitchcock’s movies should be banned, because they show how to kill people with knives, scissors, and birds. Perhaps she is accustomed to rushing on stage to keep Macbeth from killing the king.

Or perhaps she is merely a typical American politician, busy about her work of ruining concepts she is incapable of understanding.




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Swearing In

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They Shoot Cartoonists, Don’t They?

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On the morning of January 7, following the terrorist attack on the Paris office of the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, CNN was continuously occupied with discussions of the event by various purported experts. On the screen below the talking heads appeared these words: “Is Paris shooting an attack on free speech?”

I believe the answer to that question may just possibly be Yes.

Invading a newspaper office and slaughtering the people who work there, in response to its satires of your religious heroes, does appear, at least on the surface, to be an attack on free speech. Even President Obama, who has been reluctant to say anything that could possibly be considered critical of Islamists, and whose administration tried mightily to blame the Benghazi disaster on an idiot whose so-called movie had supposedly hurt Islamic feelings, immediately stood up and said that what happened in Paris was “an attack on free speech.”

Now, what are the greatest dangers to free speech in the world today?

One is political Islam, in most of its forms. A prominent CNN commentator, a twit named Bobby Ghosh, took care to emphasize the idea that “everyone across the Muslim world agrees that this [the terrorist attack] is not an appropriate response” to critiques of Muhammed and his faith. This idiotic remark went unchallenged by the network’s other twits. But while some Muslim governments have criticized the Paris terrorists, their objection boils down to an attempt to exclude interlopers from their own campaign against freedom. What would have happened to the staff of Charlie Hebdo if they had performed even one satire of Islam within the territory of an Islamic state? They would have been lucky, very lucky, to escape with their lives. There is one successful secular state in the Islamic world, and that is Turkey; and the Turkish government just granted its first permission since 1923 for a Christian church to be built in its domain.

But don’t just blame the Muslims. Western European cultures have never quite gotten the point about the right to free speech. For centuries England has been noted for government pre-censorship of the press and for weird libel laws that allow anyone with hurt feelings to take the nearest free speaker to court. England is the place where the star of an American TV crime show (Telly Savalas) successfully sued a paper for saying that his singing was no good. The other Western European countries have a panoply of hate-speech laws that allow people to be sent to jail simply for what they say or write.

And don’t just blame the Europeans. How long, O Lord, has political correctness been surging in America? It probably started in the 1960s, when leftists sold the idea that it was vicious persecution to call someone a Communist simply because he was a Communist. Senator McCarthy is dead, but anti-McCarthyism still has long teeth. Then came the idea that no one’s feelings should be hurt, and that anyone represented by a pressure group got to decide what is meant by “hurt.” Almost everyone knows, regrets, and laughs at political correctness — but it grows upon us daily. Even the New York cops, a tough bunch if ever there was one, now complain that Mayor De Blasio (admittedly a complete jackass) didn’t simply endanger their lives but went so far as to hurt their feelings.

Don’t just blame the Muslims. Western European cultures have never quite gotten the point about the right to free speech.

We can’t do much about religious fanatics in other lands, but we can do something to clarify our own attitudes. The next time somebody talks about how he’s in favor of “responsible free speech” or “protected free speech” or “speech that is free in the political arena” — all of which means that free speech is not a right but just something you may be allowed if you have a good purpose and don’t “hurt” other people — repeat what Isabel Paterson said: “When we say free speech, we mean free speech, even if you don't know what we mean.”




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You Are Perfectly Free to Say Nice Things

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Continuing in its fifth year, the Broadsides series published by Encounter Books consists of paperback pamphlets modeled on 18th-century political pamphlets such as The Federalist Papers and Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Short and accessible, polemical and jargon-free, speedily produced and mass-marketed, these pamphlets examine any number of policy issues from immigration and climate change to gun control and Obamacare.

