Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Free speech

This is a fascinating and critically important topic.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — A couple of years ago, a Canadian magazine published an article arguing that the rise of Islam threatened Western values. The article’s tone was mocking and biting, but it said nothing that conservative magazines and blogs in the United States do not say every day without fear of legal reprisal. Things are different here. The magazine is on trial.

Indeed: political correctness has been taken to such a degree that it has become impossible to speak freely, lest someone be insulted. Of course, this arose from the situation where there was no restraint on what was said, and not much care was taken over who might get insulted. Perfect example, of course, is what is meant by saying Selma, Alabama, circa 1960.

Two members of the Canadian Islamic Congress say the magazine, Maclean’s, Canada’s leading newsweekly, violated a provincial hate speech law by stirring up hatred against Muslims. They say the magazine should be forbidden from saying similar things, forced to publish a rebuttal and made to compensate Muslims for injuring their “dignity, feelings and self respect.”

Absurd. That article in MacLean's of Canada does say provocative things, such as: For example, I wonder how many pontificators on the "Middle East peace process" ever run this number: The median age in the Gaza Strip is 15.8 years. Once you know that, all the rest is details.

Provocative? Yes. Provocative is defined as:
  • S: (adj) provocative (serving or tending to provoke, excite, or stimulate; stimulating discussion or exciting controversy) "a provocative remark"; "a provocative smile"; "provocative Irish tunes which...compel the hearers to dance"- Anthony Trollope
  • S: (adj) provocative (exciting sexual desire) "her gestures and postures became more wanton and provocative"
So, not just to provoke, as in taunt, but also as in to stimulate discussion. Such matters need to be discussed, debated and illuminated by free speech. It is politically incorrect to ask what Islamic country would allow a Jew to turn that situation around, were an equivalent to MacLean's to write an article about the Jewish people; would a Jew be allowed to demand an apology on behalf of the Jewish brethren, and compensation for injuring their “dignity, feelings and self respect.” ?

The Maclean’s article, “The Future Belongs to Islam,” was an excerpt from a book by Mark Steyn called “America Alone” (Regnery, 2006). The title was fitting: The United States, in its treatment of hate speech, as in so many areas of the law, takes a distinctive legal path.

Despite Bush and Cheney and their brethren, the US remains a bulwark for free speech. Bush and Cheney and their brethren want to chip away at that freedom, but they have not, and, I daresay, will not.

“In much of the developed world, one uses racial epithets at one’s legal peril, one displays Nazi regalia and the other trappings of ethnic hatred at significant legal risk, and one urges discrimination against religious minorities under threat of fine or imprisonment,” Frederick Schauer, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, wrote in a recent essay called “The Exceptional First Amendment.”

Not just the developed world; criticizing the government or the Prophet is a jail sentence, if not a death sentence, for whomsoever is foolish enough to speak his or her mind freely. Of course, the other side of the equation in the US is Actress Scarlett Johansson claims she has regular email contact with Barack Obama. This is a 23-year0old actress with botoxed lips and silicon breasts and little modesty who happens to be a multi-million-dollar box office star who can help the Illinois Senator make inroads with young voters who would otherwise not be the slightest bit interested in elections.

“But in the United States,” Professor Schauer continued, “all such speech remains constitutionally protected.” Canada, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Australia and India all have laws or have signed international conventions banning hate speech. Israel and France forbid the sale of Nazi items like swastikas and flags. It is a crime to deny the Holocaust in Canada, Germany and France. Earlier this month, the actress Brigitte Bardot, an animal rights activist, was fined $23,000 in France for provoking racial hatred by criticizing a Muslim ceremony involving the slaughter of sheep. By contrast, American courts would not stop the American Nazi Party from marching in Skokie, Ill., in 1977, though a march would have been deeply distressing to the many Holocaust survivors there.

The contrast is pretty clear: banning hate speech versus allowing Nazis to march in Skokie. It is curious that, other than Israel (where the reason for banning of Nazi items is obvious) France is the only other country with such a ban, the France that has not yet come to terms with its Vichy past.

Some prominent legal scholars say the United States should reconsider its position on hate speech.

I get a chill reading that. Yes, seeing neo-Nazi jerks protected by the First Amendment is painful, but only until right-wingers are stopped in their tracks by US courts upholding the sanctity of that very First Amendment.

Harvey A. Silverglate, a civil liberties lawyer in Cambridge, Mass., disagreed. “When times are tough,” he said, “there seems to be a tendency to say there is too much freedom.” Scrutiny and debate are more effective ways of combating hate speech than censorship, he said, and all the more so in the post-Sept. 11 era.

Aye. Back to the article in Macleans: If you were a "moderate Palestinian" leader, would you want to try to persuade a nation – or pseudo-nation – of unemployed poorly educated teenage boys raised in a UN-supervised European-funded death cult to see sense? Any analysis of the "Palestinian problem" that doesn't take into account the most important determinant on the ground is a waste of time.

Well now. Are most Palestinian Arabs employed? Educated? The UN does supervise things there in the West Bank and Gaza, sort of (it is there, anyway), and, well, where does the funding come from?

The writer is provocative: Africa, to take another example, also has plenty of young people, but it's riddled with AIDS and, for the most part, Africans don't think of themselves as Africans: as we saw in Rwanda, their primary identity is tribal, and most tribes have no global ambitions. Islam, however, has serious global ambitions, and it forms the primal, core identity of most of its adherents -- in the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere. Islam has youth and will, Europe has age and welfare.

And right. Unflinching analysis. Rwanda is hardly the only African country where violence between citizens of the same nation is pervasive: Congo and Sudan are two others.

The children and grandchildren of those fascists and republicans who waged a bitter civil war for the future of Spain now shrug when a bunch of foreigners blow up their capital.

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