Friday, February 04, 2005

Defining Free Speech for Ideological Advantage

The controversy over University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill's vile remarks about the victims of the attacks of the September 11th terrorists attacks nicely illustrates the manner in which the far left has redefined the concept of free speech. Freedom of speech, as conceived by the Founding Fathers, simply prohibits the government from arresting and prosecuting individuals voicing unpopular opinions. It does not, and has never meant, that unpopular speech must be provided a platform. Nor that people must associate with people whose speech they find loathsome. The Founding Fathers hoped to prevent the stifling of dissent common in Europe where any slight of king or country could put one in a dungeon, or worse. Successive generations of America jurists have expanded the concept to comprise a broader definition of "speech." This, in general, has been a positive evolution, removing government oversight and control from many areas of private life.

In the post-war period, however, the left has tried to transmute freedom of speech into freedom from consequences, arguing that employers have no right to fire employees who embrace radical causes, or that university professors - always leftist - have the unmitigated right to call for all sorts of mayhem without ever endangering their mostly state-paid salaries.

Even worse, those who defend radicals like Ward Churchill insist that such people must be provided a platform from which to pontificate in the name of "diversity." No value judgment may be leveled against offensive rhetoric (so long as it emanates from a leftist perspective) since all points of view are equally valid and deserve a hearing. In its online blog, Armavirumque, the New Criterion's editors argue against this dangerous nonsense:
It is a telling fact that this point meets widespread resistance today. Invoking the principle of free speech, many people of good will see nothing wrong--everything right--with providing a platform for those who (for example) deny the Holocaust. But this liberal sentiment plays directly into the hands of the Holocaust deniers. As Professor Lipstadt observes, "Unable to make the distinction between genuine historiography and the deniers' purely ideological exercise, those who see the issue in this light are important assets in the deniers' attempt to confuse the matter." As has so often been the case, the well-intentioned efforts of liberal apologists help create an atmosphere of legitimacy and tolerance for movements whose goal is to destroy those institutions and attitudes that guarantee liberal tolerance in the first place.

In this context, it is important to understand that denying the Holocaust is only one of many efforts to undermine the authority of historical truth. The phenomenon of Afrocentricism (which, incidentally, often indulges in a bit of Holocaust denial as a sideline) belongs here, as do many varieties of academic literary "theory" that now reign in the academy: deconstruction, extreme examples of "reader-response" theory, new historicism, etc. For all of them, facts are fluid and historical truth is a species of fiction: what actually happened in the past, or what a given text actually means, are for them ridiculous questions. Nor are these attitudes confined to the cloistered purlieus of the academy: in watered-down versions they have become standard-issue liberal sentiment: Rather than risk having to make an unpleasant judgment about the facts, deny that there are any such things as facts.

The Armavirumque posting warns against granting the unsupportable rantings of radicals like Ward Churchill a platform in any academic setting.
And this brings us to one of the gravest legacies of relativism. What we are witnessing is the transformation of facts into opinion. This process is not only destructive of facts--when facts are downgraded to opinions they no longer have the authority of facts--but, curiously, it is also destructive of opinion. As Hannah Arendt observed in an essay called "Truth and Politics," opinion remains opinion only so long as it is grounded in, and can be corrected by, fact. "Facts," she wrote, "inform opinions, and opinions, inspired by different interests and passions, can differ widely and still be legitimate as long as they respect factual truth. Freedom of opinion is a farce unless factual information is guaranteed and the facts themselves are not in dispute." What is at stake, Arendt concluded, is nothing less than the common world of factual reality and historical truth.
Tenure has been advanced as another security shield for radical professors. Originally, tenure protected academics whose research offended common sensibilities from losing their positions. While conservatives rightly point out that this often shielded many communists and their sympathizers, it should be remembered that it also protected legitimate scientists like Edward O. Wilson. In the 1970's, Wilson was routinely threatened, attacked, slandered and at least once physically assaulted on campus at at scholarly forums for daring to suggest that human behavior might have a genetic component. The pressure applied against Wilson at that time would certainly have led to his dismissal from Harvard had he not been protected by tenure. In fact, the same sort of leftist who flock to defend Churchill today, offered Wilson no such support. But tenure seeks only to defend scholarly, academic work - not political advocacy outside the academic's scholarly bailiwick. Churchill's pro-terrorist propaganda in a non-scholarly journal does not fall within the bounds of scholarly work, and it should not be protected by tenure.

The taxpayers of Colorado should not be forced to subsidize someone who lauds the murder of American citizens. If the left wants to understand why it has alienated itself from the American electorate - it need only look at Ward Churchill, and those who abuse the name of free speech in his name.

Update: The fact that somone pens an odious and offensive bit of drivel that prompts public controversy should not be used as an excuse by television "news" programs to invite that person on air to "respond" to their critics. People like Ward Churchill who smear rhetorical feces on the walls of public discourse desperately seeking exactly that sort of attention, rather like petulant children, should be roundly ignored. It is enough to report the controversy and cite the offensive text (if absolutely necessary). Devoting valuable air time to such sad, pathetic creatures, in a futile attempt to boost ratings by generating additional controversy, only emboldens the monster wannabes. Mr. Churchill expressed his bile with perfect clarity in his essay. He requires no further explanation - and should be given no further platforms from which to spew his propaganda.