Thursday, January 22, 2009

Matt Yglesias waxes patriotic about freedom of speech

Matt Yglesias is right on target here, and I'm with him all the way:
Barack Obama aside, nothing makes me feel patriotic quite like a good European hate speech prosecution
... like the one in the Netherlands, for defaming Islam, that he picks up on.

And even if a principled defense of freedom of speech leaves you cold, it's worth considering Matt's very sensible analysis of why these types of politically correct, "multi-culturalist" censorship often backfire in practice:
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.
(Of course, we look good only by comparison.)

=> For a more extended (and passionate) argument on the same lines, I also recommend Glenn Greenwald's January 2008 piece on "The Noxious Fruits of Hate Speech Laws" in Canada and Europe.
I've written several times before about the oppressive, dangerous hate speech laws which are common -- increasingly so -- in both Canada and Europe, whereby the Government is empowered to punish as criminals citizens who express offensive or otherwise prohibited political views. [....] Here are the noxious fruits of hate speech laws: a citizen being forced to appear before the Government in order to be interrogated by an agent of the State -- a banal, clerical bureaucrat -- about what opinions he expressed and why he expressed them, upon pain of being punished under the law. This is nothing short of stomach-turning. [....]
In good Voltairean fashion, Greenwald chose for examples the legalized persecution of two people whose views he despises. But he still found the spectacle "stomach-churning," and correctly so.
For those unable to think past the (well-deserved) animosity one has for the specific targets in question here, all one needs to do instead is imagine these proceedings directed at opinions and groups that one likes. [....] Just like Bush followers who bizarrely think that the limitless presidential powers they're cheering on will only be wielded by political leaders they like, many hate speech law proponents convince themselves that such laws will only be used to punish speech they dislike. That is never how tyrannical government power works.
=> And by the way, in case anyone is wondering, I believe (like Greenwald) that the laws criminalizing Holocaust denial in some western European countries have outlived their usefulness, too. It's better to fight such pernicious idiocies with criticism, outrage, and contempt than with legal censorship. (Direct incitement to murder and the like are a different matter.)

Yours for freedom of expression,
Jeff Weintraub
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Matt Yglesias
Jan 21, 2009 at 3:22 pm
The American Way

Barack Obama aside, nothing makes me feel patriotic quite like a good European hate speech prosecution:
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.
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.
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Jan 21, 2009 at 5:54 pm
Free Speech

One reader wrote in with regard to my post on this Dutch hate speech prosecution objecting that my criticisms seemed too pragmatic and insufficiently focused on the question of principle.

So to be clear: I think as a matter of principle that people should be permitted to make offensive analogies about the Koran or anything else they care to. That said, I do think that principled belief in free speech is ultimately tied to practicalities. If I was genuinely convinced that for people of diverse faiths to coexist peacefully required an elaborate set of legal restrictions on offensive speech—with the only alternative being bloodshed and many deaths—then I’m not going to pretend that I might not flinch away from principle. But the principle of freedom of expression as a good solution for life in a diverse society has, I think, stood the test of time in the United States of America. And it does work, in part, precisely because it’s understood as a principle, as a civic commitment to a shared value. Which is perhaps a more complicated answer than some people are hoping for, but I think that in the real word questions of principle and questions of pragmatism are more intertwined than people sometimes care to admit.

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