New Republic TRB: Liberals Should Defend Free Speech
Last week, I went searching the liberal Web for discussions of Idomeneo. The Deutsche Oper, a Berlin opera house, had recently canceled the Mozart classic because it feared Muslims would react violently to a scene featuring Mohammed’s severed head. Germans declared that free speech was under siege. The New York Times covered every wrinkle. Right-wing websites buzzed. And, on the big liberal blogs, virtual silence.Our first reaction is a applaud a liberal who wants to defend free speech.
If pressed, most liberal bloggers would probably have condemned the opera house’s decision. But they didn’t feel pressed. Blogging thrives on outrage (see, for instance, my colleague Martin Peretz’s outraged blogging on the affair at tnr.com/blog/spine), and the Idomeneo closure just didn’t get liberal blood flowing. And why is that? Perhaps because it didn’t have anything to do with George W. Bush.
Consider the liberal blogosphere’s reaction to Joseph Ratzinger’s (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI’s) September 12 speech, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor calling Islam “evil and inhuman”--prompting Muslim zealots to kill a nun in Somalia and two Iraqi Christians. Some liberals did unequivocally condemn the violence. The Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum, for instance, noted that “Benedict’s remarks may have been needlessly insulting, but the vicious and theatrical displays of violence from all over the Muslim world have nonetheless been completely disgraceful.” But Drum was not exactly typical. Look at the reaction on the überblog Daily Kos. Markos Moulitsas himself didn’t mention the controversy, but I found six “diaries” on the subject, written by contributors to his site, which garnered a sizeable response. One blamed the pope, one blamed the Muslim response, and one blamed both Islam and Christianity for being expansionist and violent. And the other three? They all blamed Bush. “Just in time for this year’s elections,” noted one writer. “Republicans need the Catholic vote, and, thus, we see [the pope’s statement].” Another Kossack called Ratzinger’s statement “a calculated, intentional strategy designed to help George Bush and the Republicans in the 2006 elections.” A third writer criticized Ratzinger for apologizing, because “[t]he Pope’s apology played into the Bush culture of fear.”
I know, I know. Bush is a horrendous president. The United States is on the verge of a midterm election that could strip him of much of his power. And liberal blogs are focused on trying to make sure that happens. That’s all well and good.
But it’s not enough. There are liberal causes that have nothing to do with opposing Bush and his Republican henchmen. In fact, some of those causes might even place liberals and Republican henchmen on the same side. And liberals must be passionate about them nonetheless. Partisan militancy may be necessary to combat Republican power. But it cannot define what it means to be a liberal in the United States today.
But our second is to see that he really just doesn’t get the point.
Liberals aren’t failing to defend free speech merely because they are preoccupied with hating George Bush.
There are more profound -- and dangerous -- reasons than that.
Liberals have increasingly come to occupy positions of institutional power in America. They dominate the media, the universities, the public school establishment and key parts of government bureaucracies (especially “civil rights” bureaucracies).
Free speech, quite simply, tends to be at least inconvenient, and quite often an outright threat, to those who have institutional power.
Thus university bureaucrats want to clamp down on student organizations who might “make trouble.” These, of course, are conservative student organizations.
“Diversity” bureaucrats find free speech a threat if any member of their pet client groups feels affronted.
Mainstream media types resent the challenge that conservative talk radio, blogs and well-funded conservative political campaigns pose to their informational monopoly.
None of this would change if George Bush were not president. In 2009, he will no longer be president. And the threat will remain.