Sunday, June 27, 2010

Freedom of Speech and Prosperity

In writing the conclusion to the volume on the history of freedom of speech in the West I am trying to articulate an idea that is counter-intuitive to many 18th-century scholars. There is a tendency to view the Enlightenment as an age when men suddenly "saw the light" and threw off the shackles of past authority, especially as authority was constituted by church and state, and demanded self-governance, including such rights as that of freedom of speech. In my view, however (and this is also implicit in my work on Goethe and world literature), it was the spread of prosperity in the West, beginning in about 1500, that gradually led to the transformation of institutions and the legalization of rights. People started to have enough money to feed themselves and a roof over their heads; in the process, they felt better about themselves and demanded that they be treated differently. In other words, first prosperity, then democratic rights.

We all want to be prosperous, but prosperity itself has a bad name lately, as witnessed at the demonstrations and protests at the G20 summit in Toronto. Protests at the meetings of these forums addressing the world financial system have become ritualistic. The motives of the groups are too numerous to be able to file under a single label, but all seem to be united in anger about the conditions of the world. And they are mad at the political leaders for not doing something about these conditions -- as if leaders as diverse as the king of Saudi Arabia, the president of the United States, and the chancellor of Germany had some kind of magic wand they could wave.

As I have been reading there is something economists call absolute poverty, which contrasts with relative poverty. The first was the rule for the majority of mankind throughout history. As Thomas Hobbes famously described it: "the life of man, solitary, nasty, brutish and short." Things began to change in the West in about the above-mentioned 1500, first in Holland, then in England, where the combination of property rights protection and open intellectual inquiry began to transform the nature of material life. The scientific revolution of the 17th century opened the way for inventions and technological innovation. With the harnessing of steam power and the invention of the telegraph, the Western world was on a path of economic progress from which it has not retreated. The result has been the reduction of absolute poverty, certainly in the West but also in most of the developing world, where people live much better lives than did Europeans in the year 1400.

Nevertheless, relative poverty still exists. The term "relative" is particularly appropriate for the modern age. After all, our prosperity rests on the production of goods, indeed the constant proliferation of goods, the rejection of the goods we loved only yesterday in favor of ones that we want today. It is not surprising that the concept of the "Good" has been relativized. So it is that the poor of the Third World are only "relatively poor"! By all objective measures, they are better off that their ancestors only a generation ago, but "objectivity" has also become a suspicious term.

What I find interesting is the degree of romanticizing of the poor of the world, as if capitalism had brutalized what would otherwise be an idyllic way of life. This began of course in the Romantic period, and the notion would grow throughout the 19th century. Here is Friedrich Engels describing the condition of the working class in England in 1844:

So the workers vegetated throughout a passably comfortable existence, leading a righteous and peaceful life in all piety and probity; and their material position was far better than that of their successors. They did not need to overwork; they did no more than they chose to do, and yet earned what they needed. They had leisure for healthful work in garden or field, work which , in itself, was recreation for them, and they could take part besides in the recreations and games of their neighbors, and all these games -- bowling, cricket, football, etc., contributed to their physical health and vigor. They were for the most part strong, well-built people, in whose physique little or no difference from that of their peasant neighbors was discoverable.

Historical evidence (not to mention the testimony of Thomas Hobbes, much closer to the conditions of the ordinary Englishman in the 17th century than was Engels) does not jibe with this idyllic picture. Examination of bodily remains from earlier centuries shows that people died early from their labors and that their bodies were shrunken. There is something about the capitalist process itself, however, that makes us forget the past. Again, this forgetting corresponds to the market demand that we abandon tomorrow what we loved only yesterday. If we do not want to lose our rights, including that of freedom of speech, we need to remember that it is a right that has been historically achieved. It represents the legacy of preceding generations, and like all cultural legacies needs to be cultivated.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Freedom of Speech

Caroline Fourest (pictured below) is a French feminist and journalist, who calls herself an "anti-racist." She has clashed publicly with Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim intellectual who has advocated integration of Muslims into European society. Fourest, however, accuses him of "double discourse," meaning that he says one thing before a secular French public and another before Muslims in a restricted forum. She objects, among other things, to his advocacy of separate swimming facilities for men and women. According to the lecture "The Muslim Women" by Ramadan, girls should not risk revealing their bodies to men, which would thus prohibit women from the freedom of participating in sports.

Such a small concession might not seem to foretell the end of Western freedoms, but it is one of those things that, for Fourest, represent the opening wedge to more radical demands for inclusion of Muslim law within French secular society. In her most recent book, The Last Utopia: Threats Against Universalism, she writes that the "perspective of a world in which all human beings are free and equal, without difference," is coming to an end. She blames this demise on the "philosophical and political formulation" underlying multiculturalism, which she considers a new form of racism. As she writes: "History has proven sufficiently that 'difference-ism' -- the doctrine that regards the Other as so different that he must be treated differently and by different criteria -- unavoidably leads to inequality." In the name of "toleration," the West puts up with behavior that goes against its "fundamental values."

"Never before," she writes, "did the republican French model, whose origin is the Revolution, stand before such a dissolution. More an more intellectuals want to acclimatize multiculturalism and 'open up' laicism." Thus, the French law banning religious symbols (including female head covering) in public schools is criticized as "intolerant" of difference.

Fourest was a journalist working for Charlie Hebdo, a left-wing satirical weekly, at the time of the Mohammed cartoons controversy. It published the twelve offending Danish cartoons and added a few more of is own, for which it was condemned by French president Jacques Chirac for "inflaming passions." Chirac went on to say: "Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided."

