Saturday, February 11, 2006

Free speech as a weapon of the powerful

On June 8, 1826, a group of young men from the Tory ruling establishment, disguised as Indians (!), raided the offices of radical newspaper publisher William Lyon Mackenzie, smashed his printing press, and threw type into the bay. From the "Dictionary of Canadian Biography":

"The Tory magistrates did nothing to protect Mackenzie's property. As Jesse Ketchum, a far-sighted Reformer, remarked: 'the ministerial Party could not have done anything more against themselves.' Mackenzie, back in York, took the eight major participants to court, refusing a £200 settlement. The case was heard in October with James Edward Small, Marshall Spring Bidwell, and Alexander Stewart of Niagara acting for Mackenzie. The jury awarded compensation of £625, a sum far beyond the damage done. The settlement enabled Mackenzie to pay off his most pressing creditors and re-establish himself on a sound footing. He never ceased to refer to the trial, joining himself to such martyrs for Upper Canadian liberty as Robert Thorpe and Robert Gourlay. Yet his trial demonstrated that the Upper Canadian courts could be fair."

The reason we protect freedom of the speech is because we want to stop the establishment from smashing our printing presses. The rulers neither need, nor want, free speech (although it's probably fair to say that one of the reasons free speech is protected is that the elites regard it as advancing prosperity). Progress is made through the free discussion of all ideas, political, religious, scientific. Freedom of the speech allows new ideas, ideas held by people outside of the establishment, to be heard and thought about. Since all freedoms arose out of ideas, free speech is often regarded as the most important freedom.

Despite its importance, freedom of speech isn't absolute. We don't allow people to cry 'fire' in a crowded theater. Most advanced political systems have some laws against what is called hate speech. In the absence of such laws, hate speech often leads to violence, and has been shown capable of leading to much worse, so we make an exception to our general protection of speech.

There was much speculation with the advent of the internet that the new era of access to information would lead to some kind of progressive political nirvana. It hasn't happened. In fact, in the last ten years or so, the political situation in the West has generally become much worse. It appears that reactionary forces responded to the new threat by circling the wagons. We have seen more media concentration in the hands of the elites, and the elimination of any non-standard views from the mainstream media. The absolute consistency of the stories carried by the mainstream media should be an indication that there is something more going on than mere reporting. In fact, as we are seeing more and more often, the mainstream media is perfectly happy to outright lie in order to advance the program of their masters. They have always lied, of course, but they no longer even bother to apologize for it.

Not to get too Chomsky-esque, but the control of politics in modern democracies depends on the artful manipulation of popular opinion through a combination of lies and, more importantly, selective reporting. The establishment has found that shunning ideas that don't advance their agenda is much more effective than lies. If you want to do some geopolitics in the Middle East, and some Muslims may die as a result, the effective way to deal with the problem is to constantly show video of Muslim rioters, and constantly discuss Muslim terrorism. Focus on the reaction to the oppression rather than the oppression itself. The lives of the vast, vast majority of peaceful Muslims is never discussed, because it is not 'news'. Without even working particularly hard at it, the mainstream media has managed to be an effective apologist for any and all atrocities committed by the West against Muslims. All of this manipulation is done under the banner of freedom of speech.

The Danish cartoon controversy is complicated by the fact that the history of European free speech is closely tied to free speech concerning religion. The early history of European free speech is often a history of blasphemy, for the simple reason that many of the main power relationships under attack by the radical thinkers ran through the establishment Church. If a Catholic painter in a country whose political establishment is all or partly Catholic paints a painting insulting to the Virgin Mary, that may very well be political speech which should be protected. That is why we have to be very careful of right-wing calls for new laws against blasphemy, which are of course just a method to protect Christianity from political attacks. In other words, calls for new laws against blasphemy are just another attempt to protect the usual power relations.

If the Danish cartoons were originally solicited and published in Egypt, some of them might have been political speech. In Denmark, where the Muslim community is relatively small and without a shred of political power, they are just a further example of manipulation of the concept of freedom of speech to benefit the existing power elites. They can't even be called satire, as satire only applies if you make fun of the powerful. Making fun of the weak is just bullying. When the thugs damaged the printing press of William Lyon Mackenzie, they were trying to stop his anti-establishment speech. When the cartoons were published by the political elites in Denmark, they were just an insulting provocation intended to advance an anti-immigration position in Denmark, and an anti-Muslim position in the Middle East. Freedom of speech was not used to advance any real debate, but to lead to an angry reaction which would reinforce the caricature of Muslims being drawn in the mainstream media.

When the New York Times wanted to attempt to salvage its reputation by publishing the story on NSA snooping, it went to the criminals responsible, the Bush Administration, and negotiated its 'free speech'. What does free speech have to do with the mainstream media? Free speech is simply being used as a weapon to advance a much larger policy towards Muslims around the world. Sometimes the establishment uses bombs, sometimes it uses free speech. The key to understanding this issue lies in considering the relative power between the people doing the attacking, and the people being attacked. It also helps to consider the context of the universal media information war being conducted against Muslims, particularly in the context of the real attacks being made against Muslims in Europe and the Middle East. While we should be very careful to protect as wide a range of speech as possible, as it is never really possible to determine what the ideas of the future will look like, this issue, considered in its context, isn't difficult (minor corrections thanks to commentator ECMpuke).