Published this year, the 39th book in the series is Greg Lukianoff's Freedom From Speech, a vigorous and cogent refutation of the increasingly popular notion that people have a right not to be offended. Lukianoff is an attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving civil liberties in academia. His first book, Unlearning Liberty, earned high acclaim from pundits and reviewers with diverse political leanings.

Who gets to decide what is offensive and what isn't? How do we determine who is worthy of such power?

"It seems as if every day brings a new controversy regarding the purportedly offensive remarks of a celebrity, an official, or an ordinary citizen," Lukianoff observes, "followed by irate calls for the speaker to suffer some sort of retribution." He points to Donald Sterling, Phil Robertson, Paula Deen, Gary Oldman, Don Imus, Mel Gibson, Jerry Seinfeld, Isaiah Washington, and Alec Baldwin as examples of public figures whose insensitive statements provoked the ire of the commentariat and set into motion institutional disciplinary procedures that used humiliation as a form of rehabilitation. Having a mean thought and then expressing it, or failing to choose your words prudently, can result not just in your silencing, but in your punishment. And the parameters of approved opinion keep getting narrower. What Lukianoff calls "the thought pattern of the modern American censor" is reducible to this decree: "there must be zero tolerance for anything that anyone might consider offensive, regardless of the context."

This impossible standard raises countless questions. Who gets to decide what is offensive and what isn't? How do we determine who is worthy of such power? By what criteria should allegedly offensive statements be evaluated for acceptability? What's a manageable method for regulating speech if people of every background and belief are prone to offense at some phrase, characterization, or tone? One wonders where all this is heading when the CEO of a major corporation, Mozilla, is forced to resign after it’s revealed that he made (legally permissible) donations to a campaign supporting California's Proposition 8 (a proposition opposing gay marriage). Regardless of one's view of that issue, it shouldn't escape notice that no respectable figure was calling for the president to resign because of his own documented opposition to gay marriage while Proposition 8 was on the ballot in 2008. By what measure does Obama get a pass while Brendan Eich, the Mozilla CEO, gets the boot?

There are no reasonable answers to these questions, only more questions. Lukianoff acknowledges that "what happened to Eich was not an actual First Amendment violation" because Mozilla is a private company, not a government entity, "but that does not mean," Luikianoff avers, "it had nothing to do with free speech."On the contrary, "freedom of speech is a far broader idea that includes additional cultural values" that warrant debate and study, not silencing and condemnation. Only through the rigorous filtering mechanisms of longstanding deliberation and civil confrontation can good ideas be sorted from the bad. Only by maintaining disagreement at a rhetorical and discursive level can we facilitate tolerance and understanding and prevent the imposition of ideas by brute force.

Lukianoff's primary target is American higher education and such strange phenomena as the now-frequent "disinvitations" of speakers and the "trigger warnings" for course materials deemed upsetting. The problem is not limited to American colleges and universities — other countries and other entities have their own varieties of censorship — but the censorship culture tends to emanate from American institutions of higher education, where eager and impressionable students are easily conditioned to believe they are doing the right thing by removing from their purview ideas they don't like. The irony is that young people believe they're dissenting when they quash dissent, usually at the behest or encouragement of faculty and administrators who enjoy positions of authority.

Build thick skin; develop counter-discourse; sharpen your own mind and rhetoric. But don't put the institutional muzzle on free expression.

Students above all will benefit from Lukianoff's quick and informative read. They'll learn that intellectual comfort is dangerously close to unthinking laziness and that censorship is not a matter of "left" versus "right," "liberal" versus "conservative," or any other simplistic, polarizing signifiers that dumb down constructive debate or prevent it altogether.

Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from speech. Rather than learning how to avoid offense at all costs, academics, professional victims, and those pretending to be academics and victims ought to learn how not to take offense, how to handle offense in healthy and productive ways, or how to intelligently, rationally, creatively and convincingly rebut arguments and positions with which they disagree. Build thick skin; develop counter-discourse; sharpen your own mind and rhetoric. But don't put the institutional muzzle on free expression.

