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Murder of Journalist Reflects Global Assault on Free Speech

The cold-blooded murder of crusading Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh [1] has got me brooding about history, and modern philosophy’s greatest analyst of history, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Lankesh’s murder was horrifying, but not very surprising. She was an outspoken critic of the right-wing populist Bharatiya Janata Party [2] (BJP) that currently dominates Indian politics, and defended the insurgent left-wing Naxalite movement [3]. She was also a fierce advocate for Dalit rights, and for other disadvantaged groups in Indian society. She had plenty of enemies, particularly among supporters of the ruling regime.

Moreover, India has a history of political violence, with some of its most famous [4] and influential [5] leaders dying at the hands of assassins. And Lankesh’s killing echoes recent murders of prominent Indian rationalists Malleshappa Kalburgi [6] and Narendra Dabholkar [7], who offended traditional sensibilities. In a country so large, and with so many axes of conflict, it is hardly surprising that a prominent and controversial journalist like Lankesh fell into the crosshairs.

Finally, the murder occurs at a time when liberalism—which makes freedom of speech and press a paramount value—is in retreat globally. Right-wing populists from Vladimir Putin [8] to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan [9] vigorously suppress or control the media, and see their popularity grow rather than shrink, while the American President’s attacks on our own country’s press draw alarmed condemnation internationally [10], but only feed his partisans’ growing conviction [11] that the national press is a threat to American greatness rather than a central pillar thereof.

But in another sense, that international context is precisely the puzzle that requires explanation. Why should right-wing populism and hostility to a free press be burgeoning, and liberalism be in retreat, all across the globe? What could account for that synchronization?

Ask why India should be ruled by a right-wing populist party in the first place, and you will get a variety of answers. The Congress Party ruled for so many years after independence that it became corrupt, and overly identified with a single ruling family, and an Anglophone elite, leaving an opening for another party to take its place. Hindu nationalism provided a basis for unity across class lines [12], while also mobilizing the dominant religious group against a poorer minority tainted by association with a hostile foreign power. And a pro-business orientation enabled the party to deliver relatively rapid economic growth facilitated by globalization and a decline in energy prices. A variety of contingent factors worked together to make the BJP India’s dominant party.

How similar are those factors to the drivers of right-wing populism elsewhere, however? In Europe and America, the rise of right-wing populism has been fueled not by a rising traditional middle class, but by economic stagnation in the heartland, and a squeezing of the middle class generally as well as by rapid demographic change wrought by mass immigration combined with low birthrates among the native born, neither of which are predominant factors in India. Russia’s right-wing populism was a response to abrupt and precipitous decline in the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to a certain extent has involved the rehabilitation of the former Communist elite. And in China, which has cracked down harder on free speech than at any time since the 1970s [13], the turn toward nationalism was engineered by the regime as a way to shore up support for a party that has ruled uninterrupted since 1949, accompanied by a campaign against corruption facilitated by that party’s own elites.

Restrictive attitudes toward speech, meanwhile, are increasingly popular not only among rural traditionalists, but also in precisely the precincts where one would otherwise expect liberalism to be predominant. It’s not just “coddled” American college students who seemingly can’t abide hearing anything critical. Neither can the driven Chinese college students [14] supposedly eating those American students’ lunches. The more one looks at how global politics is evolving [15], the more it seems like illiberalism and populist nationalism are the hammer being applied to a diverse array of nails. It’s almost like there’s something in the air.

Which is why I’m brooding on Hegel.

To vastly oversimplify one of the titans of modern philosophy, Hegel saw history as the unfolding of an idea through the process of dialectic. In effect, history can be read like an argument. At a particular point in time, a society’s ethos expresses its idea of the good through the structure of social relations in that society, but this idea in effect calls forth its own antithesis, a contrary idea. It is the conflict between that produces a synthesis that moves society forward to the next stage of political development.

For Hegel, “forward” meant towards a more mature conception of freedom. So while his understanding of history’s structure was far more nuanced than the “Whiggish” tales of ever-increasing enlightenment, it remained fundamentally progressive. And operating within that framework, an idea antithetical to the fundamental conception of a civilization that gains traction because of the inevitably flawed and incomplete nature of that own society’s ethos cannot simply be rejected, but must ultimately be transcended through synthesis, and the working out of a new idea through a new social structure.

