Wednesday, December 20, 2006

1st Amendment double shot

"Freedom of Speech" really doesn't seem to be that popular anymore. It's nothing new that attorneys general, law enforcement, our friends at the FCC, and state legislatures everywhere seek to attack it.

But what I see more and more of these days is your average ordinary citizen taking up various positions against it. There was a disturbing poll not too long ago (I'm too lazy to google for it) where they asked people (registered voters, or high school students, or whoever) a series of questions in the form of: "do you think xxx should be legal?", where xxx was a variation of some kind of free speech that has been protected throughout the 200+ years of our country's existence. And of course a large majority of respondents answered "absolutely not".

The poll I'm thinking of was basically a trick, because the examples of speech they asked about was, to your average person who doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff, intuitively bad or wrong or whatever. In other words, the poll (like most other polls, just more obviously) was calculated to make a point. The point being (I think) that your average citizen doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff.

In my view, your average citizen has been subjected to a pervasive message that says... well, it says a few things. first, it says "we are a society of laws. lots and LOTS of laws." Then it says, "but don't worry about all these laws, because you, the average citizen, are certainly not a lawbreaker, because all these laws are based on normalcy, and you are NORMAL, right? RIGHT?" And then it says, without coming right out and saying it, that "there are so MANY fucking laws, that anything you can think of to do or say that is outside the norm is, very probably, AGAINST THE LAW."

So, with that backdrop: a couple of stories I saw today got me thinking about freedom of speech. The "speakers" in this case are radically different. As, I am sure, are most people's view of the speakers and their messages. What I mean is, it is hard to imagine that a single person could, at once, like both of these speakers and/or agree with both of their messages.

The first such speaker is John Lennon. Apparently it was well-known that the FBI took a keen interest in John during the 70s. I'm not surprised by their interest. After all, I suspect he had the attention of a large number of people during this time. But, when the FBI gets interested in you, they don't just sit and watch you on the news or listen to your songs or read your poetry or write fan letters. Instead, they tap into their huge budget and start with the electronic evesdropping, breaking and entering, etc.

But this is so commonplace and intuitive (see above) that no one objects or probably even feels like objecting. So it is with today's news story. No one seems to care that the FBI violated John's right to free speech, invaded his privacy, and subjected him to harrassment for his views, all at taxpayer expense and all in lieu of other things the FBI could presumably be spending its resources on.

But at least some people appear to be objecting to the fact that they tried to keep the fruits of these efforts secret. Actually, they DID keep it secret. The first FBI files on Lennon were released in 1997. This is 25 years after they were compiled, and 15 years after they were requested by a historian. The remainder of the files were released today, 35 years after they were compiled and 25 years after they were requested.

And so you may ask, why did the FBI fight a decades long court battle to keep these files secret? According to their public stance, because they feared that the files would cause a certain foreign government to retaliate against the United States for releasing the files. In other words, the end-all-be-all of government secrecy arguments: "national security". The certain foreign government that they feared would retaliate against us? the stinking ENGLISH.

The unadorned story is here. For those of you with nytimes.com subscriptions (or people who can use bugmenot.com), the New York Times has a humorous take here.

The other story concerns the British historian who says the Jewish holocaust perpetrated by the Germans is fiction. Apparently there is an epithet to describe such a person; they are known as "holocaust deniers". (Are there so many of these people that we need a special name for them? I would have thought we could just lump them in with all the other "idiots" with screwball opinions, but whatever.)

Anway. This guy was released from jail today after a judge commuted his prison sentence. His crime? Being a "holocaust denier". In other words, he is a person who has vociferously expressed a very unpopular opinion.

But his opinion is unpopular for a reason. You can read the article, but here's a textbyte:

The court heard abstracts of the original charges, in which Irving was quoted as saying that Hitler extended a protective hand to the Jews, that there were no death camps during the Second World War and that Holocaust survivors claiming the opposite should be subject to psychiatric examination. “Is it not time to stop this gas chamber fairy tale?” Irving was quoted as saying.
Now, I haven't read much about the holocaust. I have seen some accounts which assert that the number of Jewish persons killed was significantly less than the 6 million figure which seems to be currently accepted. I have no idea how many Jewish persons were killed, but the main point for me, and one that seems utterly undeniable, is that the Germans DID engage in genocide against Jews. Isn't that enough? I mean, does it really matter exactly how successful they were at this?

But so this guy, Irving, has his views. Maybe he is crazy. Maybe he is a bigot. Maybe he is a hate-mongering, cowardly, evil motherfucker. And, as unlikely as it appears, maybe he has some small scintilla of a point, whatever it might be. The fact is, most everyone can agree that some of the opinions he has expressed are reprehensible.

Regardless of all that, what we have are two people. John Lennon, almost universally revered. Someone whose thoughts on the Vietnam war and the state of society as a whole are now generally accepted as being correct, or at least on the right path. And David Irving. A person almost universally abhorred. Someone whose thoughts are generally accepted as being hateful and wrong. One is surveilled and harrassed by the United States Government, one is imprisoned.

Two very dissimilar people. They can only be equated in the sense that they were both oppressed for stating their opinions. Other than the purely coincidental fact that both their stories appeared on the same day, the only reason I bring them together here is simply to state that you can't outrage against the oppression of only one of them. Sure, you can pick and choose as to which opinion you support. Clearly you may, wholly within your discretion, using your logic and reason, decide which you feel is right. But what you cannot do, what we as a society cannot do, is suppress either of them without harming the other.

In a free society, we must trust that reason will prevail. That truth will prevail. We cannot appoint judges and legislators -- and presidents -- to determine what flavor of information will be disseminated among us. We must trust in ourselves, as individuals and as a society, to sift through the superabundance of ideas and end at the truth.

I think we are up to the challenge. So let's stop imprisoning people for what they think.