Just as I was mulling the idea of writing a blog-post on Liberal Conspriacy about the stupid Koran-burning event planned at a church in Florida, Dave Osler gazumps me with a lucid take. As a campaigner for PEN, the idea of book-burning presents a particular conundrum: The aborrence of the act, versus the right to free expression. I think Dave’s final paragraph nails the argument:
But Dove World Outreach Centre do not exercise state power. For much the same reasons as al Muhajiroon should not be banned from demonstrating at the funeral processions of squaddies and the English Defence League should not be banned from the streets of British cities, the lesser evil is to tolerate its cretinous intolerance.
Earlier, Dave dismisses Heinrich Heine’s quote (“wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings”) as being a soundbite. I would not be so glib. Reading the hysterical comments over the so-called ‘Ground-Zero Mosque’ from prominent and elected US politicians, I fear some particularly nasty events may unfold later this year.
The rise of fascism and other dictatorships is often cited as an excuse to regulate free speech. “If only we could have stopped Hitler giving speeches” goes the argument, “we would have prevented Nazism.” That is one way of looking at it, but such an approach is unsophisticated and leads to a fascism of its own. The proper response, when rabble-rousing turns to vitriol turns to hate-speech turns to incitement… is counter-speech. If demagogues threaten division and hatred, then others in power need to refute them as forcefully as possible. Democracy’s core values, as embodied in our concept of human rights, are always under attack. It is when ‘cretinous intolerance’ is are inadequately defended that the moral fall begins.
Regarding the Cordoba Initiative controversy, those who should be standing up to the bigotry are often staying silent, or worse, pandering to the mob. For example, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, in a close re-election battle with a Palin-style politican in Arizona, chose to pander. President Obama’s response, while initially strong, was blunted by clarifications and spin. Only Michael Bloomberg, major of New York, has taken a stand on principle. The different responses of these three men to this moral challenge is clearly indicative of their very different electorates, The dark side of democracy threatens the light.