Illiberalism and right-wing populism feel an awful lot like such an antithesis today, conjured up in response to the liberal triumph of 1989-1991 and the era of globalization that followed. As that idea was a global one, so its anthesis has emerged globally, in societies with wildly differing cultures, social structures, and levels of economic and political development. Liberals from Tempe [16] to Tamil Nadu [17] are rightly frightened of the possibility that the forces of darkness have gained the upper hand in much of the world, and that precisely their illiberalism, and the popularization of hostility to the press, makes it that much easier for them to keep power however poorly they exercise it.

If history is an argument as Hegel saw it, though, then that antithesis cannot simply be defeated. It must be transcended by a new ethos and a new social structure expressing that ethos that obviates the previous conflict, and births a new era with a more mature conception of freedom.

It sometimes feels like the liberal spirit is fighting for its very life, and that more and more liberal heroes like Lankesh are losing their lives in that very fight. Can anyone in that position dream of transcendence? The good news, if Hegel’s understanding of history is right, is that she can; the bad news is that she must.

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Murder of Journalist Reflects Global Assault on Free Speech"

#1 Comment By Jai Hind … On September 12, 2017 @ 12:03 am

I’m very glad that TAC is highlighting this very disturbing story. Thanks, Mr. Millman.

#2 Comment By Rosita On September 12, 2017 @ 7:50 am

Excellent

#3 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On September 12, 2017 @ 8:34 am

If you want to understand why so many of us are fed up with the liberals and journalists in India, consider this.

In 1990, some 200,000-300,000 Hindus and Sikhs were ethnically cleansed from the Indian part of Kashmir by Muslims after the usual Islamist campaign of threats, murders, and rapes. Mosques took up the chant of “Raliv, ghaliv, chaliv”, which means “Convert to Islam, flee or death”.

It is important to recognize that Hindus are not immigrants to Kashmir – long before there was an Islam, our people lived there. Today, Kashmir Valley is 99% Muslim and all signs of Hindu presence there are slowly being eradicated. Yet our “human rights activists,” media critters, journalists and other lumpen leftists cannot be bothered to even mention the fate of the Hindus of Kashmir.

Today however they are all bent out of shape about the Rohingya, which is a matter between Myanmar and Bangladesh. India has no connection to those people, yet because they are Muslims, our media critters demand that they be let into India!

You see the same thing in the US and Europe – the media hates their own countries and culture, loves Islam and Muslims, signs on to the entire LGBTQQWERTY agenda, etc.

What is happening all over the world is that ordinary people are finally getting fed up with the harm these leftists are doing to their lives and have turned away. No need to shoot journalists – just ignore the bad ones.

#4 Comment By KXB On September 12, 2017 @ 9:58 am

Janwaar Bibi repeats the same tired tropes. It was not “ordinary people” who murdered Gauri Lankesh, but more likely people associated with those in power. Ordinary Indians mostly express their numerous prejudices over a cup of tea, but leave the violence to professionals.

For all the understandable concern over the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, Hindus in other parts of India are not exactly welcoming them. The common attitude of, “I got mine, screw you.” is exhibited to Pandits as it it to lower caste Hindus who dare to draw water out of the same well.

If Indian Muslims were to simply disappear, the Hindu right would just turn its sights on the next “foreign” influence – Christianity, the English language, the idea of individualism. Like its counterparts on the extreme left (Naxalites), they are less interested in the hard, boring work of implement actual policies that improve lives, than they are in winning elections by any means necessary.

#5 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On September 12, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

It was not “ordinary people” who murdered Gauri Lankesh

I never said ordinary people murdered Lankesh. Good strawman though.

The common attitude of, “I got mine, screw you.” is exhibited to Pandits as it it to lower caste Hindus who dare to draw water out of the same well.

Even if one accepts this (and I don’t), how does it explain why the Indian media has been silent on the complete ethnic cleansing of Hindus from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kashmir, but gets bent out of shape over the treatment of Rohingya in Myanmar?

Meanwhile in Pakistan, Christians are being imprisoned and killed for “drawing water from wells.”

[18]

[19]

But let’s not mention that – or if we do, we must declaim “They are not *all* like that.”

#6 Comment By Ram On September 12, 2017 @ 12:51 pm

She was murdered by the Leftist Naxals who want to continue to dominate India’s poor and left wing communism. And not the Hindu majority ruling party. The ruling party has everything going for it and there would be no point killing an unknown useless journalist.

