Freedom Of Speech

January 22, 2009

From the BBC:

“A Dutch court has ordered prosecutors to put a right-wing politician on trial for making anti-Islamic statements.
Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders made a controversial film last year equating Islam with violence and has likened the Koran to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
‘In a democratic system, hate speech is considered so serious that it is in the general interest to… draw a clear line,’ the court in Amsterdam said.”

I don’t have the time or the inclination right now to get into an extended philosophical discussion on freedom of speech. I do want to point out, however, that Wilders’s supposed crime doesn’t go any further that what is said in the above quotation – he essentially compared Islam to Nazism and the Koran to “Mein Kampf,” a book which is banned in many European countries.

I’ll just cite Matt Yglesias, with whom I essentially agree:

“Barack Obama aside, nothing makes me feel patriotic quite like a good European hate speech prosecution.

Wilders is a boor and a bit of an idiot, but while I understand that this sort of thing happens on the continent it invariably strikes me as incredibly stupid. This isn’t going to end anti-Muslim sentiment in the Netherlands, and it’s not going to help Dutch Muslims assimilate into European society. What’s more, this actually fuels the notion that the existence of a substantial Muslim population in your country is an intolerable threat to liberty. There are a lot of dimensions of social policy along which I think we can learn a lot from northern Europe, but the robust tradition of free speech in the United States is something we can and should be very proud of.”

There are a couple of important differences between my thoughts on this and Yglesias, however. First (and I don’t know the degree to which he may have simply misspoke here), I don’t see freedom of speech as “social policy” but as a right. I think that Wilders, disgusting idiot that he may be, has the same right to express these opinions as I have to write this blog and express mine. As a corollary, the government has no right to restrict speech based solely on its content. My right to express myself in this blog exists independently of what I’m saying. Otherwise, the government is by definition in the business of deciding which thoughts and opinions are acceptable and which are not. I find Wilders’s ideas on Islam to be idiotic and offensive, but I’m perfectly capable of drawing that conclusion on my own and don’t need the Dutch government to protect me from hearing his ideas for fear that they’ll corrupt my innocent mind. No ideas are so dangerous that they must be quarantined, even those contained in “Mein Kampf.”

Second, I resent always having to routinely temper statements like Yglesias’s with something along the lines of “there are a lot of dimensions of social policy along which I think we can learn a lot from northern Europe.” It’s not that I think it isn’t true, it’s that I feel this always has to be said by anyone left of center in this country every time there is a comparison drawn between the United States and Europe in which the United States comes out favorably. I assure you Europeans feel no compulsion to return the favor. It represents a certain phenomenon among liberals in the United States of putting Europe on a pedestal and viewing their society and politics and superior and more progressive. This is a questionable proposition at best, yet it often passes within liberal circles without argument. I think there are 3 reasons this is the case: (1) it is a vestige of 19th century thinking, when the American elite routinely looked up to imperalist Europe; (2) it’s a vestige of the Cold War, when Americans on the left were often sympathetic toward socialism and Europe’s greater tendencies toward socialism and Communism as superior; and (3) a naivete that makes them susceptible to European arrogance. I think American liberals should spend a little more time paying attention to Europe’s Silvio Berlusconis and Joerg Haiders and a little less time pretending that the average European is a cross between Goethe and Beethoven who speaks 15 languages, has a 4 PhDs, and is a gourmet chef.

I also suspect that there is widespread sympathy on the left in this country toward the Dutch position on this issue, and I find it ironic that there are likely more on the right that share my opinion and Ygelsias’s on this than there are on the left. Freedom of speech is one of the core tenets of liberalism. The government’s prosecution of what it brands “hate speech” like Wilders’s is, in reality, no different than the prosecution of dissidents in this country during World War I. It is unacceptable, counterproductive, and a violation of rights. Liberals who are going to use these arguments to defend, say, protestors in the United States, but would deny those same rights who have things to say with which they do not agree, need to reexamine the issue. It is easy to support speech with which you agree. A true test of our respect for free speech comes only when we support the right to say that which we find most distasteful.

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