Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

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You Ought To Read This Book

In Book Review, Freedom of Expression on March 9, 2012 at 10:00 AM

This is a cross post by Michael Ezra. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on March 9th 2012, 9:30 am.

Book Review

Nick Cohen, You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate, 2012) 330 pp.

Nick Cohen has something to say and You Can’t Read This Book is the edifying result of his determination to say it. Cohen is a worried man; he worries about our freedom of expression. The wealthy can silence us with libel actions too expensive to defend, the courts can gag us, and if religious extremists threaten our lives, we can no longer rely upon the liberal left for support; we are not as free as we could or should be.

On February 14, 1989 the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, (a religious ruling) calling for the death of the British novelist Salman Rushdie because his book, The Satanic Verses, supposedly insulted the Prophet Muhammad. For this, Rushdie, “along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents” deserved to die. “The attack on The Satanic Verses,” Cohen writes, “appalled liberals.”

Khomeini issued the fatwah so that no one would “dare insult the sacred beliefs of Muslims henceforth.” The Rushdie Affair was a defining moment in the history of our modern right to freedom of speech: it was when the tenets of Islam became a subject that not even the “edgy” alternative comedians of the 1980s, who had built a new genre of comedy around attacking traditional institutions like the monarchy or Church of England would touch. It was fear, pure and simple.

In September 2005, Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, breached the taboo and published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad – sacrilegious in Islam. After the cartoons were reproduced in newspapers across Europe at least 139 people died in the resulting protests. Salman Rushdie, however, was still alive; and to some, that was the problem. “If there had been a Muslim to carry out Imam Khomeini’s fatwa against the renegade Salman Rushdie,” said Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Islamist group Hizbollah, “this rabble who insult our Prophet Muhammad in Denmark, Norway and France would not have dared to [publish the cartoons].”  In his view there was not enough fear – but there was plenty: not one national newspaper in the UK dared to reprint the cartoons. The Rushdie affair had caused enough trouble; freedom of expression it seemed just wasn’t worth the grief.  Meanwhile, in America, Cohen tells us that US networks banned images of Muhammad, by claiming that they were “liberals who wanted to display their respect and tolerance.” But as Cohen also tells us, this wasn’t entirely true. Matt Stone, a creator of Comedy Central’s South Park, was blunt. It wasn’t liberalism that stopped them: it was their fear of getting blown up. “That’s what you are afraid of,” he said. “Comedy Central copped to that, you know: ‘We’re afraid of getting blown up.’” Because of the silence surrounding the true reasons for censorship, Cohen argues, the enemies of liberalism are strengthened – twice over.

Even the supposedly judicious world of academia wasn’t immune. In an academic book devoted to the controversy, Yale University Press refused to republish the cartoons (bad enough in itself), but the reason Yale gave for its decision not to publish the cartoons was even more instructive: it didn’t want “blood on its hands.”  And so the blame for violence was shifted from perpetrator to victim; a slippery line of reasoning akin to a teenage girl too scared to wear a short skirt in case she provoked her own rape, which she would be “asking for.” Cohen provides detailed descriptions of many of the cartoons, but his book does not reproduce them. I have no idea if Cohen would have liked them in the book, but the question is academic as the truth is that there is more chance of me having a night of wild sex with Natalie Portman than there is of Fourth Estate, Cohen’s publishers, agreeing to republish the Danish cartoons.

Betrayal.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali was a young girl from a Somali family when she suffered female genital mutilation. It was just the beginning of a life she didn’t want and she eventually managed to escape a forced marriage, and flee to the Netherlands where she was granted political asylum. She learned to speak Dutch and graduated from a Dutch university. Rejecting her Muslim upbringing, she embraced atheism and liberalism and a political life. Highly critical of the treatment of women in Islamic society, she wrote the script of a short film on the subject, Submission, produced by Theo van Gogh; a classic story of female emancipation.