Obviously France is not the U.S.A., but it is worth noting that no major U.S. paper published the cartoons either.

Charlie Hebdo was sued by French Islamic organizations in 2007, who claimed that the cartoons linked terrorism and Islam. At the time, Charlie Hebdo's publisher made Fourest's point: "It's racist to imagine that they [Muslims] can't take a joke." The publisher was acquitted.

I am on the side of Fourest and Charlie Hebdo, but I would add a distinction -- and this is the subject of the book I am editing, on the historical origins of the right of freedom of speech. Fourest argues on the basis of what she calls "universalism." Universalism is an idea, certainly a noble one, but Fourest and most intellectuals who advocate it ignore the tremendous historical work that has made this idea second nature to us in the West. It is very much a Western "cultural product," the result of generations of our forefathers fighting for liberty and the rights of individuals. God may have wanted us to be free, but freedom is something people have to fight for, indeed in every generation. The protesters in Iran are learning this. Universal declarations, such as the 1948 U.N. Resolution on Human Rights, are not worth the piece of paper they are printed on. Third World dictators have been able to use that document for their own non-rights purposes.

The problem with the universal values of equality that Fourest advocates, based on the abstract notion that people are "equal," is that Islam is also a universalist system: everyone should be a Muslim. Moreover, Islam has a rather long historical tradition to which it appeals in advocating its universalism. It spread rapidly in its early decades by forcing everyone to convert, and this success has given its leading adherents a triumphalist mentality. Indeed, as V.S. Naipaul has written, in the non-Arabic Muslim countries (Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia) there has been a continuing attempt to eradicate vestiges of the pre-Muslim societies. In other words, "history" for Iran begins with Islam, not with the Persian dynasty. Talk about universalism.

It would no doubt sound ethnocentric to an intellectual like Fourest to claim that the secular values of France are "French" values that, having been historically achieved, are worth preserving. Such a defense, however, is as reasonable as a defense by non-Frenchmen in France of values that are the products of their own historical, national, or religious traditions. The question would then come down to: which values should reign in France? French values or the values of immigrants? Unfortunately, multiculturalism has become such a powerful ideology that most intellectuals are afraid to buck it.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Prehistory of Freedom of Speech

There is a part of human existence that necessarily remains individual and independent, and by right beyond all political jurisdiction. Sovereignty exists only in a limited and relative way.

This quote from the writings of Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) has been on my mind the past few days. I have been diverted from my work on 18th-century aesthetics to tackle another 18th-century issue, namely, the historical background that gave rise to the legalization of freedom of speech in the West. A few years back, at the time of the controversy concerning the Mohammed caricatures, I sponsored a series of talks in connection with the Columbia University Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture. It struck me at that time -- this was back in 2006 -- that people in the West who spoke in terms of the "universal" right of freedom of speech were constantly being battered by the multiculturalists in the name of relative values. Clearly, for its defenders freedom of speech had become "naturalized," become such a part of their self-understanding, regarded as inalienable, along with other democratic rights, that they were at a loss when confronted with the contention that Islam had an equal right not to be discussed, much less insulted, even in the heart of Europe itself.

What seemed required -- since even legal scholars, including First Amendment specialists were ignoring it -- was a renewed understanding of the historical background that preceded the institutionalization of the right of freedom of speech. In other words, the right emerged from specific historical, national, and even traditional sources, and it was the purpose of the talks I sponsored to portray the 18th-century discussion in various lands of Europe.

These papers will now be published in a volume that I have edited and for which I also wrote the introduction. One reason Benjamin Constant is on my mind (and what is currently diverting me from 18th-century aesthetics) is that I also have to write a conclusion to the volume, in which I try to bring together the historical portion with what is going on in the world today. The issue remains not whether rights, like that of freedom of speech, are "universal." The explicit attitude of the volume is that civil rights are a specific cultural product, namely, that of western Europe and its offshoots, and that the idea of human rights became "universalized" because of the great reach of Europe since the 18th century. In a sense I accept the argument of the multiculturalists. The question I pose in the conclusion, however, is whether this "cultural product" can grow in other soils and climates.

For, you see, I really do think the Western "cultural product" is a superior one, based on the very simple observation that people across the world would like to have our freedoms and rights. Multiculturalists play into the hands of the dictators of the world. Thus, my quote from Constant at the top of the post. (The portrait of him here is from the period when he was squiring Madame de Staël around Europe, including to Weimar, where he met with Goethe.) While Constant's arguments for freedom of speech largely advanced Enlightenment arguments for this freedom -- instruction, progress, transparency of government -- his distinctive contribution to political thought lay in the connection he posited between freedom of the press and opinion and the protection of individuals from the overreach of government. He crucially argued -- unlike most of the philosophes -- that it was not the role of government to regulate morals or to mold public virtue through education or to "improve" or "enlighten" citizens. Constant's major writings appeared after our Founding documents were written, but clearly they had the same opinion. And thus, the Bill of Rights was written in order to protect citizens from the power of government.

There remains a big difference between the Right and the Left on this issue. The Left, of course, is in favor of the rights of individuals, but it believes the government has an important role in securing these rights. The Right, reflecting the historical origins of our freedoms, understands that rights that are given by the government can also be taken away by the government. In other words, the desire for freedom may be a universal one, as it were planted in the hearts of humans, but the legal right is something that has to be fought for by citizens and vigilantly maintained. More to come, especially on the differences between the contemporary Right and the Left.

Picture credits: Caroline Fourest (May 25, 2010); Civitas 99;

Sunday, June 6, 2010