Saturday, September 4, 2010

Freedom of Speech

Well, I am back to the free speech volume, officially entitled "Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea," writing the conclusion. If anyone has bothered to read long-ago posts, you will know that the volume was inspired by the Mohammed cartoons controversy several years ago. At that time, as chair of the Seminar on 18th-Century European Culture at Columbia, I organized a series of talks on the historical origins of free speech, since it struck me that no one was defending this freedom on what seemed to me a self-evident basis: namely, because it is OUR freedom. It's like defending your children, no matter how bad they are. Haven't we all seen a TV news reports of some horrible crime by a hoodlum, and the mother, trotted out for the camera, swears up and down that he is a good boy who could not have done what he is accused of? If only our university professors would defend Western "values" with such vigor. Against all the postmodernists who say that all cultures are equivalent, I counter: "Maybe, but this is the culture that I live in. If it's between me and them, then I want us to win." What also struck me at the time of the cartoons controversy was that postmodernists had such an easy time poking holes in the argument that rights were "universal."

In a sense I would say they are universal, applicable to all peoples at all times, since I believe that most people would prefer to have rights. Look at the Iranian protesters. As they have discovered, however, and despite all the U.N. proclamations, rights don't grow on trees. The rights we enjoy in the West have been historically achieved. But we have forgotten that centuries-long process and succumbed to the belief that there is something inevitable about rights. Thus the series I organized, and the book to be published, which contains essays by different scholars on aspects of the debates concerning speech in the 18th century.

It may be that all great civilizations imagine that their values are universal. Certainly Islam does. So, too, do the Chinese. But both of those civilizations have histories that they draw on to sustain their challenge to universality. Only in the West do we imagine that our history is evil, for instance, the Crusades: I mean, weren't Europeans only trying to reclaim a part of the world that had been Christian until the Muslim armies conquered it? Instead, we like to imagine that there are abstract universal truths. No doubt this belief has much to do with the fact that the scientific revolution began in the West, and science is ahistorical.

But there are precedents in the West itself for a belief in universal values. One element was the Roman empire, which at its height ruled a vast multi-cultured realm on which it stamped the name of Rome. Though Rome was generally content to leave its subjects to their own gods, provided they paid their taxes, there were rewards to Roman citizenship for its far-flung citizens. Certainly the elite classes of the empire, especially those in its outposts, were drawn to Rome's universality. The other element was Christianity. Though few Christian thinkers entertained the notion that men's earthly conditions could be made equal, all men were regarded as equal in the eyes of the Creator. In addition, Rome itself, whether the center of imperial or Christian power, was dependent for its administration and culture on a class of men who saw themselves as inheritors of a unified intellectual and spiritual legacy.

One should not underestimate the impress of this universalist vision on the intellectual life of early modern Europe, especially on the radical philosophes who were products of the institutions created by the earlier empire. As with the ancients, these men were cosmopolitans, "citizens of the world." Thus, their defense of freedom of speech did not appeal to facts on the ground, namely, native traditions or native history. Instead, they rejected this legacy and projected their universalist vision onto the future. For these modern cosmopolitans, history and tradition were reservoirs of bad practices that had to be overcome in the name of progress.

If we are to defend our rights against those who would impose other systems (communism; sharia), it's time to turn away from Kant and return to Herder, to history and culture.

Picture credit: Liberating Wings

5 comments:

Rebellon said...

Dear Goethe Girl,

I appreciate your line of thinking overall. However, I would suggest that the West is in such a dire position now when talking about rights because of the more recent 500 years of conquest and colonialism that brought, among other things, destruction and misery to many civilizations and peoples.

Zentrist said...

Very interesting and inspiring. Just this morning I returned to the young Nietzsche's "The Birth of Tragedy." He decries the abstractions of his age, a time of "critical scholarship" as opposed to authentic enjoyment of life. You can already see in this book some of the soon-to-come, "On the Uses and Abuses of History." You can see what Heidegger appropriated as his own, "myth" or authentic art (coming from the roots, not from abstractions) over against what Nietzsche in 1871 is calling "Socratism," meaning what Glenn Beck and others (Pat Buchanan, e.g.) denounce as an inauthentic pluralism, multiculturalism and "political correctness." Nietzsche speaks of an abstractness of law, of education, of morality and of state, "nourishing itself wretchedly on all other cultures." This is the result of that "Socratism which is bent on the destruction of myth." The "most vigorous and wholesome nourishment is changed into 'history and criticism.'" So we need to add, sadly, history, to his list of abstractions--to bring him up to date. Thus, in our time, the kids are indoctrinated about the Native American contributions to our Constitution, perhaps at the expense of the 1643 New England Confederation, among other driving factors (I am fresh from a C-SPAN 3 interview with the Pulitzer historian, Gordon S. Wood). In the margin next to "wholesome nourishment" I wrote, thinking of Nietzsche and HIS interests: Thucydides, Heraclitus, Homer and Aeschylus. Two Americans Nietzsche loved or at least appreciated were Emerson and Twain. Needless to say, though, Leo Strauss's huge influence on the liberal arts in at least some of our universities owes much to Nietzsche, who mocked the "sage of Konigsberg" for his universalistic, abstract, "Socratic" IDEALISM. Those of us who lean towards Edmund Burke in certain ways are apparently influenced by Herder's authentic historical sense. Those of us who've not read Herder are perhaps inhaling him (and Goethe) through Nietzsche.

Goethe Girl said...

Rebellon is correct that conquest and colonialism have brought misery and destruction, but the West did not initiate conquest or colonialism. Read the Bible! My point was that only the West feels guilty about its past. Thus, Western intellectuals have posited a vision of universal values that all people share and that has nothing to do with history or past authority. It is a new start, a utopian vision. It is another reason that scholars wish to kick "patriarchy" off the stage of history. Patriarchy represents the past, the source of all evil; the future, it is asserted, will be pure and unblemished.

As usual, Zentrist inspires me with his "dialogue."

Zentrist said...

I enjoyed the poem by Mary Oliver, "Why I Awake Early." This I found while following up on the link to the incredible picture of the fall with the two birds on the lake. A stunning, inviting photo. All the photos are so fitting and enhancing.

Rebellon said...

No need to read the Bible (I did, at least the Torah) to know that conquest and colonialism has been a fact of life. That is why I used the words 'now' and 'more recent'. In regard to 'universal values that... has nothing to do with the past or past authority', well, I would guess you are talking about 1700' philosophy - since religion, and in particular Christianity, does promote universal values but certainly based on the past. However, the belief that we can establish values abstracting from the contingent - and hence the past that is embodied in the contingent - has been largely discredited.
About only the West feeling guilty about the past, I would advise the recent survey on guilt by Katchadourian (published by Stanford) to see how guilt is a universal phenomenon.
In any case, I believe the West to be an amazing civilization, with no reason to be or feel guilty towards other civilizations - except for specific events at specific times. And that is why I appreciated you post.