Then the death threats arrived. An Islamic extremist murdered Van Gogh and a warning was issued that Hirsi Ali would be next.  Surely the left would support a feminist, secular woman who had suffered so much, and was now threatened with murder? No. Instead there were leftists and liberals who denounced her. She had, some argued, endangered the security of the Dutch people. A leading figure in the Dutch liberal party declared her a bogus asylum seeker, who should be stripped of her citizenship. “Rejected by the Dutch leftists and the Dutch Liberal Party,” Cohen explains, “she eventually found a home at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC…. when her natural allies abandoned her, their opponents were the only people who would take her in.” Here the reader may notice a certain similarity between Hirsi Ali and Cohen himself. Because of his own principled stance, refusing to see the triumvirate of the United States, Britain and Israel as an axis of evil, Hamas and Hizbollah as heroic resistance movements, and Islamists such as Tariq Ramadan and Jamal al-Banna as voices of moderation, he found his own ostracisation by many on the left. Cohen grew up on the left. In his 2007 book, What’s Left? he wrote of his belief, age 13, that “to be good, you had to be on the left.” He now writes for the Spectator and Standpoint. Fine journals but hardly bastions of left wing thought.

I do not agree with all Cohen’s opinions. He paints a distorted picture of the credit crunch of 2008 and I raised my eyebrows when reading his judgement that “Sensible countries should treat banks as if they were hostile foreign powers.” But he nonetheless uses the financial crisis to make a valid point: the difficulty employees have in speaking up against their employers. He does not use this acronym, but “CLM” comes to mind, “career limiting move,” the practical effect of criticising a superior. It is not simply hyperbole for Cohen to suggest that the workplace is a not a democracy but a dictatorship. The risks associated with criticising a boss can lead to loss of a job; the rewards, even if the criticism is justified, are not sufficient to make doing so worthwhile.

If internal criticism of a company’s policies or procedures is hard, going public is even harder. In some cases it can even lead to a prison sentence. While there is legal protection for whistleblowers, in practice it is not so simple. Even if a whistleblower acts morally and correctly, his career may be irreparably damaged as finding work elsewhere may be very difficult. Who wants to employ a troublemaker?

Cohen also inveighs against the English libel laws. Writers, editors and publishers in England and Wales operate in a legal jurisdiction where the mere threat of a libel action can cause panic, an apology and a retraction. The truth of what has been written is almost irrelevant; what matters, asLaurie Penny recently put it, is “whether or not it is actionable.” As an example, one can consider what happened when the Sovietologist, Robert Service, sent out an email in 2010 linking fellow academic Orlando Figes, to hostile online anonymous book reviews. The linkage was accurate, but difficult to prove.  When Figes initially denied the link and got his lawyers involved, Service, in his own words, was left both “terrified” and “a gibbering wreck.” According to Rachel Polonsky, a third scholar, and someone with who Service had discussed the online reviews, Service was so “terrorised” by the possibility of libel action that he thought “he would lose his home.”   Deborah Lipstadt successfully defended her case against David Irving – she had described him as a Holocaust Denier, a bigot and a falsifier of history – but not before the defence costs had approached £2 million.  Service’s fears were not unfounded.

The costs associated with a libel action in England and Wales are so high, 140 times the European average, that “I’ll sue you… in England”, a line used in the American comedy show South Park, no doubt garnered recognizable laughs from its viewers. There is no certainty that full costs are awarded to the winner of a libel case or can be paid even if they are. Someone libelled might win their case but lose financially because the damages and costs recovered are less than the costs incurred.  Cohen reminds us that “President Obama signed a law that stated that the US courts should not enforce the orders of English judges against American authors,” – an appalling indictment of English libel laws.

Gagging orders or “super-injunctions,” are also available to English courts to stifle free speech. But perhaps their example also offers hope. An English court ruled that Ryan Giggs, a Premier League soccer player, could not be named as the celebrity involved in extra marital sexual relationship with a glamour model and reality television star. Tens of thousands of users on Twitter made a mockery of the gagging order by promptly naming him. If the English courts think that a 13 year old sitting in an internet café in Hong Kong with an anonymous Twitter account cares about their rulings as to what can and cannot be published, they fully deserve to be derided.

But one can only shake their head in wonderment reading Cohen’s account of what happened to Paul Chambers as a result of an obviously non serious Tweet. Annoyed that snow had grounded all flights, he Tweeted: “Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” As Cohen correctly states, the Tweet is no more a serious threat than a comment such as “I’ll strangle my boyfriend if he hasn’t done the washing up.” The myrmidons of English justice thought differently. Chambers was arrested in his workplace, taken to court, found guilty of sending menacing messages over a public telecommunications network and fined £1,000. He lost two jobs as a result of the series of events. Readers might be forgiven for wondering at what point Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss would show up to tell Chambers that this was necessary for “the best of all possible worlds.”

