Mark Steyn, the most important figure in the debate over free speech in America today – which, as he might say, isn’t a bad day’s work for a Canadian – makes a crucial point about the impulse to control words as a vehicle for controlling thought:
I don’t care for all this beyond-the-pale stuff, because the pale is already way too shrunk. And, aside from anything else, once you get into the habit of banning and proscribing, your critical thinking goes all to hell. Many of us have seen one or two of those ill-advised shows on al-Arabiya or al-Jazeera in which some fire-breathing imam invites on a despised, Westernized, apostate woman in order to crush her like a bug, only to have her run rings round him. The Syrian émigré Wafa Sultan famously did it to Faisal al-Qassem and Ibrahim al-Khouli. It’s hardly surprising that a culture that puts so much of life beyond discussion renders its inmates literally speechless — to the point where, faced with, say, a school teddy bear innocently named Mohammed, the default opening gambit at the local debating society is to shriek “Allahu Akbar!” and start killing.
We’re not at that point yet. But, raised in the cocoon of conformity that is American academe, the Left is increasingly showing all the critical-thinking skills of your average dimestore mullah. The other day, in between its ongoing complaints about Michael Douglas’s “homophobic” awards acceptance speeches, Salon ran a story by one of its many pajama boys headlined “Ted Nugent Writes Insanely Racist Op-Ed.” Apparently, Ted had written a “vile rant” at “the batshit insane right-wing fever swamp of a site known as WorldNetDaily.” “Even for Ted Nugent,” cautioned Elias Isquith in his opening sentence, “this is bad.” Alas, poor old Ted couldn’t quite live up to his batshit-insane billing: There followed a few unexceptional observations about black crime and broken families maybe a smidgeonette more heated than one might hear from, say, Bill Cosby or Juan Williams. More to the point, the hapless pajama boy didn’t even attempt to explain what was so objectionable about Nugent’s “rant.” As the Canadian blogger Kathy Shaidle put it, “Salon calls out Ted Nugent’s ‘racist’ MLK Day column — without refuting his points. Must be Friday.” All Mr. Isquith can do is reprise Ted Nugent’s words and then shriek “Batshit insane!” and “Insanely batshit!” over and over, like Lady Bracknell with Tourette’s.
The principles work the same for every group of totalitarian fanatics, from the global warming grifter who’s using an insanely drawn-out legal procedure to silence Steyn, to the racial and sexual Thought Police. What passes beyond speech passes quickly beyond thought; the public doesn’t invest a lot of mental energy in contemplating ideas it’s not allowed to discuss. It’s not necessary to work up a good defense of your ideas when the critics are not allowed to speak.
And long before we hit the point of government expressly outlawing speech, in a manner that even the tattered current edition of the First Amendment would not permit in the United States, it is quite possible for freelance totalitarians to control speech on a self-appointed vigilante basis. Much of what they do is designed to make those who own the means of intellectual transmission – publishers, TV network executives, film producers – nervous about doing business with the blacklisted. Those who dismiss this relatively “soft” totalitarianism by glibly stating that as long as the government isn’t gagging anyone, it’s not a First Amendment issue, are following the letter of that Amendment, but not its spirit. It’s up to us – all of us - to remain forever vigilant on the frontiers of speech. To dismiss anything that doesn’t activate the Robocop of the First Amendment as no big deal is to do what conservatives are always criticizing liberals for: sitting back and waiting for the government to rescue you.
Certainly any magazine is free to employ anyone it wishes; every TV network can hire any actors or personalities it wants. The people who tried to kick Phil Robertson off “Duck Dynasty” were not committing a crime. But what they did was outrageous, and it was a great display of American spine for the audience of his show – and a heartening number of people who disagreed with Robertson, and don’t even watch his show – to convince those network executives they were making a terrible mistake. The people who tried to muzzle Robertson were engaged and defeated. Many more such battles await; we must rush eagerly to the front lines of each.
And when the machinery of the State is used to silence someone, as is the case with Mark Steyn and the flagrant abuse of an absurd legal system designed to make free speech more trouble than it’s worth, we’ve got a serious problem on our hands. Every outlawed word is a murdered thought. The sphere of reason contracts along with the sphere of speech. One result is an increasingly dimwitted dominant culture whose wit grows dull at precisely the same rate as dissent is suppressed.