Thursday, June 05, 2008

THE OPIATE OF THE MASSES. The Anchoress seems to think that if Obama becomes President, the United States will follow the lead of Canada, which "prosecutes thought crimes and suppresses free speech." She also believes that "the press" fails to cover stories of which she nonetheless appears amply informed, and this means the press is "no longer free."

This spurs me to the usual dismissive thoughts, but I am in some sympathy with her. Most of us who are paying attention will at one time or another feel that our society is insufficiently concerned with freedom of speech and that the press is missing the big picture on purpose. Sometimes we'll be right. I think conservatives frequently abuse the privilege, but the Mark Steyn thing sucks, as I have noted before.

A disinterested observer might wonder why this is such a point of contention. If anything should unite people who express opinions via the written word, it should be freedom of speech. With the exception of Jonah Goldberg and some others, few of us stick up for censorship. Yet we fight about it as if there were flammable stakes with our names on them dotting the horizon.

Setting aside for a moment my default assumption that I'm right and they're wrong, I think it may have something to do with what each side thinks would be an actionable offense in the dream world of the other. Being a Jesus person and global warming denialist, The Anchoress thinks religious dialogue (or at least rage at Islam) and global warming denialism will be the targets; being a foulmouthed berserker, I assume that, freed of all restraints, the conservative Imperium would hustle me off to reeducation camp to learn to say darn and heck.

Though the right seems to have a trademark on the phrase, the thing we all prize and guard jealously against incursions from the Other is political incorrectness. Endlessly this is proudly trotted out by authors as an offense to the timid sensibilities of opponents that may excite those opponents to a wave of repression. National Review's John Derbyshire is a master of this gambit; he seems to get visceral pleasure out of declaring that some obnoxious sentiment of his will soon be "illegal to utter." Yet, last I heard, Derbyshire is still living at home, writing for the Review, and unencumbered by an electronic bracelet.

Look around the salons of the libertarians -- revealing stupid prosecutions of speech is one of their useful functions -- and you'll find that most such outrages are the work of overzealous idiots who probably couldn't comprehend a Constitutional issue if it were rendered in an easy reading edition, and are mainly trying to cover their own lame asses. An inspired political yahoo could perhaps exploit this tendency to get a bunch of us thrown in prison, but here in the States at least it doesn't seem imminent.

And it isn't imminent because the authorities don't care what we say and they don't care what we think. Their main concern is money, and as long as we don't kink up the pipeline that connects the public treasury to their pockets, we can say whatever we want. We can curse and call Muhammed a punk as much as we like; maybe Time or Newsweek will print a meditation on civility or something, but no one will really get in our faces unless our words, clean or obscene, show signs of inciting a real power shift.

And really: what are the odds of that happening?

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