We all on some level wish to live out our days serenely and swimmingly, away from opposition and complacently content with our limited experience and cherished presuppositions. It's work, after all, to defend our convictions and justify the actions that our beliefs inspire us to take. The fact of the matter, however, is that we cannot progress without overcoming challenges. If universities are places that cultivate critical thinking, as they claim to be, they must welcome a range of values and opinions. Freedom of speech cannot mean freedom to suppress the speech of others. A freedom that is divisible or available to a preselected few is no freedom at all. Lukianoff realizes this. His organization combats censorship in its many manifestations on a daily basis.

As battles over university censorship continue, keep your eye on Lukianoff. He’ll be on the front lines. “The fight for freedom of speech has never been easy,” he says, adding that “it will be a hard battle indeed.” More than a few readers of this book will be ready to enlist. Mr. Lukianoff, reinforcements are on their way.


Editor's Note: Review of "Freedom From Speech," by Greg Lukianoff. Encounter No. 39, Broadsides. Encounter Books, 2014, 61 pp.



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Democracy: A Western Religion

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On November 21, a Mumbai political goon, Bal Thackeray, died. His party, or gang, is so formidable that the state has, for decades, bent its rule to accommodate its members. If they want the city closed, the police take the lead in closing it, to avoid violence. If you challenge the gang, the police put you under “protective custody.” For decades his gang has extracted protection money. You cannot speak his name without showing the highest possible respect, unless you want to get beaten up, sometimes very ruthlessly.

When Thackeray died, his gang instructed the city to be closed. Everyone who was someone in Mumbai — actors, sportsmen, businessmen, politicians (even of the opposing parties) — had to go to his funeral to pay his condolences. If any had not, he would have had to explain to the gang or leave Mumbai and see his career destroyed.

One girl posted this message on her Facebook page and another “liked” it:

With all respect, every day, thousands of people die, but still the world moves on. Just due to one politician died a natural death, everyone just goes bonkers. They should know, we are resilient by force, not by choice. When was the last time, did anyone showed some respect or even a two-minute silence for Shaheed Bhagat Singh, Azad, Sukhdev or any of the people because of whom we are free-living Indians? Respect is earned, given, and definitely not forced. Today, Mumbai shuts down due to fear, not due to respect.

The two Facebook girls were arrested, their faces covered by the police, and the court asked them to be imprisoned. Unless they want to be raped and then beaten up, they are unlikely to return to Mumbai. Even their extended families might have to leave Mumbai now. Not easily given to tears, I had some. These girls deserved the respect of society. For me they are heroes despite the fact that they erroneously believed they were “free-living Indians.”

These were two cute, educated, middle-class girls, so their case came out in public. In rural India, however, events like these are non-events. There the normal guy lives in utter fear of the police and the local strongman and must grovel. He talks with folded hands and bent head. He has no sense of his rights. He accepts what he can get away with. He concedes what the local strongman wants.

Those Westerners who visit only Mumbai and who can never stop comparing India’s democracy (with some mystical favorable connotations) to Chinese dictatorship (with only evil connotations) should have seen that India is not a country of the rule of law, unless you employ million-dollar lawyers.

Really we see what we want to see, what fits in with our pre-conceived notions. Given that Western people fanatically believe in their religion of democracy, they will rationalize the Mumbai incident as a case of India’s “aggressive” democracy. There are hundreds of recorded protests in China every year. The same people who have very romantic opinions about India call protests in China a sign of the fragile nature of its “dictatorship.” Then they proceed to contradict themselves by saying that there is no freedom of speech in China. They find reasons why China’s economic progress is not real or why China is not a free country, as it would be, were it a democracy.

Recently in China, a very well-known, successful businessman, who was taking me around rural places, told me why he did not want his country to become a democracy. He said that if local democracy were encouraged in China, it would very rapidly make China a place run by strongmen. He described how this would void whatever “rule of law,” predictability, and stability now exists. China is not a perfect country, and I do recognize that my guide wants dictatorship to continue for his personal interests, but I couldn’t agree with him more.

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