Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour"

Tempted by Censorship?
(The New Yorker, June 2, 2008)

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":
London, 1802
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
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.
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.

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.

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20 Comments:

At 9:48 AM, Blogger Otto Silver said...

What I find remarkable is that the West feels the need to adapt to the Islamic world. "I can say anything I want" is a foundation of most Western nations, like you pointed out, but now we have to add "as long as you like it".

I believe there is not middle ground with Freedom of Speech. Either you can say what you want, or you can't. Checking your words is one thing, not being able to speak for fear of assassination or social suppression is another.

If the Islamic world can't handle it then why should it be any one else's problem to resolve?

I lived in the Middle East. I heard how people speak about the West and Christianity, both in and out of the mosques. It is a disgrace that these double standards are accepted by the politicians and very often the public.

 
At 10:18 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

From my reading, I'd have to agree that there's certainly a lot of 'hate speech' in mosques though I've not heard it myself (except via MEMRI or You Tube with subtitles). I did live in Jerusalem for a year, but I lived mostly in libraries, where all speech is forbidden.

Anyway, from what I've read, the tolerance accorded in an Islamic state seems to be a particular trade-off: dhimmis tolerate abuse from the ruling class, and the ruling class tolerates the existence of the dhimmis.

That seems to be the rule now being applied to Europe.

Do you know Arabic?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:56 PM, Blogger Otto Silver said...

Unfortunately I got a dislike for Arabs while I was there and stopped learning shortly after I began.

The few Arab friends that I had and trusted used to mention in passing was going on in the mosques and how they were preaching hate to the people. These same friends were also completely fluent in English and sometimes often didn't seem to like Muslims that much. (I grew up Christian but I can honestly say I often don't like Christians very much.)

Please, don't think for one moment I dislike all Arabs or related groups, but on the whole I am very cautions them because of bad experiences, this situation being one of them.

 
At 4:00 PM, Blogger Irfan Yusuf said...

A dislike for Arabs, Otto? Some people say they have a dislike for Jews. We call such people anti-Semites. Arabs are also semites. Will you permit me to use my freedom of speech and declare you an anti-Semite?

 
At 4:02 PM, Blogger Irfan Yusuf said...

horace, do you know what proportion of European Muslims use Arabic as their first language? Or what proportion of Muslims live in Arab League states? And have you ever set foot in a mosque? Or are you afraid that you might get bitten by a scorpion?

Bin-Ladin makes some absurd and silly generalisations about Europeans, Westerners, Jews, Hindus and other groups. You are doing the same thing to 1.2 billion Muslims.

Will you permit me to exercise my freedom of speech and suggest that you have the same mindset as bin-Ladin?

 
At 4:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Otto, I have few experiences with Arabs personally, and most of those experiences were in Europe and were generally positive.

That was the early 1990s, and though I didn't know much about Salafi Islam at the time, I was seeing its influence as some of the Muslims whom I knew in the Naumann Foundation were beginning to grow beards and dress in the djellaba.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:39 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Irfan Yusuf, you seem to have forgotten that I go by "Jeffery."

You are free to comment here so long as you don't abuse the privilege with ad hominem attacks -- though you are really pushing that line with your insulting comparison of me to mass murderer and Islamist terrorist Osama Bin Laden. I suggest that you restrain yourself in future comments.

Now if I recall correctly, you previously objected to my having made a distinction between moderate and radical Muslims. Now, you accuse me of not distinguishing. I plead not guilty anyway, for if you look closely, you'll see in my post that I used the term "Islamism," by which I mean the use of Islam for political purposes, the ultimate aim being a shariah state.

I don't consider the majority of Muslims to be particularly interested in Islamism.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:02 PM, Blogger Otto Silver said...

Irfan Yusuf, as you pointed out, Arabs are indeed Semites and I often smirk at the "Anti-Semitic" Arabs who don't like Jews. Your freedom of speech does indeed allows you to call me an anti-Semite, as long as you allow me to defend myself.

"Anti" in this case is a term loaded with something approaching hate. I only dislike, not hate. If I hated Arabs then would I have friends form that group? I don't particularly like Americans as a group, as my American friends know, but that does not make me anti-American.

I would also like to comment on your view about Horace's generalisation. Yes, people generalise. It is the way the human brain works. I do it as well, but I will give the individual his chance. I will not shoot you own for being an Arab or American, I will listen first.

About the Muslims in the West and even the Middle East. Yes, there are many who don't agree with the extremists, but I also feel that those who keep silent about the misconduct of their fellows should bear SOME blame themselves.

In the US less than 50% of the people voted for bush. If everyone seems to be so against him, why then did they keep quiet? Surely they bear some f the blame?

Please, I do not with to direct hate at anyone because I do not hate any group in the world. I merely dislike to various degrees, and that will include my own culture. I am often ashamed to say I am Afrikaans and I am willing to say that in public.

 
At 6:27 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Otto, I appreciate your cordial response to Irfan Yusuf and your temperate remarks. I try to keep my blog free of insults.

Irfan is a 'moderate' Muslim (though he doesn't like my saying so), a lawyer, a journalist, and quite intelligent, but is also, it seems, too easily riled.

He is, in short, better than his recent comments.

By the way, I prefer "Jeffery" to "Horace" despite my poetic pretensions...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:30 PM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

Prof,
I'm here in class, have been for several days, but have had huge holiday for a nursing home candidate! You are keeping me busy with all of your links, and I don't feel sufficiently educated on these subjects the last few days to comment intelligently. Just wanted you to know that your phantom student wasn't skipping.
Jeanie

 
At 11:33 PM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

Well, I take that back, I could have commented on the cost of a law degree from UofA and a menswear design degree from FIT in NYC but the Oliver's are reeling in shock at the total student loan accounting tab.
Jeanie

 
At 12:36 AM, Blogger John B said...

Gijs van de Westelaken was the producer of the film and not the festival. The language there is a little ambiguous, and I think it changes the nuance a little, though not the original point. It was self-censorship.

Which I'm sure you knew, but I was a bit confused so I went back and checked.

 
At 3:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeanie, thanks for checking in. I had figured that you were just very busy.

I did go over to one of your now-hard-to-locate blogs to check, though, and left a comment at "Eddie's Barbeque." He looked like a pretty happy camper, so the shock must have come a bit later.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

John B, thanks for pointing that out.

You're right -- Bawer's language was ambiguous. I had misread the role of Gijs van de Westelaken as producer of the festival. Now, I see that he's the film's producer . . . which is odd, for that role is also attributed to Theo van Gogh.

Perhaps van Gogh was actually the director?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:01 AM, Blogger jeanie oliver said...

Prof,
Why am I hard to locate? I'm sitting still in one place in Fulton County. You are the one dancing all around the globe!
J

 
At 4:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, I am dancing across this globe, much like an angel dancing upon the head of a pin, for angels are pretty hard to locate as well.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:56 AM, Blogger John B said...

IMDB credits Theo van Gogh with Producer, Director, and Writer. Westelaken is uncredited in the film. The two did seem to work together a lot on other projects.

 
At 10:03 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Perhaps it was a case of The Producers...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:20 AM, Blogger Otto Silver said...

Korea Beat carried an interesting post today. Korean Church Association offended by Buddhist animal statues in Incheon Airport

I thought it fit in nicely with this post.

 
At 9:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Otto. It goes to show that somebody's always being offended by something.

I suppose that we should just outlaw all speech, expression, art, whatever...

Jeffery Hodges

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