Sunday, February 26, 2006

In your face, Will haters

More George Will - Less Freedom, Less Speech


Tom said...

Are you kidding me? That was supposed to be an example of George Will's brillance?

It sure is nice that George Will is a free speech absolutist. I kind of think there might be a solid, or at least understandable, reason for Austria and Germany to have these sorts of laws about Nazis. Those laws do not belong in the United States, and they have nothing to do with our current campaign finance reform system (which I am against).

You know the best part of that meandering, unclear, and unconvincing article? The conclusion: "Even open societies have would-be mullahs. But the more serious threats to freedom are mullahs who control societies: Irving, expecting a suspended sentence, had planned to travel to Tehran to participate in a conference, organized by Iran's government, to promote Holocaust denial."

Gee, George, you think Austria might have those laws about defending Nazis in order to keep mullahs from controlling the society, again? Yeah, he's brilliant.

Stephen said...

Is that what you got from that column?

Tom said...

No, that's not what I got from the column. It's what the column said.

Tom said...

By the way, I thought Will's book review was very good.

Stephen said...

As I read it, Will made some other important points. He began by condemning the content of David Irving's speech and recalling that Irving has been nuts for all of his professional life. He makes short work of proving Irving's argument silly before moving on to his main point.
Will points out that Holocaust denial ("anti-Semitism tarted up with the trappings of historiography"), is a crime in is a crime in many European countries. Irving was sentenced to prison for denying the Holocaust the same week Europeans were "lecturing Muslims about the virtue of tolerating free expression by Danish cartoonists." He argued that Irving and his ilk pose no threat because "Holocaust denial is the occupation of cynics and lunatics who are always with us but are no reason for getting governments into the dangerous business of outlawing certain arguments."

This strikes me as an important point in light of Will's next argument.

"Laws criminalizing Holocaust denial open a moral pork barrel for politicians: Many groups can be pandered to with speech restrictions. Why not a law regulating speech about slavery? Or Stalin's crimes?"

This is not a path that we should want to go down. Then Will addressed the point you brought up, that history matters in such things but he comes to a different conclusion:

"Some defenders of the prosecution of Irving say Europe -- and especially Austria, Hitler's birthplace -- rightly has, from recent history, an acute fear of totalitarians. But that historical memory should cause Europe to recoil from government-enforced orthodoxy about anything."

I am with Will on this. I support free speech in Europe because I support free speech in America. And on this point Will makes his most important argument for the United States: There are hints of this sort of impulse in the US.

"American legislators, using the criminal law for moral exhibitionism, enact ``hate crime'' laws. Hate crimes are, in effect, thought crimes. Hate crime laws mandate enhanced punishments for crimes committed as a result of, or at least when accompanied by, particular states of mind of which the government particularly disapproves. Governments that feel free to stigmatize, indeed criminalize, certain political thoughts and attitudes will move on to regulating what expresses such thoughts and attitudes -- speech."

In other words, we are already accepting limitations on our speech that Americans should find unacceptable and we are doing it because our hearts are in the right place. This again is an important argument to make. We have to draw these lines very clearly and Will does so in his next paragraph:

"For several decades in America, the aim of much of the jurisprudential thought about the First Amendment's free speech provision has been to justify contracting its protections. Freedom of speech is increasingly ``balanced'' against ``competing values.'' As a result, it is whittled down, often by seemingly innocuous increments, to a minor constitutional afterthought."

Free speech should be balance with other rights, not other vague "values." Yet we see this sort of thing every day:

"On campuses, speech codes have abridged the right of free expression in order to protect the right -- for such it has become -- of certain preferred groups to not be offended. The NCAA is truncating the right of some colleges and universities to express their identity using mascots deemed ``insensitive'' to the feelings of this or that grievance group. Campaign finance laws ration the amount and control the timing and content of political speech. The right to free political speech is now ``balanced'' against society's interest in leveling the political playing field, or elevating the tone of civic discourse, or enabling politicians to spend less time soliciting contributions, or allowing candidates to control the content of their campaigns, or dispelling the ``appearance'' of corruption, etc."

These things we see and accept every day are, in fact, dangerous nonsense. Calling new things "rights" diminishes the rights that we must keep and cherish if our republic is going to survive. We do not have, in America, some kind of vague "right to never be offended" and Will worries, as do I, that the "right to never be offended" is creeping up on us.

His final point is that every society has "would-be mullahs." He is worried (and again I agree) more about a more serious threat to our public political life-- government regulation of political speech.

I wouldn't call the column brilliant but he makes a good and important point in a thoughtful and reasonably short argument. I also wouldn't call Will or myself free speech absolutists, but we should be concerned about some of these trends in the U.S.

You found it "meandering, unclear, and unconvincing." I found it a concise, clear, convincing column on an important topic. Such is life.

Tom said...

Dammit, I just wrote a long response and it got lost. Short version: Austria has its own historical reasons for being worried about the rise of a particular totalitarianism. That is why it has laws against Nazis and Holocaust deniers, and not against talking about slavery or Stalin.

Those reasons and those laws have nothing to do with the U.S. We have our own rules and regulations that limit free speech based on values when it comes to profanity, nudity, and pornography. By Will's logic, those rules and regulations are part of a slipperly slope toward totalitarianism.

The Austrian case and the U.S. case both deserve lots of argument and lots of columns--on their own. By connecting them as he did, Will meandered between continents, was unclear as to how they were connected, and was unconvincing that the connection even existed.

Paul said...

"Those reasons and those laws have nothing to do with the U.S. We have our own rules and regulations that limit free speech based on values when it comes to profanity, nudity, and pornography."

That is, until certain S.C. justices cite foreign laws to justify their decisions.

"By connecting them as he did, Will meandered between continents, was unclear as to how they were connected, and was unconvincing that the connection even existed."

Kind of like our esteemed S.C. justices do when the cite foreign laws to justify their decisions.

Tom said...

Ha! Agreed.