A group called the International Civil Liberties Alliance held a conference in Brussels last week featuring speakers from all over Europe. I wasn't there – I didn't know about the event beforehand – but one of the highlights appears to have been a talk given by Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, who, it will be remembered, was found guilty not long ago in an Austrian court of law for articulating uncomfortable truths about Islam.
Sabaditsch-Wolff, who entitled her presentation “The Death Throes of Free Speech in Europe,” did not say anything that will be new in substance to regular readers of this website: but she said them, as is always valuable, in a way that was forceful, memorable, and inspiring. For example, she noted that Europe's oligarchs, in silencing honest talk about Islam, are employing totalitarian methods, the only difference being that they've been more successful than the Nazis, Fascists and Communists, because they've accomplished their goals “quietly and peacefully, with no need for concentration camps or gulags or mass graves or the shot in the back of the neck in the middle of the night.”
Like Geert Wilders and others, she called for a European version of America's First Amendment, adding that Europeans must “take our countries back from those thieves who sneaked them away from us while were lulled into somnolence by our wealth and our pleasant diversions.”
And she recalled a passage from The Lord of the Rings in which Frodo tells Gandalf of their “perilous quest”: “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” Gandalf replies: “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Sabaditsch-Wolff underscored this point: “It is time for us to decide what to do with the time that is given us.”
Or to put it a bit differently: like it or not, those of us in both America and Europe who were assured at one point that the fall of Soviet Communism and the advent of the EU had brought the West to “the end of history” – meaning that we could look forward to a smooth, pleasant future of peace, freedom, prosperity, and stability under democratic capitalism, which was irrevocably spreading throughout the world – were, to borrow a word from Rick in Casablanca, misinformed.
Alas, it turns out that like every generation before us, we have found ourselves living in history. To speak for a moment strictly as an American: just as some of our forebears found themselves living in a period when a revolution against our British cousins was more and more plainly in the offing, or, later, in an era when it was increasingly obvious that we were headed toward a violent rupture between North and South, or, decades afterward, in a time of Depression when, year by year, the inevitability of a colossal confrontation with Nazism became less and less practically deniable, so we are now headed toward a clash on a massive scale that will challenge our determination to stand up for the freedom that our founders bequeathed us and that we owe to those yet to come.
Our forebears faced up successfully to the challenges that confronted them. What makes things different today is that the Sixties generation – the '68ers, as they say in Europe – and the generations that have followed them are, to a lamentable extent, not made of the same stuff as their precedessors. Multiculturalism has taught them to mock concepts like freedom and to reject as sheer bigotry and ridiculous hyperbole the idea that members of some other culture might regard them and their civilization as an enemy deserving of destruction. An indulgent upbringing, a culture awash in cynicism, and a life defined by creature comforts on a historically unprecedented level have thoroughly alienated them from the idea that there is anything beyond themselves – higher than themselves – that could possibily be worth sacrificing anything for.
Yes, as Sabaditsch-Wolff observed in her talk, America is set apart from the rest of the West by the crystal-clear, no-nonsense words of the First Amendment to its Constitution. The First Amendment, alas, was not designed to prevent spineless self-censorship about Islam or to forestall the cowardly silencing by book publishers, newspapers, museums, political groups, and other institutions of statements about Islam that they fear just might make life a bit more uneasy for them.
Still, the First Amendment does give the U.S. something of a leg-up, at least, on places like Britain. Which brings us to the latest shameful tidings from the scept'red isle. As Nick Cohen reported in a staggering article which was published the other day (apparently in somewhat different versions) in both the weekly Spectator and the Daily Mail, British authorities, already no slouches in this department in recent years, have come up with yet new limitations on free speech, this time in honor of the London Olympics. This new wave of censorship has nothing to do with Islam, but that's not the important point – the important point is that once you get people used to being censored for any reason whatsoever, it becomes much easier to censor them for just about any reason you like.
In this case, in the name of protecting the exclusive right of corporate sponsors of the Olympics to employ Olympic symbols and such, UK courts have been instructed to take aggressive steps against any individual or business (however small) that, in the run-up to or during the Olympics, uses, especially in combination, such words as games, 2012, gold, silver, bronze, London, medal, sponsors, and summer, and such images as a picture of a torch, the five-ringed Olympics symbol, that godawful logo designed for this year's games, or a panorama of the London skyline. As Cohen puts it: “Britain is at the start of an experiment in the criminalisation of everyday speech; a locking down of the English language, with punishments for those who use it too freely.”
These rules don't just apply to advertisements. As Fraser Nelson explained at the Spectator website, the magazine recently receiving the chilling advice it “should not refer to the Olympics for the duration of the Games otherwise we 'could be taken off newsstands (and also liable to prosecution).'” To its credit, Nelson noted, “We responded in the only way The Specator knows how: by publishing a cover involving the Olympic rings and mocking the censors, in a brilliant piece by Nick Cohen.” But smaller enterprises – local shopkeepers and the like – can't afford the legal risk that a basic assertion of free-speech rights might entail. So it is that, as Nelson outlines, UK authorities have managed to get a butcher in Weymouth to remove a “display of sausages in the shape of the Olympic rings,” to prevent a small Surrey village “from running an 'Olympicnic' on its village green,” to force a florist in Stoke-on-Trent “to take down a tissue paper Olympic rings display from the shop window,” and so on.
“We value freedom of speech far too little in this country,” concluded Nelson. “The British taxpayer has forked out a fortune to host the Olympics – but they should come here on our terms, respect our freedoms and respect the right of British people to do and say what they please.” Nelson echoed Wilders and Sabaditsch-Wolff: “We badly need the equivalent of America’s 1st amendment protection: a clear right guaranteeing freedom of speech as paramount.” For us Americans, one lesson of all these goings-on in Europe is clear: while the champions of free expression in the Old World hold up our Constitution as a model, let's redouble our struggle against all of our misguided fellow countrymen who, in the name of one or another species of specious progress, would consign that precious document to the ashheap of history.
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