02 May 2010

Freedom of Speech

I’ve never seen the television show South Park, the creators of which are now the target of “an informal fatwa,” as Ayaan Hirsi Ali aptly called it. I have the general impression that South Park treats just about everything and everyone irreverently, and I am not much interested in that brand of humor. But it is a test of integrity to defend a principle even when it means standing up for people or actions one does not necessarily like or agree with.

Freedom of speech is one of the most important corollaries of individual rights, as inseparable from rights as are property rights (i.e. keeping what one has earned). Unlike property rights, however, which have buckled, crumbled, and fallen under withering attacks from every direction for more than a century, free speech has stood largely intact. It is the last fortification of liberty––and it has lately been under serious assault.

The curious thing about this attack is how puny and irrational it is. A mob of medieval thugs is holding all of western civilization hostage. Someday, assuming civilization wakes up and survives this crisis, mankind will look back on this period with utter bewilderment. How could a band of violent, retrograde primitivists succeed against a civilization that is vastly superior in every way: morally, scientifically, technologically, financially, and militarily?

The answer is: they cannot. It is the western institutions themselves that have dropped their arms, capitulated, and surrendered to militant Islamists. The governments of the West, the institutions whose sole proper function is to defend the rights of men, have abandoned the field––a field already strewn with murdered victims––leaving ordinary, unarmed, civilized people exposed to marauding barbarians.

It is true that the betrayal is not confined to the governments; intellectuals, movie stars, publishers, and the news media have quaked, cowered, and meekly complied with self-censorship. However, though this often constitutes cowardice on their part (and sometimes, just a natural and understandable response to fear), it is not their job or duty to stand up for free speech. It is the job of governments to defend rights, and for this reason, I hold them responsible for the current state of affairs. When Salman Rushdie was threatened with a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran in 1989, it was an act of war––a war that the West has since refused to fight or even acknowledge.

Today, because of the capitulations and failures of the Bush-Obama government and the other semi-free governments of the world, a handful of private citizens––authors, filmmakers, cartoonists, and bloggers––are utterly alone on the front line defending free speech. Still fewer of us (mostly Objectivists), defend it as a matter of fact-based, life-embracing principle. We are at once defenseless and unassailable: defenseless, because we are unarmed against murderers who wish to cut our throats; unassailable, because we are right.


I have to credit Elan Journo and his excellent blog post, "South Park and self-censorship," at Voices for Reason. I think I must have read it some days ago, and upon coming upon it again tonight, it is evident that I absorbed his basic point without remembering having done so. The last part of my post makes essentially the same point that he made; he even specifically cited Salman Rushdie as an example of the outrage. Certainly, this all follows from premises I have long held, and I think I made all the connections myself, but in any case, I thank Mr. Journo for his article and his excellent work at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights.


C. August said...

Stephen, from a purely artistic perspective (is that the perspective from which one would evaluate a political cartoon?) yours is the best I have seen from the recent "Draw Mohammed" movement.

The willing dhimmitude of our two most recent presidents, including the physical act of restraining our military from acting, to the small, comical stature of the threat. . .good show.

Stephen Bourque said...

Thanks, C. August! Your single sentence perfectly captures what I was going for.