Thursday, August 11, 2011

Book Selection: A Dozen Free Speech Items (four of which are books)

1.  A college friend of mine has a book coming out in a few weeks called The Freedom to Be Racist?: How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism about the collision between free speech and anti-hate efforts (I should note that all of the books mentioned in this entry were written or edited by associates of mine).  The fact that Erik Bleich is Canadian arguably makes him better positioned to comment on all this as a moderate of sorts. 

U.S. citizens, I think, are unaware just how rare full-fledged, First Amendment-style free speech is on this planet.  Swastikas are (understandably, perhaps) illegal in Germany (that law likely an unspoken influence, I’ll bet, on all those Hydra symbols on display in the Captain America movie where you’d have expected swastikas).  In France, it’s technically illegal to insult even foreign politicians.  And, indeed, I have at least three colleagues who’ve been threatened with prosecution in Canada for saying something deemed unacceptably anti-Muslim or otherwise un-p.c. (none of them are Jacob Levy, by the way).  Those Canadians are very mild-mannered and reasonable right up until they throw you in the hoosegow (though I like them anyway). 

Of course, with the U.S. headed the way of hate crimes prosecutions and campaign ad restrictions – not to mention the chronic failure of many people here even to notice that offensive or obscene materials are in fact legal – we may end up looking like Europe or Canada in no time.  (I had one acquaintance from the arch-conservative state of Oklahoma who was surprised to learn that insulting the elderly is legal.)

2. One thing we need free speech for is to comment on events like tonight’s latest Republican presidential candidates debate, at which I hope Ron Paul will make such timely debt-related comments that he is catapulted to first place in the polls and, like a living proton torpedo, destroys big government at the last possible moment before it annihilates global civilization, even if he is aided by a scruffy and disreputable band of mercenaries and monarchists. 

It’s sort of amusing to me that the GOP candidates field manages to be so uninspiring that in the latest Fox poll noted on RealClearPolitics, all of them except Romney and Perry manage somehow to be in the single digits (even Bachmann – and the vaunted Perry is only at 13).  I know it’s early, but that’s a lot of sucking by a lot of people, popularity-wise.  I wonder if several will drop out after the Ames straw poll this weekend or will just keep stumbling along, figuring no one’s noticed the race yet and so it’s too soon to conclude they’re failing.

As for Romney: it’s sad when a guy who’s been coasting along at about 20% for months looks like a titan.

3. Here’s a reminder why townhall-style meetings, Tea Party-style frustration, and Ayn Rand all go well together.

4. Speaking of econ, Franklin Harris linked to this reminder (from economist Steven Horwitz) that Rachel Maddow and Herbert Hoover both suck.

5. Tea Party-friendly Broadside Books takes a page from both Rand and Leonard Read with the book I, Light Bulb, a reminder that markets bring diverse people together to innovate and create – and regulation keeps impeding their progress, gradually outlawing civilization.

6. Also from Broadside, Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV by Ben Shapiro is interesting both for what it reveals about Hollywood’s past and what it says about conservatism’s present.  It’s actually fairly modest in its claims, wasting little time decrying the torrent of filth that etc. etc., but instead tracing the real history – much of it admirable – of major TV producers and writers, interviewed here and openly describing their own political motivations and achievements. 

Shapiro is young and strikes me as typical of a more-polite new generation of religious conservatives with no expectation of controlling or censoring the culture, merely a few (sort of pitying, disappointed, ironic) observations to make about where the culture’s gone awry and why they worry about raising their kids in it.  And he admits, in a way that an atheist
libertarian like me has to find at least half-encouraging, that Hollywood, for all its conscious and proud intolerance of “conservatives,” is not all that riled up about libertarians or even hawks, to my surprise.  They just can’t stand anyone who’s anti-gay, from what Shapiro says.  They pride themselves on shows that push the envelope on sexual liberation but won’t necessarily ostracize you for producing the next 24, it seems, nor for celebrating millionaires. 

On the other hand, the writers on Family Ties were continually baffled, reports Shapiro, by the fact that money-hungry yuppie Alex Keaton was the most popular character on the show, so Hollywood’s still consciously left-wing, not libertarian.  But I retain hope that Tony Stark, at least, may be the future.  It’s a start – and I say that without being wholly onboard with the hooray-for-divorce, child-abandonment-be-damned, Hugh Hefner-lifestyle program, I should add.  Like any decent cultural moderate, I dream of a world in which we have money, bikinis, and high moral standards.  Right now, I am only confident that we will at least have the bikinis. 

