The faux defense of Western liberties from the anti-Muslim, Mark Steyn Right

Selective application of free speech principles is the hallmark of those who oppose free speech.

Published May 6, 2009 10:50AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

One of the tactics endlessly used by America's right-wing warriors in their crusade against Islamic radicalism is the pretense that they are motivated by a defense of core Western freedoms, particularly free speech rights.  Even the most cynical observer has to be impressed by how much martyrdom-mileage they've been able to squeeze out of Canada's petty and dangerous (though ultimately dismissed) formal proceedings brought against Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant for that duo's publication of anti-Islamic screeds.  Levant managed to write a whole self-glorifying book about his plight and continues to this day to relentlessly depict himself as a modern-day Thomas Paine battling against Muslim censors and their leftist, free-speech-hating Western allies.  Nobody trumps up self-pitying, self-centered persecutions as well as the tough-guy warriors of the neoconservative Right.

That said, concerns about the erosion of free speech rights in the Western world -- as part of a misguided attempt to suppress "hate speech" and other forms of religious and racial bigotry and as a way of accommodating the growing Muslim populations of Europe -- are both legitimate and warranted.  I vehemently condemned Canada's investigations of Steyn and Levant despite finding them and their "ideas" noxious in the extreme, and I oppose with equal fervor use of "hate speech" laws in Europe and Canada to punish those who express bigoted views.  No matter the motive, attempts by the state to circumscribe certain ideas as off-limits, prohibited, and sanctionable are always wrong and dangerous -- period.   

But the anti-Muslim Right's parading around under the free speech banner (just like their pretense of safeguarding the rights of gay people from oppressive Muslim societies) is so blatantly insincere, nothing more than a means of opportunistically elevating and justifying their anti-Islamic animus.  That fact is conclusively demonstrated by how selectively self-interested is the application of their free speech "principles."

The latest controversy seized on by these faux free speech warriors is the gratuitous disclosure yesterday of a list of 16 individuals banned by the British government from entering the U.K. on the ground that the banned individuals fail to adhere to that nation's "values and standards."  One of the individuals on the list is right-wing talk radio host Michael Savage, a fact that is causing all sorts of righteous anger from the neoconservative Right.  That movement's leading political philosopher and intellectual historian -- Jonah Goldberg -- cried out:  "it's idiotic and shameful for Britain to ban Michael Savage from her shores."  Mark Steyn also wrote a long, impassioned protest against Britain's exclusion of Savage, based on this claimed principle:

The British Home Secretary thinks that by making public the ban on Michael Savage she's "naming and shaming" him. But she's shaming only herself and her country. . . . The idea of ideological enforcement at the border is repugnant to a free society.

That's such a moving defense of free expression.  And the principle Steyn espouses -- "the idea of ideological enforcement at the border is repugnant to a free society" -- is one with which I wholeheartedly agree.  Why, then, didn't Steyn and his allies criticize this:

Norman Finkelstein, the controversial Jewish American academic and fierce critic of Israel, has been deported from the country and banned from the Jewish state for 10 years . . .

Finkelstein is one of several scholars rejected by Israel in the increasingly bitter divide in academic circles, between those who support and those who criticise its treatment of Palestinians. . . . The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the deportation of Finkelstein was an assault on free speech.

"The decision to prevent someone from voicing their opinions by arresting and deporting them is typical of a totalitarian regime," said the association's lawyer, Oded Peler.

Both the Haaretz editorial page and Alan Dershowitz (in an interview with me) denounced Finklestein's exclusion as obviously viewpoint-based  -- but the ostensibly pro-free-expression Right was silent.  Why wasn't Mark Steyn crying out then that "the idea of ideological enforcement at the border is repugnant to a free society"?

Indeed, exactly this sort of free speech abridgment is routinely exercised by allies of the Right and against its enemies, and they either remain silent or actively supportive.  Just two months ago, Canada's right-wing government barred British MP George Galloway from entering that country because of his views on the war in Afghanistan and claimed support for Hamas.  Along with Savage, British officials also banned several Muslim preachers who are accused -- just like Savage -- of nothing more than expressing ideas incompatible with Britain's "values and standards."  The Bush administration repeatedly detained and then barred what it perceived to be adversarial foreign journalists from entering the U.S. But the Free Expression warriors on the Right are silent about all of that because "free speech" is just another weapon used to demonize Muslims and justify their animus, not a genuinely held conviction.

Even now, right here in the U.S., the Patriot Act explicitly allows the U.S. Government to ban individuals from entering the country on the ground that the individual "endorses or espouses" -- not engages in -- what government officials believe to be "terrorism."  That provision is a purely ideological exclusion that the State Department insists allows it to ban anyone engaged in what it deems to be "irresponsible expression" of ideas. 

