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Musings on free speech and reading lists
June 23, 2011 - Stephen Browne
Some years back I was having a conversation with a Jewish girl about our university experiences when she related the tale of how angry she was with a former professor of hers.
It seems the professor had required her to read and review "Mein Kampf," by Adolph Hitler.
"He made me read that madman's hate-filled trash!" she said.
She was somewhat taken aback when I said, "Sorry, I'm with him, you should read it. And I don't think Hitler was a madman, at least not at the beginning. He was an evil man, there's a difference. If you hope to understand what inspired that kind of evil, you need to read it."
I was reminded of this conversation today when I read that Dutch politician Geert Wilders was just acquitted of hate speech and discrimination, over public statements and a movie ("Fitna") he'd made claiming Islam is inherently violent, and the native population of the Netherlands was in danger of being overwhelmed by a tide of Muslim immigrants.
Americans are often surprised to learn that people can indeed be prosecuted for speech we'd regard as protected by the First Amendment, not just in dictatorships but in the liberal democracies of Western Europe and Canada.
Nobody argues there is a lot of offensive speech and writing out there. Sometimes you have to grit your teeth and remind yourself that your belief in freedom is tested by how willing you are to respect the freedom of people you flat despise. One of the most distasteful things I've ever had to write was a letter of protest to the Austrian embassy concerning the conviction and imprisonment of author and Holocaust-denier David Irving.
They actually answered me at length with a well-reasoned argument citing precedent for their actions from several other countries including the U.S. I still disagree, but it kind of made the point. We were disagreeing, not threatening each other for our respective opinions.
Now here's the irony of the Wilders case. Geert Wilders wants to ban the Koran in the Netherlands, just as Mein Kampf is banned in a number of European countries, including Germany.
The importance of freedom of speech to the testing of new ideas in the marketplace of ideas has been inspiringly, passionately, defended by better men than I.
"I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd vertue, unexercis'd & unbreath'd, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.' - Jon Milton "Aereopagitica"
"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." - Thomas Jefferson
I'll just add a practical reason, alluded to in the answer I gave that young lady. If you think certain speech or writing is dangerous, how are you going to know how to combat it if you don't read it? How will you even know the danger posed by those who believe such things? Though not Jewish myself, I have Jewish relatives and I'm always aware I'd have a heck of a lot more of them if more people had read "Mein Kampf" and taken Hitler's explicitly expressed intentions seriously.
And in the last extremity, if the difference of opinion ultimately has to be resolved by force, as the argument over slavery was in our own country, how are you going to know where your enemy is if you've driven them underground?
Doubly ironic is that Wilders' movie "Fitna" was composed of verses from the Koran superimposed over images of terrorist violence. If his contentions are true, you'd think he'd want to inspire people to read the Koran. If he wants to ban it, wouldn't that raise the suspicion he was afraid of people reading the whole thing in context? You could put together a pretty blood-curdling set of quotes from the Old Testament, or pull some pretty intemperate remarks from the vast body of Thomas Jefferson's works for that matter.
We still have greater protection for speech and publication in the United States than any other country on earth. But I'm afraid our educational system is not preparing us to take advantage of this freedom as much anymore.
When I went off to teach in Eastern Europe 20 years ago, a friend gave me a political science textbook he'd kept from his days at the University of Chicago, entitled "...and the People Shall Judge," printed in 1947. It was marvelous. The section on the American Revolution had not only the writings of Jefferson, Madison, etc. but the counter-arguments, such as Samuel Johnson's "Taxation No Tyranny." The section on the Civil War contained both sides of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and an extensive argument by a Southern slaveholder on the justice and social utility of slavery.
I don't think they make them like that anymore, and I think our students are poorer for it.
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