“Sure, Ahmadinejad is a Fascistic provocateur, and his line on Holocaust scholarship “that he’s only out to encourage intellectual freedom” is monstrously disingenuous. But celebrated bad guys visit New York and speak at American universities all the time. Iran is supplying weapons to men killing American troops in Iraq? In the seventies, when China and the Soviet Union were supplying North Vietnam with arms, Nixon toasted Mao in Peking, and Brezhnev visited the White House to work on dètente.”
To Kurt Andersen:
While you raise many examples of a disturbing trend in your article, that trend being the increasing refusal of Americans to hear one another out, I do fear that you make a critical mistake in considering the President of Iran to be like any other American and the right of free speech to be absolute.
You say the President of Iran is a “provocateur,” with no regard for his actual holding of power. That’s very curious, as if free speech has nothing to do with power or the exercise of power.
There’s a big difference between the President of the United States dealing with dictators and the President of Columbia University. You do argue that if the US President allows a dictator to speak on this soil, why can’t a citizen allow the same thing?
The answer is obvious: the US President’s actual holding of power – if the Soviet premier said something far too compromising, he’d be attacked on the battlefield or through espionage – means that “free speech” isn’t the issue. The language of diplomacy is part of a power game, where only certain things can be said at certain times. Guns do the actual talking when speech is purely political.
To that end, the President of Iran’s speech is not being treated by you as political speech. You extend to him the rights that citizens of this country have in spite of people like him. But his speech – as you point out – isn’t merely an exercise of those rights. It’s meant purposely to stir up trouble in the Middle East: to harden our enemies against us and make us look more arrogant, and result ultimately in more American fatalities across the globe.
“Free speech” is a misnomer. The only time free speech is an issue is when speech offends and does harm. In other words, the abstract “right” comes always at the expense of another’s “right:” one’s right to happiness is compromised by another’s offensive speech, always.
You might argue, as J.S. Mill did, that free speech is indispensable for progress. But that only holds if you believe in progress. And progress threatens not only certain types of speech (hint: where did political correctness come from?) but also the very importance of speech. As we get more and more technology, carefully considering another’s opinion and musing on it is unnecessary. Politics is reduced to positions one holds on a checklist of issues: that’s being informed and having an opinion. Technology solves all issues, working together depends on not “deliberation” but on “motivation” (note what modern “leadership” training attempts to do).
To move away from the domestic realm – if free speech is an exercise of power by one over another in a country that guarantees it, then how much more is the right to speak an exercise of power in a realm where it doesn’t exist? Consider: Iranians don’t get to question their leader. How much more arrogant are we for thinking that cursing him out publicly before he spoke is a just deed? People get killed in Iran for doing that sort of thing. We, on the other hand, make light of it: we are nowhere near as bold as those sacrificing blood for what we take for granted.
There are times when silence is golden, and free speech is an imposition. Allowing the President of Iran a platform imposed on everyone who fights and dies for speech; the only people it liberated were self-righteous liberals who think that principle is inviting someone as a guest and then cursing them out before they talk.
Let’s be clear: ignoring the relation between speech and power is irresponsible speech. It ignores the conditions that make free speech possible. The conditions that make free speech possible, of course, involve loss of liberty.
If a libertarian society were possible and not merely an excuse for anarchy, we’d be living in one.
Sincerely wishing that my voice would be heard as yours is,