Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Necessary Blasphemy

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, opens his defense of offensive free speech with a simple absolutist statement that I wholeheartedly share: "Freedom of speech is important, and it must include the freedom to say what everyone else believes to be false, and even what many people take to be offensive."

His very next sentence is a slam against religion, as a "major obstacle to basic reforms that reduce unnecessary suffering." His list of religion's faults is the usual one for a left-side American secularist: it includes contraception, abortion, stem-cell research, and homosexuality. (It closes with "the treatment of animals" which seems an odd outrider in this posse.) "In each case, somewhere in the world, religious beliefs have been a barrier to changes that would make the world more sustainable, freer, and more humane."

What sustainable means in such a case eludes me; it is a value-neutral word (you can sustain evil as well as good) but when certain people use it it seems to have been pre-packed with a set of meanings (perhaps ecological) like a gag store's spring-loaded "snakes in a can" toy.

Singer and I start at the same mountaintop of ethics and proceed down different paths. But do we end up at the same place?

In this article, yes. The logical next stop, in such a discussion today, is the Jyllands Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. And while we both find the outcome of the controversy tragic, we both agree that this was a valid expression of free speech, though for slightly different reasons.

"In hindsight," Singer writes, "it would have been wiser not to publish the cartoons. The benefits were not worth the costs."

I'm not sure freedom of any sort is the kind of thing you measure on a cost-benefits basis. If there's to be a measure of it, I'd say the one that matters is the personal courage required: Nobody's going to cut your head off for mocking American fundamentalist Christians who oppose physician-assisted suicide. That's hardly a test case for free speech. It's more important to hold up a candle in the demon-haunted darkness than in broad daylight.

But, Singer adds, "To restrict freedom of expression because we fear such consequences would not be the right response. It would only provide an incentive for those who do not want to see their views criticized to engage in violent protests in future." And a hearty hear, hear to that.

And I think he's right in the main thrust of his article, which is not the Muhammad cartoons but the jailed Holocaust-denier David Irving.

I support efforts to prevent any return to Nazism in Austria or anywhere else. But how is the cause of truth served by prohibiting Holocaust denial? If there are still people crazy enough to deny that the Holocaust occurred, will they be persuaded by imprisoning some who express that view? On the contrary, they will be more likely to think that views people are being imprisoned for expressing cannot be refuted by evidence and argument alone.

Exactly. Irving should be freed, not because he's right, but because being wrong in words ought not to be a crime. Singer, before going further, lays out his credentials as a grandson of three Holocaust victims. This is a poignant, but unnecessary, aside. This is not a Jewish issue; it is a freedom issue, and as such it affects every person in a free society.

Irving, 67, is a formidable amateur historian who has worked from primary sources to build up his picture of a Third Reich in which Jews certainly were mistreated and died in large numbers, but not by a methodical genocide ordered by Hitler.

He already has been financially ruined and professionally disgraced by his persistence in Holocaust denial. But he should not be in jail; he should be out in the public arena trying to prove his case and seeing it shreded by the historical record. Like Jefferson, we are willing to “tolerate error as long as reason is free to combat it.”

In history as in all intellectual activities, questioning and probing makes a strong case stronger. The truth need not fear a Devil’s advocate.

There's a flaw in Singer's argument, however: He overlooks the difference between Europe and America in this matter, and he seems inclined to extend American ideas to European realities. Americans have steeled ourselves to an ugly truth: Our commitment to free expression means we must tolerate freedom of expression for people we despise, or else it means nothing. It's a daily battle to maintain that, as the brouhaha over the "South Park" blasphemies revealed. But generally the principal of free speech comes out on top.

But Europe is different. Public Holocaust denial is a crime in 10 European countries, from France to Lithuania. All of them not only suffered under Nazi occupation but were, in some degree, complicit in the deportation and killing of Jews during the war.

After the war, laws were enacted that banned Nazi insignia and the stiff-arm salute. It was not just a question of muzzling Jew-baiters; the European nations remember that fascists came to power within the mechanism of democratic electoral systems and with a great deal of popular enthusiasm. The laws were meant, in part, to prevent the rebirth of a lethal political movement.

As Hajo Funke, a German historian, put it: “We can’t afford the luxury of the Anglo-Saxon freedom of speech argument in this regard. It’s not that I don’t understand it, it’s just not for us. Not yet. Not for a long time.”

Hence the 1992 Austrian law Irving was convicted under, which applies to “whoever denies, grossly plays down, approves or tries to excuse the National Socialist genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity in a print publication, in broadcast or other media.”

It's an unfortunate side-effect of Irving's trial that Islamists around the world have been able to point to it as proof of hypocrisy in the Western commitment to freedom of speech as invoked in the case of the Danish cartoon drawings of Muhammad. That's the point Singer wishes to make, too:

[E]ven while the protests about the cartoons were still underway, a new problem about convincing Muslims of the genuineness of our respect for freedom of expression has arisen because of Austria's conviction and imprisonment of David Irving for denying the existence of the Holocaust. We cannot consistently hold that it should be a criminal offense to deny the existence of the Holocaust and that cartoonists have a right to mock religious figures.

Aside from the curious "we" (perhaps Sinbger is uncomfortable with the idea of being an American hectoring Europeans about freedom) that's a strong argument. Irving’s writings feed the Islamists’ warped ideology, which run a close parallel to Hitler’s. But jailing Irving only adds the martyr’s halo to his sad career. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of Irving’s trial that Islamists around the world have been able to point to it as proof of hypocrisy in the Western commitment to freedom of speech as invoked in the case of the Danish cartoon drawings of Muhammad.

I would not go as far as Singer in saying "In the current climate in Western nations, the suspicion of a particular hostility towards Islam, rather than other religions, is well justified." For one, the Europe-America distinction remains important here. But I understand such suspicion, even if I don't find it "well-justified." And Singer and I agree in this:

Only when David Irving has been freed will it be possible for Europeans to turn to the Islamic protesters and say: "We apply the principle of freedom of expression evenhandedly, whether it offends Muslims, Christians, Jews, or anyone else."

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