That provision has been used to bar numerous individuals (mostly Muslims) from entering the U.S.  Most notably, it is being used still to ban a Swiss intellectual and leading scholar of the Muslim world, Tariq Ramadan, from assuming a tenured teaching position at the University of Notre Dame and from accepting invitations to address various audiences inside the United States -- even though Ramadan had entered the U.S. more than 20 times in the past without incident, is widely considered to be a moderate Muslim scholar, and has explicitly and repeatedly denounced terrorism.  The Bush administration baldly acknowledged at first that it was banning him on ideological grounds, only thereafter changing its story by pointing to a $1,300 contribution Ramadan made to a Swiss charity that thereafter was placed on a U.S. government list of organizations that allegedly support Hamas.  As Daphne Evitar documented, the ideology-based barring of Ramadan is consistent with a long line of similar exclusions by the U.S.:

Such “ideological exclusion” dates back to the Cold War, the groups note, when the United States refused entry to leading scholars, writers and activists, including Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Italian playwright Dario Fo, British novelist Doris Lessing and Canadian writer and environmentalist Farley Mowat.

While numerous groups of American scholars have urged the Obama administration to lift the ban on Ramadan, and while the ACLU -- an organization actually devoted to a genuine belief in free expression -- continues to challenge the constitutionality of Ramadan's Patriot-Act-based exclusion from the U.S., the pretend Mark Steyn free speech movement either remains silent or, worse, explicitly endorses these viewpoint-based punishments.  That's because they are perfectly content with liberty abridgments as long as they're directed at the right people.

Proponents of speech-restrictive measures always justify themselves by claiming that their ideological opponents "incite" or support violence.  One of the most important First Amendment cases in the U.S. -- Claiborne v. NAACP -- arose out of the State of Mississippi's attempts in the 1960s to impose civil liability on the local NAACP chapter and its leaders (including Medgar Evers' older brother, Charles) for allegedly "inciting" violence on the part of NAACP members through "fiery" speeches advocating boycotts of white only stores.  Identically, left-wing advocates of hate speech laws claim that those who spout anti-gay, anti-Muslim or other bigoted ideas "incite" violence against minorities, while right-wing advocates of similar measures claim that people like George Galloway and Tariq Ramadan "incite" Islamic terrorism. 

The corrupt rationale for speech restrictions remains the same no matter who is advocating them.  But as the Claiborne court explained in unanimously barring the imposition of liability on NAACP leaders for the violent acts of its members, to punish ideas based on the theory that those ideas "incite" violence is to strangle the concept of free expression. 

One either believes in free expression or one doesn't, and if one does, it means opposing efforts to circumscribe those ideas with which one vehemently disagrees.  That's always the true test for the authenticity of one's claimed belief in these liberties.  This alleged belief in free expression from the Mark Steyn Right magically extends only to those with whom they agree and is easily suspended for their ideological enemies, especially Muslims and those on the left.  So transparently, it's just another club they cynically wield to glorify their bottomless animus towards Muslims and aggression in the Muslim world.  Only when they begin waving the free expression flag on behalf of their ideological opponents will they deserve to have their claimed freedom "principles" taken seriously.


UPDATE:  Identically, most people seemed to be perfectly content with the draconian provisions of the Patriot Act until they start getting applied to the wrong people (which is always what happens when authoritarian government measures are instituted):



UPDATE II:  Here is how people who are actually committed to free speech respond when the rights of those with whom they vehemently disagree are abridged (h/t sysprog):

Despite Mr Savage's trenchant views, rival broadcasters have leapt to his defence and even civil libertarians and the Council for American-Islamic Relations have spoken out against the ban. . . .

Jameel Jaffer, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the move showed countries were prepared to 'use their borders as a weapon of censorship'.

'While some of these people may express views that others find disagreeable, often the cure is worse than the disease,' said Mr Jaffer. 'It also deprives the citizens of that country of their ability to hear dissenting views.' . . .

Ibrahim Hooper from the Council for American-Islamic Relations said it would just give the presenter a bigger audience.

'As a matter of principle, we don't support such bans. They tend to be selective, in that only popular speech is allowed and unpopular speech is not allowed,' he said.

That's the ACLU and CAIR -- groups with views about as antithetical to the hate-mongering of Michael Savage as can be -- denouncing the ban against Savage on the grounds of free expression.  That's how you can distinguish between people whose belief in those liberties are genuine versus those (like Steyn and his right-wing allies) who use "free speech" cynically and manipulatively to obfuscate their true sentimets.

By Glenn Greenwald

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