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Posts from the ‘Free Speech’ Category

Rhodes to Perdition

Oxford University, famed throughout the world for being the one that isn’t Cambridge, is apparently seething with controversy over the reputation of Victorian philanthropist Cecil J Rhodes. Oriel College – originally ‘oriole’, referring not to the type of bird but the type of window, although the former might be more apt since its plumage is predominantly yellow – has angered the usual sort of people by erecting a statue to its former student and benefactor, and is facing calls to remove it. Key detail: they did in fact put up the bloody thing the best part of a century ago whereas the anger is only coming now, which may well be a clue to the underlying problem here, i.e., that attitudes are so susceptible to changing over time that even today’s hysterical shrieking teenagers will be considered reactionary monsters by the hysterical shrieking teenagers of tomorrow.

Consider, for instance, Germaine Greer, the radical feminist once renowned as a militant firebrand at the very vanguard of the revolutionary left, but now banned as a right-wing maniac from half the universities in the Anglosphere for having suggested that people with Y-chromosomes aren’t women. Dr Greer has made the mistake of clinging on to her 20th century modernism, which used to oppose irrational feelings by positing facts, in the very face of the postmodern 21st century’s belief in countering upsetting facts by asserting feelings. It is not too late for Germaine, however: she has time to recant her beliefs in some public forum, like one of those old communist officials who would inadvertently drift a few millimetres from whatever the Party orthodoxy was on the particular day of his ill-judged remarks and then appear on television looking contrite. She might well consider shedding a tear and begging forgiveness for the hurt which she has caused.

No such opportunity for Cecil, though: his goose is well and truly cooked, for his mistake is even more fundamental than Dr Greer’s, viz.- being dead for 113 years, and thus unable to reassure us all that his opinions are now bang up to date. Read more

Quote of the Day, and some thoughts on events in Paris

“I can answer for myself, and I hope I may for others, that the liberty of communicating our sentiments to the public freely and honestly, shall not be tamely given up, nor, I trust, forced out of their hands. “ (The North Briton, No. 44)

So wrote John Wilkes on April 2nd, 1763, and a veritable tsunami of similar sentiments is at last moistening a political and media culture long left dry and barren by years of mawkish and feeble self-censorship and lazy conformity. Sadly, though, we expect no Damascene conversion from western politicians, who have spent the last decade cutting back free speech one slice at a time until we are no longer remotely surprised to read about the police collaring someone for making vaguely unkind remarks about Islam or Scots or fat people on Twitter. Nor are we particularly impressed by the respect for fearless satire which our newspapers have suddenly discovered: in their near-universal refusal to join Stéphane Charbonnier and the gang in maintaining the principle that free societies have no sacred cows, they left Charlie Hébdo almost completely isolated as a target for violent bigots.

We would all do far better to bear in mind how recently it was that anyone came to live in a free society. From the earliest barrow-digging tribal strongmen to the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Emperors of Rome, the mediaeval kings of Europe and Lord Bird Jaguar of the Maya, human history is a dreary litany of squalid little proto-Hitlers right down to the seventeenth century. Then, for the first time, people in a few countries – particularly France, England, Scotland and the Netherlands – began to think seriously about things like legitimacy and first principles, and in particular the claims of all these petty despots that their authority was divinely ordained.

It was explicitly by sweeping away superstition and the more extravagant claims of religion that we finally broke the power of arbitrary government and emerged as free peoples. Contemplating the killing of the king of France in 1790, the Bouche de Fer famously claimed that, “When the last king is hanged with the entrails of the last celibate priest, mankind may hope to be happy.” Following Diderot and the coterie holbachique, the idea was that superstition and tyranny were two sides of the same coin, and that the lies of one exposed the lies of the other.

A hundred and fifty years before – naturally, considerably in advance of France – England had struck the head off its own king in a similar fit of rationalism: the English republican John Milton (who, far from coincidentally, was the first to champion freedom of speech) had written in 1649,

“If men within themselves would be governed by reason, and not generally give up their understanding to a double tyranny, of custom from without, and blind affections within; they would discern better what it is to favour and uphold the tyrant of a nation.”

With the lies of religious charlatans swept aside, we found that the claims of our gilded tyrants rested on nothing at all – and consequently that the heads of our tyrants promptly found themselves in a similar situation. Since then, the power of state has derived from us as countless sovereign individuals who make up our own minds what to think and what to say. Those who would join us in what are still, just about, free countries, are courteously invited to leave their imaginary friends at the door, or to accept that it is Open Season on their more eccentric ideas.

The French, being a civilised people, can take it as well as dish it out.

The French, being a civilised people, can take it as well as dish it out.

Anglodämmerung

The end of three centuries of separation between press and state in the United Kingdom is not just a milestone in the individual political history of one particular country: it is yet another victory for those cultural and intellectual forces whose ultimate enemy – although few of them are coherently aware of it – is the network of concepts which constitute modernity itself.

The cumulative vicissitudes of British history from the Dark Ages to the Glorious Revolution led us to stumble across the most powerful social toolkit hitherto discovered by mankind. The nation, which had already spread to the Americas, emerged blinking and hung-over into the 1690s to find that we lived in an open society; that social hierarchies were more fluid and porous than they had ever been (class but not caste, de Tocqueville said); that the ideological obsession with individual liberty and private property had completely won the culture wars; that the Act of Settlement had made the judiciary independent; and that the expiry of the Licensing Act had added a free press so that this awkward, quarrelsome and restlessly ambitious people could bicker and insult each other to their hearts’ content. Read more

Quote of the Day

As press regulation makes its way towards the statute books, like the procession of some noisy and sinister circus into the world’s most gullible town, let us at least try to bear in mind the very first words of the first issue of John Wilkes’ paper The North Briton:

“The liberty of the press is the birth-right of Britons, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country. It has been the terror of all bad ministers; for their dark and dangerous designs, or their weakness, inability and duplicity, have thus been detected and shown to the public, generally in too strong and just colours for them long to bear up against the odium of mankind. Can we then be surpriz’d, that so various and infinite arts have been employed at one time entirely to set aside, at another to take off the force, and blunt the edge, of this most sacred weapon, given for the defence of truth and liberty? Read more

Publish and be Damned

Good news from the government on freedom of speech – the first time, we believe, that those words have been written in that order since the lapse of press licensing regulations in 1694.

As Rhys Griffiths of FFW points out in this note, the Defamation Bill currently eeling its tortuous way through Parliament, as usual like a blind python navigating some domestic plumbing, is set fair to remove a major disincentive for website operators to allow controversial content posted by users. Read more