Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Who's defending Western civilization?

Once upon a time the writer S.G. Tallentyre (Evelyn Beatrice Hall) summed up a portion of the philosophy of Voltaire with the phrase, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Many people directly attribute the phrase to Voltaire, which is a compliment to both.

The phrase sums up the ideal of a free society: freedom of expression, whether it is the printed word, the broadcast opinion, the debate in the town square, or any other communication, cannot be defined by the least common denominator of whose feelings are hurt. In practice western society found it necessary to have certain limits: you cannot lawfully shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. You cannot spread false and malicious stories about your enemies without the risk of slander and libel actions against you. Beyond that, however, it was thought that the free exchange of opinions on political, social and theological matters would serve the greater good by allowing individuals to weigh what they hear and read against standards of truth. Truth, it was held, would prevail eventually.

But the ideal of free expression has taken a beating in recent years. Political speech is being truncated by new laws restricting campaign finances, with some odd interpretations arising as to what is and is not permitted. Even a conversation between consenting adults held in public is a potentially actionable moment if one or both of the parties should say something that has been loosely defined as "hate speech." Between lawmakers who under-appreciate our heritage of free expression and jurists who over-value the "rights" of special interest groups, there is a much narrower definition of what constitutes free speech today. And don't even get us started discussing how those with deep pockets and litigious lawyers can put the chill on free speech simply by filing lawsuits against those with lesser means of defending themselves.

Put simply, Western civilization - the United States, Europe, Canada - has done a pretty good job of denying its classic virtues in a post-modern attempt to guarantee that nobody gets their nose bent out of shape. A muzzle on expression, it is thought, is preferable if it promotes peace and harmony. Conflict is to be avoided, whatever the cost.

Now the West is faced with a renewed threat from the lands of the Prophet Mohammed. Fundamentalist Muslims, millions of whom live in Europe and North America, are demanding that those who who defame Islam or the Prophet be punished and silenced. Some are demanding that new laws be enacted that would give Muslims the right to decide in countries like Denmark what is and is not protected speech. The alternative, they threaten, is violence.

The West, addicted to Mideastern oil largely controlled by Muslims and fearful of upsetting the economic apple cart, does not seem to know quite how to respond. "Are we not tolerant?" we ask ourselves. "Are we not sensitive to all persons regardless of race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religious preference? Have we not developed model laws that provide the best guarantee that we can all just get along?"

Even as we ask we miss the obvious for the West does not understand and perhaps is no longer capable of understanding that Islam is not asking for greater toleration on our part. Fundamentalist Muslims have no use for toleration except insofar as they are not banned from immigrating to western countries and setting up the infrastructure of the expansion of their faith. No, what fundamentalist Islam demands is total respect for itself, at all costs, and Islam is not tolerant of all persons regardless of the aforementioned race, creed, color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, and especially religious preference.

This is why Muslims eventually demand, as they have in parts of Europe and Canada, to set up their own parallel court systems based wholly or in great part on the concept of Shari'a. In classical Western thought, this is simply unacceptable. In post-modern "can't we all just get along" relativist thought, it is a potential solution. Of course, it will be a short-term solution for such actions divide a nation into competing sub-groups and confrontations are inevitable.

The "Cartoon Crisis" we have discussed in earlier posts that is dominated world headlines is a flashpoint that confronts the West with its own existential contradictions. We are being forced to look at our standards of laws and conduct and ask the overriding question: Are they worth defending?

Do our leaders understanding this? We're not sure. This morning's news includes that President Bush is appealing for an end to the violence, but then he says:
"We believe in a free press, and also recognize that with freedom comes responsibilities. With freedom comes the responsibility to be thoughtful about others."
We read this and we shuddered. The president in effect is saying, sure, we believe in a free press, but some of you are being irresponsible and getting us into a big mess. He is triangulating his message to massage both Muslims and media. Does he realize how terribly weak this sounds to one whose mindset is schooled in the absolutes of a faith that has no compunction about evangelization by sword?

How much better would truth and freedom be served if President Bush had said, "There is an old principle of western thought that says I might disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. I personally am sorry that a few cartoonists have chosen to run work that offends you. I would hope you would realize that in the West we have a long tradition of agreeing to disagree. We believe that a free and unfettered exchange of ideas, in the long run, is better for civilization by promoting discussion and counter-discussion, which leads to understanding and, if not agreement, at least tolerance."

And continuing, we wish the president would have said, "You are offended, and I understand that. You are angry, and I understand that too. You have the right to voice your anger, and a right to explain why you are offended. But you do not have a right to destroy property, riot and injure or kill others.

"And should you attempt to harm American citizens, whether at home or abroad, I shall be forced to defend, to the death if necessary, the right of those Danish cartoonists to be offensive, however distasteful I might personally find their work."

But alas this is not what the president said this morning, and we doubt very much that it will be forthcoming soon. Freedom, sadly, really isn't free. Each new generation has to discover for itself the value of freedom and make the decision to recommitment to it. Sooner or later those of us in the West are going to have to assess whether we value what's left of Western civilization enough to defend it.


At 1:24 PM, Blogger Timothy said...

Sorry, but you're grossly misinformed about Muslim arbitration in Canada. You simply cannot go about seeing what you want to see in cultural debates and fitting them to your purposes.

The Muslim arbitration debate in Canada centered around the very limited use of Shari'a principles in specified family law settings. Such arbitration has long existed in Canada and exists today in the United States, not just for Muslims, but also for Jews and Catholics.

Arbitration is strictly regulated by the same constraints of conscionability that regulate any contract agreement. In order for the result of an arbitration to be valid it must follow the conscionability constraints. For example, if you want to sell me your car for $5.00 then courts will respect that decision subject to certain limitations.

The shameful fact is that no one in Canada cared about the use of arbitration until Muslims started to use it. And when they did complain, as I see you are, they had no idea about what the actual results in Muslim arbitration were like. Further, they had no concept of the importance of family law to Muslim identity or the insecurity of Muslim identity in an ostensibly open and "tolerant" but actually overtly Christian.

Once people are here and have legal status as citizens it is improper to continue using an "us/them" dialog. There is only "we" and "you and I".

At 1:26 PM, Blogger Timothy said...

That next to last paragraph should end "...overtly Christian culture."


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