This particular journalist was a non issue. She was not even known by the English media forget about the Hindi ones etc for whom she never wrote.

This over educated writer of this article just barfed up whatever few Philosophy classes he understood in his undergrad based on a set narrative that hey journalist killed!! YaY opportunity to vomit our narrative. It must be the Hindu majority ruling party. Let’s just assume this was some famous popular journalist who was against them and let’s just assume they killed her. And then use our newly acquired understanding of useless philosophies (which actually you understand very poorly) let’s make our set narrative sound Oh so intellectual.

If Bannon and Tr ump don’t save you, your civilization is toast. Because of fools like you and your lying propagandist habits. There will be payback darling for being a lying civilization trying to fool your own people to think and do like you want them.

#7 Comment By Fabian On September 12, 2017 @ 12:56 pm

Liberalism (a disease) had almost 30 years to build and convince: the liberal triumph of 1989-1991. It failed to. Now, we want them to shut up because we must try something else.

#8 Comment By KXB On September 12, 2017 @ 2:46 pm

Janwaar,

Ah yes – “Why doesn’t the Indian media cover my area of interest”

Try Google, “Hindus in Bangladesh” First hit, The Economic Times, Aug 17, 2017 –

US report lists attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh, Pakistan

Read more at:
[20]

Then, Google “Hindus in Pakistan”, you The Indian Express interviewing 2 Pakistani Hindus recollecting the horror of Partition

[21]

Really, it’s not that hard.

#9 Comment By Ray Woodcock On September 12, 2017 @ 4:17 pm

I cannot speak to the grand sweep of history. As a recent example on a much smaller scale, however, I did examine media coverage of Charlottesville in some detail. [22] — as a believer in a free press — was that the mainstream media displayed remarkable illiberality in that coverage.

Hegel may be right. If so, I suspect the thesis of our time is not liberalism, to be offset by the antithesis of illiberalism. Rather, I would guess that the thesis of our time is the Establishment, be it left or right on relatively trivial social issues, and the antithesis is in the nature of applied deconstruction. In other words, the center cannot hold. Arguably *this* center, in particular, should not hold.

#10 Comment By spite On September 12, 2017 @ 5:26 pm

“liberalism—which makes freedom of speech and press a paramount value—is in retreat globally”

What utter rubbish, is the author of this article truly this ignorant of what is happening right now? Liberals have gone on a crusade against free speech, shutting down/censoring web sites, supporting all kinds of “hate speech” laws and creating an ever growing list of things one cannot talk about. Liberals are one of the most anti free speech people in the world.

#11 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On September 12, 2017 @ 8:27 pm

Then, Google “Hindus in Pakistan”, you The Indian Express interviewing 2 Pakistani Hindus recollecting the horror of Partition

The horrors of partition, which happened in 1947? How about the horrors of what has been done to Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and others *since* 1947? In that time, the proportion of non-Muslims in Pakistan has fallen from 22% to less than 1%. In Bangladesh, that proportion has fallen from 33% to 7% today, and a prominent Bangladeshi economist said recently that at the current rate at which Hindus are fleeing Bangladesh, there will be no Hindus left there in 30 years.

Where are all the “seculars” demanding an end to this ethnic cleansing of Hindus and other non-Muslims from every part of the Indian subcontinent where Muslims are a majority? Nowhere.

In fact, until the BJP government took power, Hindus, Christians, Jains and Sikhs fleeing persecution in Pakistan were not even entitled to citizenship in India – for “seculars”, you have to maintain an even hand between the Muslims, who are doing the persecution, and their victims! For a good example of this “secular” idiocy, see the article linked below:

[23]

But if some Muslims in Myanmar or Mongolia are expelled to Bolivia or Bangladesh, the same “seculars” are besides themselves in rage, and demand that India take these people in!

We’ve had enough of this left-wing hypocrisy. If you seriously believe that one article talking about memories of the partition constitutes adequate coverage of the horrors of Islamic rule in Pakistan and Bangladesh, you are part of the problem.
Perhaps we should point you to one article about memories of the Rohingyas from 1850 and tell you to move on from your obsession with those people?

#12 Comment By KXB On September 13, 2017 @ 11:28 am

Janwaar,

Where have I mentioned Rohingyas or Myanmar? And is “How About…” the Indian equivalent to the American “What about…”?