7. Taking free speech to the limits, anarchist comic book writer Alan Moore defends Bradley Manning, the military man who leaked info to WikiLeaks.  This is one of the rare cases in which, at the risk of looking paradoxical, I am almost content to just let the law and the leakers fight it out.  It is true that we can’t have a military that just leaks like a sieve, but as long as the government keeps secrets, we’ll need people eager to ferret them out, as surely as we need a critical press.  In the end, we’re better off in a world where transparency triumphs than in one where military control over the flow of information does.

8. “Anarchy” can take bad forms, of course, and I fear that the behavior of hooligans like those in the UK (or at just about any anti-trade protest over the past decade) may be reason enough to avoid labeling myself an “anarchist.”  The times are sufficiently urgent that I feel as if we libertarians don’t have time for coy or potentially misleading labels anymore (anarchist, conservative, liberal – all labels tied to too many disastrous outcomes at this point to risk guilt by association, though they once seemed more “legitimate” than the unpopular libertarian label).

At the risk of looking (as I sometimes do) like a closet Luddite, I said when I first heard about “flashmobs” that bad things would happen because of them.  The barbarians would never do the work necessary to invent things like cell phones and social media, but as with countless other technologies, they’re happy to use them.  The tricky part now will be convincing people like despairing conservative columnist Max Hastings that the answer is not imposing authoritarianism but simply putting an end to the “helping” that government constantly does, which makes barbarism a sustainable lifestyle.  Leave people to the mercy of the market and tradition and they’ll shape up soon enough without social engineering schemes of either a right-paternal or left-maternal nature.

One frightening sidenote in the Hastings column, though: He basically confirms my suspicion, noted two days ago, that BEARS WILL RISE, since (curiously) he likens the UK riots not to the recent Norway shootings but to the Norway polar bear attack.  There’s something odd about reaching to a specific region for a metaphor and picking that one.  It’s awkward in the same way that it would be if someone said, “I think Germany has shown us where this kind of political extremism leads – straight to Schopenhauer!”

On a more serious riot-related note, Russell Kirk, as I recall, noted the disturbing fact that something like 90% of crimes go unpunished – which means you’d better have a culture that discourages people from committing crimes using some means more persuasive than after-the-fact retaliation by cops (though you’d better keep the cops around as well).  Whether it’s Norman Mailer, hiphop, Quentin Tarantino, or flashmobs, making crime or sadism look hip is treading on very dangerous ground (indeed, I confess I am reminded that one UK friend responded to my praise of rare right-wing punks by reminding me that the UK already has some of those – and they tend to beat up immigrants). 

We must avoid reaching the point of having to keep the mob (flash or otherwise) in check with authoritarian government means – not just because it’s unseemly but because that ultimately won’t work, once the number of berserkers becomes too large.  So we’d better try very hard to make nice people instead.  As long as criminals are rare, we can handle them.

9. Likewise, for all my complaints about Facebook, here’s hoping vandals who think of themselves as anarchists of some sort are not in fact planning to mess it up.  It’s so easy to destroy things – don’t let people think they’re accomplishing something in the process (though it sounds as if vandalism was not the intention in this case).  “Burn it all down” sounds exciting for about one day.  Building takes millennia but is more noble by far.

What worries me is that at the same time that comfort makes people less radical and violent, it also creates the contrary habit of taking their comfort so much for granted that they don't realize it’s fragile.  Free-marketeers often lamented during the last century that cushy-living intellectuals think they can dispense with capitalism.  We may now have a lot of young people who think they can dispense with civilization altogether, since they kind of assume (on an emotional level) that iPods grow on trees and shall continue to do so even after they smash all the Mac stores and turn every parade into a wacky spontaneous fistfight for YouTube.  And, worse, among them there will be the occasional Hitler or bin Laden, eager to give them some direction.

10. I’m not going to link to it, but at the very same time as the UK riots, the idiots at Converse were (coincidentally) running an ad for sneakers that invited the audience to watch fictional acts of vandalism (and running away) with approval.  I heard someone hissing in the movie theatre audience where I first saw it, though I do not know whether the person objected to the ad’s anti-social message, the brand of sneakers, or perhaps the sight of what he believed were rival gang members.  If it was all three at the same time, that was an interesting individual. 

11. Matt Damon, notoriously, does not like reporters from Reason badmouthing tenure or teachers.  Matt Damon is an idiot, and he probably wouldn’t like Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book, The Faculty Lounges, about the negative effects of tenure – though there is something to be said for finally earning the freedom to say whatever you want, if you still have some breath and principles left at that point. 

12. If you have any breath or principles left, you might want to share them Monday night (Aug. 15, 7pm-on) at Langan’s, when the Manhattans Project meets one last time before being replaced in the fall by the more ambitious, culturally free-wheeling, and entertaining syzygy of political and media projects that is the Brooklyn Forum.  Talk to you soon.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was a front row witness for a part of the London riots, which I call, "the Battle of Croydon."