“It is not what you say but where you say it,” Cohen declares as important, before arguing: “The freedom the net brings is illusory if it confines writers to working under pseudonyms in obscure corners of the web. Writers who wish to be heard must break from the fringe into the mainstream by arguing for their ideas in the open.”  My preferred formulation is that it is not where you say it, but who reads it that is important. This means that an obscure corner of the web can be an effective place to say something if it is read by an influential person who has the ability to bring the argument to a wider audience.

Now, it is true that it should be far more likely that someone writing in the mainstream will be heard by the influential than someone writing in the fringe, but it is not necessarily the case. Anonymous Twitter users in repressive regimes can attract the attention of writers and activists in the West. Nasrin Alavi, for example, brought together translations from the writings of Iranian bloggers in her 2005 book, We Are Iran, raising awareness of the issues facing Iranians.

A book is far more enjoyable if it is well written. Cohen can certainly write.You Can’t Read This Book is accessible and erudite. There are not many writers who, in a single book, can discuss the Peloponnesian War, comment upon Xenophon and Plato’s view of Socrates, give an opinion on Karl Marx’s beliefs in the inevitability of the proletarian revolution, and quote the Bible’s Leviticus, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth, Honoré de Balzac, John Stuart Mill, George Orwell, Saul Bellow and Joel Feinberg, while, at the same time, having the chutzpah to use the phrase, “fercockt Western putzes.” The late Christopher Hitchens, to whom the book is dedicated, was one; Nick Cohen is another.

On Killing Babies, II

In Abortion, From the Vaults on March 6, 2012 at 8:21 AM

This is a cross post by Michael Ezra. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on March 3rd 2012, 10:49 am

Following on from my previous post, Rory Connor from the comments section brought to my attention an exchange of views that occurred in the pages of Spectator in 1988. The exchange was sparked by a December 5, 1987 article by Paul Johnson entitled “When is a Foetus Disposable.”  Godwin had not invented his law in 1988, and it was designed for online debates, not exchanges in magazines. However, when the Hitler comparisons and analogies do start flying, it is often time to call a halt to the debate. I visited the vaults, located the exchange in question, and I copy below the relevant points:

“Letters,” The Spectator, January 2, 1988, p22.

Personal Rights

… when severe defects [in the foetus] have unfortunately not been diagnosed until the baby is actually born, why should we simply leave the baby to endure an intolerable life until natural death finally brings relief? In a sense, the euthanasia of a newborn baby can be regarded as a very late abortion – but at that stage the gravest reasons would be required to justify it: in fact, nothing but the baby’s being born with such severe handicaps that he or she could never have anything like a normal life.

It is not the same as the situation of an older child becoming severely disabled, perhaps through an accident. At birth, a baby has very limited awareness, has no idea of any future, and has no real stake in life, whereas an older child (a three-year-old, say) has become a real little person, with a sense of his own identity, with personal relationships, and with an idea of purposes and time – the very things that give human being full status and rights.

Barbara Smoker
President, National Secular Society

“Letters,” The Spectator, January 23, 1988, p20.

Being and Unbeing

[Barbara Smoker] adumbrated a proposition by which, as far as I could understand, it would have been all right to massacre a newborn baby if it were severely handicapped. There was a hint that it might even be all right until the child was “a three-year-old, say”, when it would have become a “real little person.” After which, I took it, it would not be all right.

…. [I] wonder whether Ms [Smoker] had never noticed that babies of two months, two days or even two minutes had distinct personalities; and…perhaps the thing which gives human beings full status and rights was to be alive….

I read your leader about Asian women aborting girl children, and your apt observation that this was equally as wrong as denying life to people on the grounds of handicap. It struck me for the first time that had I been conceived today, suffering as I do from muscular dystrophy, I would have been detected by modern scanning as unacceptable, and aborted (or, of course, bopped on the head at birth if Ms had had her way).

Now, while there may be those who think that that would have been no bad thing, I prefer to be alive. And I would like, after all, to make the point to Ms and the member of her society.

