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Permission to Speak Freely

Back in February 2003, The American Conservative ran an editorial under the heading “Free Taki.” Mind you, it was a shot across the bow of Scotland Yard’s “Diversity Division,” which was investigating me for an article I had written in the Spectator of London about British drug gangs. “The freedom of political speech is one of the bedrock institutions of the West,” we thundered, but it would be stretching it if I now wrote that Scotland Yard got our message and let me go. First of all, I was never arrested, just investigated. I had written that most of the drug gangsters were Afro-Caribbean, just like their fathers and grandfathers. In this, I had echoed the great English historian and polymath Paul Johnson, who had previously written that black immigrants ought to be paid to go back to their country of origin to make room for Asian immigrants.

Throwing people in jail for things they’ve said or written is hardly new. I suppose old Socrates was among the first to be punished in my old hometown of Athens, the state claiming that he was corrupting its youth. Actually he was preaching sedition, but they got him to drink hemlock by threatening to expose him as a Woody Allen type, except for preferring boys.

But selective free speech and democracy for minorities being very in vogue nowadays, I shall stick to recent times. In merry old England last month, for Joe and Helen Roberts, sincere Christians whose principles led them to object very politely to their local council’s policy of promoting gay rights, freedom of speech did not apply. Although they committed no offense, that didn’t stop the council reporting them to the fuzz, who raided their home for two hours, questioning them and then warning them about their non-offense. The Robertses’ views on homosexuality may be unfashionable in liberal circles but are shared by millions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Another Brit, Maya Evans, was standing at the Cenotaph late last year reading out names of British troops killed in Iraq when no fewer than 14 police officers dragged her away, locked her up, charged and fined her. Some freedom of speech, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

And for questioning on British radio whether gay couples should adopt boys, author Lynette Burrows was told by police to watch what she said.

In the land of pasta, sunny and civilized Italy, they are no longer after Galileo but after Paolo di Canio, a star footballer who gave a fascist salute to the crowd after scoring a game-winning goal. FIFA, the world game’s governing body, banned him for one game and fined him $12,000, despite FIFA’s president’s insistence he should be banned for life. Banned for life for a salute that goes back to the French Revolutionary period, when the painter David depicted scenes of ancient Rome in which oaths of allegiance were accompanied by that kind of salute? Easy, Trigger!

In neighboring Austria, the controversial historian David Irving has been held—incommunicado for the first week—since Nov. 11. Irving’s crime? Two speeches in Austria in 1989 allegedly denying there were gas ovens in Auschwitz. Irving is facing 20 years in the pokey if found guilty. He was already banned from entering Austria, Germany, Canada, and Australia and has lost his home and declared bankruptcy in Britain after he lost a libel suit against American author Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier.

About the time Irving was being arrested, another writer, Orhan Pamuk, landed in a Turkish jail, charged with “denigrating Turkishness.” This was about the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915, where close to a million Armenians died, something the Turks don’t bring up in polite conversation.

The problem here is that the whole world is up in arms over Pamuk’s arrest but is not exactly breaking down the doors of Irving’s prison. So, do we write Free David Irving and Orhan Pamuk, or do we drop the former because it makes for better public relations? Does freedom of speech mean freedom of views we find acceptable or the views we find convenient? Is selective free speech free? Is free speech confined to causes with which we agree? As someone wrote, “the unpopular and odious have their rights as well.”

When David Irving was refused entry into New Zealand on the grounds that he had been deported from Canada in 1992, a Kiwi Green Party spokesman said, “His fatally flawed analysis has been rubbished in open debate. Banning him only gives him publicity. His deportation from Canada is irrelevant. What next: are we going to ban Salman Rushdie because Iran doesn’t like him?”
No free speech for fascists is a no-no. Fascists, communists, even vegetarians should be allowed to speak—at least in free countries, which are becoming fewer and fewer.

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