“It was a pleasure to burn.”
Thus began Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel, “Fahrenheit 451”, with the testimonial of the tale’s protagonist, Guy Montag, a “Fireman” who did not stop fires, but was paid by the government to burn books.
For many years, the perversity of Bradbury’s dark “future” America repulsed and frightened readers. But, evidently, not everyone found it repulsive. Take the Editorial Department of the comically leftist “Washington Post”, and the author of an op-ed the birdcage liner just saw fit to print.
His name is Richard Stengel, and Dick used to be the Managing Editor of the also-famously leftist dinosaur Time. He was the CEO and Chairman of the National Constitution Center, which hails itself as “The only institution in America chartered by Congress to disseminate information about the Constitution on a non-partisan basis,” and fed from the tax trough as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs from 2013 to 2016, during which time, he is claimed to have “helped modernize the State Department’s communications and led the department’s counter-disinformation efforts.” Remember that last one, because it’s actually much more significant than the wording appears.
So, all of a sudden, Mr. Stengel is appearing in the Post to write that free speech isn’t really all that great, especially now, when that nutty internet allows anyone to offer information, and, goodness knows, that’s just gauche.
It appears to have not crossed the minds of the WAPO’s editorial team to mention that Mr. Stengel also happens to have just released a big-publisher book further pushing the narrative that “disinformation” (to him, synonymous with that swinish thing, “free speech”) helped break the election process in 2016.
The bulk of Stengel’s argument is that the time for free speech is over, and we savages just can’t “have it” – as if it’s conferred onto us by some king. He seems to see great wisdom in moves by authoritarian nations like Germany and an unnamed “Arab” nation (presumably the lovely bastion of women’s and gay rights, Saudi Arabia) to curb what they and he term “hate speech”.
Yes, the First Amendment protects the ‘thought that we hate,’ but it should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another. In an age when everyone has a megaphone, that seems like a design flaw.
Which is, of course, one of the most ignorant statements about the First Amendment stated this year. It not only reflects that towering elitism I mentioned earlier, it promotes precisely that which liberty-minded people have been warning folks would happen if they did not stand up against the popularization of this rhetorical attack term “hate speech.”
So let’s clear up a few problems for Mr. Stengel.
The First Amendment does not protect mere “thought.” It explicitly prohibits the Congress from making any
…law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
That means the expression of thought, Mr. Stengel, not the ideas one keeps locked in his or her head.
Second. Your monumentally condescending line that “in an age when everyone has a megaphone” it seems as if the First Amendment has a “design flaw” is nothing short of self-defeating, circular, and, frankly, offensive to anyone who understands the universal nature of individual rights.
As Immanuel Kant explained in his 1797 work, Foundations of The Metaphysics of Morals, free speech is one of the major “universalizable” actions that places it in the category of fundamental human rights. By speaking, one does not aggressively take away another person’s right to speak. One doesn’t rip out another man’s tongue or hit him or jail him for his words.
This also means that anyone can hear or read anything they like, so, as John Stuart Mill noted in “On Liberty”, freedom to speak is also the freedom to listen, or read, or watch, or debate – to glean ideas that agents of the state (like you once were, Mr. Stengel) might not like, and to distinguish for themselves what is true. Luckily, free markets punish intellectual fraud, because people are free to turn elsewhere.
Which is precisely what has happened with Time, the WAPO and most other leftist media dinosaurs. Because we, free people, have alternatives, we are seeking them, and dropping those biased rags into the dustbins of history.
Third. Let’s dispel this sick notion that “hateful speech” “can cause violence by one group against another.”
Speech doesn’t “cause” some kind of autonomic turn to violence as if human beings are voice-activated robots. People choose to be violent, and the inspirations for their violent choices are as numerous as the actors themselves. To claim that mere sound in the air, or words on a page, can somehow take over another human mind and make that mind move the limbs to injure another is not only absurd, it is one of the fraudulent foundations of postmodernist collectivism that has been growing and growing in the West in both the courts and leftist-dominated media and universities since the first half of the 20th Century. It is vile, counter-intellectual, anti-individual, and anti-human.
Its social and rhetorical roots actually trace back to Rousseau, who, in 18th Century France, handed off his five kids to the state-run “Foundlings” home, then blamed society for “never tasting the sweetness of a father’s embrace” of his children. It finds its absurd legal reasoning in the undignified and foolish nonsense of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, who, in his 1919 majority ruling over the case of Schenck v. United States seemed to exultate in spreading the dumb idea that “one cannot shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.” The effect – perhaps intended – of that notion has been to reinforce the myth that humans can be moved without their own volition, merely by a word, and to cause people to overlook the fact that a theatre is supposed to be private property, so it’s not the choice of word one shouts, but the interruption by shouting that would likely get a theater-goer ejected and possibly cited for trespass or breach of contract.
Likewise, a private theater owner certainly could allow for people to shout, throw things and be rambunctious during films. Clearly, Mr. Holmes never got to attend a screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”.
The key is property. According to Natural Rights theorists such as Thomas Paine and Lysander Spooner, all humans have equal rights in their own persons, what they peacefully do with their persons, and what they acquire through peaceful activity. And, by its nature, the oppositional force against all rights is the state.
Which brings us directly to Mr. Stengel’s key time in the Obama State Department. His final year, 2016 saw him working feverishly with Barack, leftist Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) and RINO Ohio Senator Rob Portman to pass the “Portman-Murphy Countering Foreign Propaganda Act”, a bill that wound its way through Congress in the fall of ’16, just as Obama “spontaneously” called for a “truthiness test” for online posts and as the ever-so-unbiased Washington Post published an absurd list from a shadowy group called “Prop-or-Not” that included websites like RonPaulDotCom and Anti-WarDotCom as “Russian Propaganda” – the precursors to Hillary calling Tulsi Gabbard a “Russian Asset”.
That bill passed in December of 2016, and it allowed the feds to send up to $150 million dollars to dusty media outlets that “aided” in combating “foreign propaganda”. In other words, it paid off mainstream media to march in line with federal narratives – narratives the leftists fully expected would be controlled by Hillary Clinton.
It turns out that was not the case. And the left is fuming. Trump ended the “Anti-Propaganda” pork program, and now, people like Stengel are continuing the laughably obnoxious, childish narrative that something “has to be done” to stop free speech.
Because he says it’s dangerous.
Dangerous to the collectivist state he and so many prefer, perhaps?
You can be the judge. As long as the government allows it.
Bradbury might have suspected something like that could be in the offing, for he had his fire chief, Captain Beatty, tell Montag:
The important thing to remember, Montag, is we’re the Happiness Boys, the Dixie Duo, you and I and the others. We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought.
God forbid anyone should express a thought not approved by the state.