"Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour"
I've finished reading Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept and am reflecting upon the implications of what he describes, especially the meekness with which too many Europeans, after the assassinations of such outspoken critics of Islamism as Theo van Gogh and Pim Fortuyn, have accepted restrictions on their freedom to voice their opinions:
Across Western Europe . . . authorities were cracking down on free speech -- or trying to. Meanwhile, many artists, writers, and "cultural workers" were practicing pragmatic self-censorship -- taking down "offensive" artworks, cancelling screenings of "offensive" movies, thinking "offensive" thoughts but not daring to voice them. (While Europe Slept, page 216)The offensive short film, Submission, written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and produced by Theo van Gogh -- and which had so enraged Mohammad Bouyeri that he had murdered van Gogh -- proved too controversial for the art world:
In February 2005, a scheduled screening of Submission at the Rotterdam International Film Festival was canceled by its producer, Gijs van de Westelaken . . . . The festival's theme, ironically, was "censored films"; in place of Submission, the festival audience saw two movies sympathetic to suicide bombers. (While Europe Slept, page 216)As Bawer notes, "'Provocative'' art was all right, in short, so long as it didn't actually provoke anybody" (page 217).
When I consider our current need for a vigorous defense of free speech, I think of the line by William Wordsworth concerning John Milton: "Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour":
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:I like those lines "Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea: Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free." Milton certainly defended free speech with great rhetorical power in an argument "For the Liberty of Unlicen'd Printing" expressed in his essay Areopagitica. This work was in direct response to the the Puritan Parliament's Licensing Order of 1643, which reinstated the pre-publication censorship of earlier royal and ecclesiastical censors.
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
O raise us up, return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power!
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.
At one point, Milton -- who evidently considers the Qur'an fictitious -- implies that "Alcoran" can only be protected by Muslims through restrictions on expression:
There is yet behind of what I purpos'd to lay open, the incredible losse, and detriment that this plot of licencing puts us to, more then if som enemy at sea should stop up all our hav'ns and ports, and creeks, it hinders and retards the importation of our richest Marchandize, Truth: nay it was first establisht and put in practice by Antichristian malice and mystery on set purpose to extinguish, if it were possible, the light of Reformation, and to settle falshood; little differing from that policie wherewith the Turk upholds his Alcoran, by the prohibition of Printing. 'Tis not deny'd, but gladly confest, we are to send our thanks and vows to heav'n louder then most of Nations, for that great measure of truth which we enjoy, especially in those main points between us and the Pope, with his appertinences the Prelats: but he who thinks we are to pitch our tent here, and have attain'd the utmost prospect of reformation, that the mortall glasse wherein we contemplate, can shew us, till we come to beatific vision, that man by this very opinion declares, that he is yet farre short of Truth. (Areopagitica, paragraph 19)This is a dense passage, but I think that we can all understand Milton's basic point, namely, that preventing free speech -- whether by Catholics, Protestants, or Muslims -- entails restrictions on truth, and that, Milton implies, would be to settle on falsehood.
Forthrightness demands that I acknowledge that Milton himself placed some restrictions on free expression, more than I would wish to see.
In that, one might say that even Milton fell tempted by censorship.