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 Free Speech in the Nominal Democracy 

April 20, 2006 
“Freedom of speech is the right to be wrong, basically. Sometimes I’m wrong.”

These words were reportedly spoken by the historian David Irving in an interview from his Austrian prison, where he is doing time — years of his life — for “Holocaust denial.” Austria and a few other Western Today's column is "Free Speech in the 
Nominal Democracy" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes 
them.democracies still maintain the position that some opinions are crimes.

So, in its way, does democratic Afghanistan, where a few weeks ago a man narrowly escaped a death sentence for converting to Christianity. He was spared only because of Western pressure, notably from President Bush. There has been no such pressure for Irving, whose prosecutor thinks he was dealt with too leniently.

The idea (if you can dignify it with that word) behind the law under which Irving was convicted is that some opinions can “incite hate.” And Irving’s opinions certainly do that, in a way. So the people who hate him have, naturally, stripped him of his freedom. But what kind of fanatic says, “Sometimes I’m wrong”?

Welcome to the twenty-first century. It’s not so different from many other centuries, really — centuries we pride ourselves on being different from.

If you want to make enemies, speak your mind on a controversial topic. Works like a charm. You’ll soon hear from people who will let you know they would, if they could, give you the same treatment Irving got. They may be incapable of coining a fresh phrase, a witty epigram, or an original thought of their own; they may prefer insults and obscenities, which are often the limit of their eloquence, or they may just be mighty indignant that you would say whatever you said.

A man uses the best arguments he can think of, and some men can’t think of a better argument than a curse or a threat. This is their perverse way of agreeing with you when they can’t bear to admit they do. They might as well come right out and announce they can hope to prevail only by shutting you up with brute force, not by superior reason. They are ceding reason to their opponents.

[Breaker quote for Free Speech in the Nominal Democracy: 'Shut up,' they explain.]In a brilliant twist on Voltaire’s famous (though apocryphal) words, the playwright Tom Stoppard has one of his characters declare, “I agree with every word you say, but I will fight to the death against your right to say it.”

Stoppard perfectly catches the root of the urge to censor opinion. His formulation is hilarious because if a would-be censor could express himself so well, he’d have no need, or urge, to censor. He’d be content to oppose words with better words. Censorship is a confession of failure.

In other words, Stoppard endows his would-be censor with all the qualities such people tend to lack: candor, humor, self-confidence, and self-respect. We expect them to be sneaking prigs.

“Most men quarrel because they do not know how to argue,” wrote Chesterton, who loved to argue and hated to quarrel. He debated Bernard Shaw on the two subjects most men quarrel about — religion and politics — and the chief result of their sharp disagreements was a warm friendship that ended only when Chesterton died.

Rarely is the world overrun with men like Chesterton and Shaw, whose numbers seem to have thinned as democracy, we’re told, has spread. But then, most so-called democracies are really overgrown bureaucratic states, as Robert Frost suggested when he sneered at “the bureaucratic regimenting love / With which the modern world is being swept.” And that bureaucratic regimenting “love” is quick to detect “hate” and even “hate crimes” in any independent thought. In Orwell’s nightmare state, the most feared agency of all is the Ministry of Love.

With that sort of love in the air, I wouldn’t predict a great future for free speech in the nominal democracies. Not that there will be a formal announcement when it’s abolished; the process will be gradual, attended as always by reassuring expressions like voluntary compliance until everyone is voluntarily complying.

Oh, now and then there may be a cranky holdout such as Irving who won’t comply voluntarily, but the free press, following the voluntary guidelines, won’t draw much attention to him. If you yearn to be back in the twentieth century, just remember the great progressive adage: “You can’t turn back the clock.” Especially when people in high places are always turning it ahead.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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