Quentin Crewe

….[A fertilised egg] contains the complete genetic constitution of an adult, including sex, ultimate dimensions, texture, temperament and intellectual capacity. No one knows whether this microscopic marvel will become a Shakespeare or a Michelangelo. But if, as is likely, it will become an ordinary man or woman, we should approach it with awe and love.

M. A. Lynch

“Letters,” The Spectator, February 20, 1988,  p24.

Perfection in the womb

Quentin Crewe…. substitutes for my list of qualities that give human beings their status and rights the one qualification of simply being alive. But that would prevent him from killing to eat, for even vegetables are alive.

He then says that, since he suffers from muscular dystrophy, (for which he has my true sympathy), he might have been aborted and this genetic condition been susceptible to foetal diagnosis before he was born. At the risk of seeming heard-hearted, I must ask: so what? The entity would have been aborted would have known nothing about it, and, of course, would not have been his present self, with his sense of identity, his stake in life, his aspirations, and his personal relationships. In fact, it would never have become a person at all. In that event, he would admittedly not exist now…. And if every woman carrier of muscular dystrophy were to abort all her female foetuses (which would otherwise develop into carriers) and keep only those male foetuses found to be free of the gene, this distressing disease would be eliminated (except for mutants) in a single generation. Similarly with other sex-linked genetic diseases….

[M.A. Lynch pursues] the same fallacious argument as Mr Crewe – treating potential as though it were actuality – and points out that an aborted foetus might have become a Shakespeare or a Michelangelo. (Equally, of course, it might have become a Hitler or a Michael Ryan. And to ensure the development of every potential Shakespeare or Michelangelo, there would have to be total ban on birth control.)….

Barbara Smoker
President, National Secular Society

“Letters,” The Spectator, March 5, 1988,  p20.

Acceptable Crime

Barbara Smoker… now says it would have all right to abort me because I would have known nothing about it. Since when has the victim’s knowing nothing of it made a crime acceptable? I could bump off Miss Smoker without her knowing anything about it, but I would hardly think it was right or even desirable, let alone that it should be made legal.

It is interesting that Miss Smoker should be the first to introduce Hitler into this discussion. It was his followers who wanted to perfect the human race by killing the weak and by genetic engineering. I begin to wonder about this society of which Miss Smoker is president.

Quentin Crewe


On Killing Babies

In Abortion, Rothbard on March 2, 2012 at 6:37 PM

This is a cross post by Michael Ezra. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on February 29th 2012, 4:15 pm

I am sure that many people  will be as shocked as I am by this report that has appeared in the Daily Telegraph:

Infanticide should be legal, Oxford experts say

A group of medical ethicists linked to Oxford University has argued that killing young babies is no different from abortion, and should be allowed even when there is nothing physically wrong with the child….

[Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, the authors of the report published in the Journal of Medical Ethics,] argued: “The moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus in the sense that both lack those properties that justify the attribution of a right to life to an individual.”

Rather than being “actual persons”, newborns were “potential persons”.

They explained: “Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life’.

“We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.”

As such they argued it was “not possible to damage a newborn by preventing her from developing the potentiality to become a person in the morally relevant sense”.

The authors therefore concluded that “what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled”.

Utilising ethics and morals to justify the termination of the life of babies is not new. A key question becomes who owns the baby. In his book, The Ethics of Liberty, the libertarian Murray Rothbard argued that the mother “is the natural and rightful owner of the baby.” He adds, “even from birth, the parental ownership is not absolute but of a ‘trustee’ or guardianship kind. In short, every baby as soon as it is born and is therefore no longer contained within his mother’s body possesses the right of self-ownership by virtue of being a separate entity and a potential adult.” Rothbard is clear that it should be illegal to torture or murder a baby. But having said that, this does not make Rothbard the great defender of babies. Far from it. He believed that a parent can simply let a baby die by not feeding it:

[A] parent does not have the right to aggress against his children, but also … the parent should not have a legal obligationto feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive.