Now, I’ll leave you with time to invent another point I did not cite. Enjoy your day.

#13 Comment By Saldin On September 13, 2017 @ 3:51 pm

With respect to the discussion regarding India and Pakistan, I do believe that muslims in Pakistan are committing atrocities against their minorities, much like the hindutvars in India.

In that manner, the two nations appear to be quite similar. Both are feeding on each other’s atrocities against their minorities. Shame on them.

That said, Islam is the worship of the One and only, true monotheism, while Hinduism is the height of polytheism. No amount of spin can mask that fact.

If Hindus wish to reject this simple truth, it is their free-willed choice, and they will have no excuse on the Day of Judgement.

But those muslims, it is a shame that they act like hindutva scum.

#14 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On September 13, 2017 @ 5:34 pm

With respect to the discussion regarding India and Pakistan, I do believe that muslims in Pakistan are committing atrocities against their minorities, much like the hindutvars in India. In that manner, the two nations appear to be quite similar.

You are making a false equivalence. Here are the facts:

Pakistan:
1947: 22% non-Muslim
2017: less than 1% non-Muslim

Bangladesh:
1947: 33% non-Muslim
2017: 7% non-Muslim and falling

India:
1947: 8% Muslim
2017: 16-17% Muslim

In other words, religious minorities have been exterminated in Pakistan and almost exterminated in Bangladesh, but during the same period, the proportion of Muslims in India has more than doubled.

The world knows the truth about Islam and your “prophet”. Your time is better spent reforming your 7th century religion instead of worrying about what happens to Hindus after we die.

#15 Comment By M_Young On September 14, 2017 @ 12:50 am

1) The US media are basically propaganda organs for a certain worldview. They are rightly mistrusted

2) This article didn’t mention anything about the real threats to free speech coming from governments in the UK, Australia, Germany and other continental European governments. You can be jailed simply for opposing mass immigration in too colorful language.

#16 Comment By Thorfinnsson On September 18, 2017 @ 2:35 pm

God bless these Hindu Indian commenters for laying bare why globally people increasingly hate and despise liberals.

Now I’ll begin by stating that I am a free speech absolutist, unlike the targets of the author of this piece…and so-called “liberals”.

There are two basic problems with liberals:

1) In any conflict between their own people and another social group (whether the distinction racial, ethnic, religious, etc.), liberals ALWAYS side with the adversary group

2) Any deficient behavior on the part of outgroups–even including terrorism, is blamed by liberals on the ingroup. In fact, the worse the behavior of the outgroup in question the more the liberals side with the outgroup. Witness the near-deification of blacks in America, gypsies in Europe, etc.

Let’s look at this murdered “journalist” in India. She was apparently:

1) An opponent of the BJP, meaning she opposed ethnic-religious nationalism on behalf of her own people

2) She defended “dalits” and other “disadvantaged groups”, likely meaning she believed all of their failures are the fault of other people and that they deserve even more legal privileges

3) She defended…Maoist terrorists

Is it any wonder this woman was absolutely despised?

If liberals were laughed out of polite society or inhabiting lunatic asylums like they should be, then perhaps people would overlook their blathering.

However, unfortunately these lunatics have been not only influential but dominant in political and intellectual life for as long as anyone can remember.

The outcome of this is that Western societies are disintegrating and Western peoples are in danger of ceasing to exist.

While this “journalist” of course did not deserve to be murdered, Indians are right to reject the toxic garbage she peddled and to stop their civilization from being murdered by liberal fanatics.

#17 Comment By Ivy On September 28, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

I’ve followed this story with some interest and read both online news as well as talked to a colleague on the ground in Bangalore in my company’s local offices there.

It is completely unclear who had the motives to kill her. She was getting certain Maoist guerrillas to consider the possibility of surrender or cooperation with the authorities.

They might have killed her.

She was publishing stories on the ruling party in her state (not the BJP, which runs the central/federal government in India) regarding malfeasance.

It is possible street hoodlums sympathetic to that party stupidly took the initiative and killed her as a favor to the majority party in her state. But that kind of act is very uncommon, even in India’s rough and tough street politics.

Or it might have been simply a criminal act by hoodlums involved in the corrupt and increasingly violent real-estate industry. Apparently, she owned some prime land and was refusing to sell to developers.

I’m no India expert, but it certainly seems worth waiting to find out before jumping to conclusions.