Thursday, June 18, 2009

Freedom Isn't Free

Goethe's reflections on the Middle East, in the "Noten und Abhandlungen," concern the "conditioning factors" for cultural and historical phenomena. In this focus Goethe tends toward Herder and away from the universalist view of mankind to be found in the works of the radical philosophes of the 18th century. The achievements of the human race do not spring complete from the minds of smart people; they are instead the results of the labor of generations.

This generational achievement was on my mind as I wrote the introduction to the volume on the history of the freedom of speech in the 18th century. Freedom of speech in the West, especially in the U.S., is facing some major challenges. The most visible challenge came in 2005 and 2006, in response to the publication of the so-called Mohammed cartoons in a Danish newspaper. "European" history (as distinct from the individual national histories) might be said to have been founded on the right of individuals to criticize authority, be it religious, civil, or even artistic. When Muslims instead demanded respect for their holy figure, the legitimacy of one of Europe's most ancient privileges -- the right of artists to caricature a sacred cow -- was under attack.

At the time of the controversy proponents of freedom of speech would revert to J.S. Mill's instrumental view, that tolerance of different views would lead to "truth," but this was countered by the relativists among us with the insistence on "competing truths." Likewise, to express a concern for "universal rights" invited the charge of being an "Enlightenment fundamentalist."

Thus, my approach in the free speech volume (tentatively entitled "Free Speech versus Well-Meant Speech") has been to cede the ground to multiculturalists. In a world of multiculturalism, our current liberal freedoms are the product of a distinctive culture, namely, "the West." While these freedoms and rights have been incorporated in law and in international declaration, in truth, even if the matter were not complicated by the different institutional histories of the nations of the West, one could not speak of "universal" rights. They are our rights, and we worked hard to achieve them.

That being said, I do believe that people desire in their heart of hearts to be free. For non-Western nations, however, the problem is the lack of institutional history. The institutions we have here, protecting life, liberty, property, and so on, were not created overnight. Voting is only one step; the freedoms themselves have to be fought for. Men and women in Iran are putting their lives on the line not just for a vision but for a reality. Clearly the woman at the top of this post has a vision of Iranian society that is different from that of the women in hijab waiting their turn to vote. Those differences have to be negotiated, and it will take time to do so. As we have learned, the Western "cultural product" cannot simply be imported beyond its natural constituency. There will be setbacks, as the Chinese learned 20 years ago at Tiananmen Square.

It is not our battle, but at the same time we need to voice our support for the protests in Iran and also to keep alive the memory of Tiananmen. The road is clear, but traveling it will not be easy.

Picture credit: The Big Picture

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