Rothbard would therefore allow a parent to starve a baby to death by not providing it any food.  A different, and earlier argument, for killing babies was made in 1895 by the American individual anarchist Benjamin Tucker. Unlike Rothbard, he believed that parents could torture and murder their children: “parental cruelty is not to be prohibited.” He made an explicit argument based on his opinion that parents owned their children, to conclude that they have the right to throw their child into the fire. Carl Watner explained in the pages of Libertarian Forum (March 1975):

Tucker’s opinion is grounded on the fact that he views the child as the property of the mother. Children, in Tucker’s estimation, belong in the category of things to be owned, rather than as being owners of themselves. However he does note that the “child differs from all other parts of that category (of things to be owned) in the fact that there is steadily developing within him the power of self-emancipation, which at a certain point enables him to become an owner instead of remaining part of the owned.”” Tucker saw ”. . . no clearer property title in the world than that of the mother to the fruit of her womb, unless she has otherwise disposed of it by contract. Certainly the mother’s title to the child while it remains in her womb will not be denied by any Anarchist. To deny this would be to deny the right of the mother to commit suicide during pregnancy, and I never knew an Anarchist to deny the right of suicide. If, then, the child is the mother’s while in the womb, by what consideration does title to it become vested in another than the mother on its emergence from the womb pending the day of its emancipation?”

Tucker clearly refused to invoke the self-ownership axiom towards children, at least until they had reached the age of being able to contract and provide for themselves. In the meantime, he recognized the right of the mother to throw her property into the fire.

I am sure that many people will look at these arguments for either killing a baby or allowing it to die and their prejudice against those with philosophy degrees will be reinforced.

Hat Tip: Paul Bogdanor

Can Congress Criminalize a Lie?

In Freedom of Expression on March 2, 2012 at 6:30 PM

This is a cross post by Michael Ezra. It was originally posted on Harry’s Place on February 27th 2012, 10:00 am

The New York based law firm, Garson, Segal, Steinmetz, Fladgate LLP, (GS2Law) brings to my attention a very interesting case recently heard at the Supreme Court. The case is that of the United States vs Alvarez. It arises because of the Stolen Valor Act, whereby it a federal crime to falsely represent that one has “been awarded any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States, any of the service medals or badges awarded to the members of such forces, the ribbon, button, or rosette of any such badge, decoration, or medal, or any colorable imitation of such item.”

Xavier Alvarez lied about a number of matters. For example, as GS2Law explain, he lied “that he rescued the American ambassador during the Iranian hostage crisis” and “that he was married to a Mexican movie star.” To lie about such matters are not criminal, they are just lies. However, Alvarez also stated, “I’m a retired marine of 25 years. I retired in the year 2001. Back in 1987, I was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. I got wounded many times by the same guy. I’m still around.” This lie was deemed to a federal crime and deserved of being punished with 416 hours of community service, a fine of $5,000 and three years probation. Alvarez appealed and won, but the government were not satisfied and took the case to the Supreme Court.

In my opinion it will be a disgrace if the U.S. government wins this case. There are limits of freedom of speech. The most famous example is that one cannot without justification shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Another is that a company cannot make false claims about its products in advertising. There are other examples but as GS2Law explain, “in each of those situations, there is a clear ‘harm’  that results from the speech.”  It is more difficult to say who has been harmed by someone falsely claiming to be a military hero. While the answer to this can be argued to genuine military heroes, it does not seem to me reasonable that this is worthy of a federal crime.

In the United States, under the First Amendment, there is substantial freedom of speech: neo-Nazis can deny the Holocaust, antigay activists can disrupt funerals and the President of the United States can be denounced as terrorist. Given this, I concur with the view expressed by the Los Angeles Times:

If Alvarez had lied about his military record to obtain money, he would have been  guilty of the eminently prosecutable crime of fraud. But in itself a  pathetic claim to military glory — a claim easily debunked by a visit to the Internet — isn’t the sort of statement a free society should criminalize.

In his recent book, You Can’t Read This Book, Nick Cohen reminds us that the libel laws in England have so little respect in America that “President Obama signed a law that stated that the US courts should not enforce the orders of English judges against American authors.” I cannot say I blame Obama for this action. But at the same time, there is no reason why, when it comes to matters of freedom of speech, we in England cannot point our fingers to the Americans and say to them, in the event the government wins this case, “Tu quoque.” Of course, such an argument should not be used to justify the fear of speaking out in England due to our own oppressive libel laws, but it might make Americans realise that their own so-called freedom of speech can be called into question.

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