The Imus affair was not about Don Imus; it was — and more importantly, is — about the motives of those who brought him down. And we should be familiar with those motives, because they recur throughout history. They were well articulated in a once famous speech:
"Since virtue (good citizenship) and equality are the soul of the republic … it follows that the first rule of your political conduct must be to relate all of your measures to the maintenance of equality and to the development of virtue.
"… What is our goal? The enforcement of the constitution for the benefit of the people. Who will our enemies be? The vicious and the rich. What means will they employ? Slander and hypocrisy … The people must therefore be enlightened. But what are the obstacles to the enlightenment of the people? Mercenary writers who daily mislead them with impudent falsehoods. What conclusions may be drawn from this? These writers must be proscribed as the most dangerous enemies of the people. Right-minded literature must be scattered about in profusion.
"… If the driving force of popular government in peacetime is virtue, that of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror: virtue, without terror is destructive; terror without which virtue is impotent. Terror is only justice that is prompt, severe, and inflexible; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a distinct principle than a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to the most pressing needs of the patrie."
These are excerpts from the speech "Republic of Virtue," by Maximilien Robespierre in 1794, which justified and accelerated the Reign of Terror into its culmination, "La Grande Terreur" (The Great Terror) — the blood bath from which the French Revolution never fully recovered.
Do I exaggerate? Of course. Last week, the mob didn’t cut off Imus’s head, merely his microphone. But it is by studying repression of ideas in its extreme, unambiguous form that we may understand clearly its earlier, partly obscured symptoms and motives.
For me, the repressive mentality was brought home last week while participating in a National Public Radio interview on the Imus affair. A "respected" liberal journalist and I were exchanging views when she said (to closely paraphrase): As long as we got Imus off the air, I don’t much care how we did it.
In other words, the ends justify the means. If Imus’s words are destructive, the people shouldn’t hear them. Just shut him up any way you can. Of course, the acceptance of the proposition that "bad" words or ideas should be suppressed is itself, a priori, a rejection of the principle of free speech.
But note, we need to distinguish between constitutional free speech and a culture conducive to free speech. Neither Imus, nor any of us, have a right to be published or broadcast. Constitutionally, we only have a right to stand on a street corner or otherwise self-publish our ideas and words.
But a culture that cheers on collective efforts at suppression of heresy, dissent or other unpopular words is every bit as chilling as one merely enforced by law. And there is usually a political agenda (often hidden) behind such public exhortations to suppression: Crassly silence one’s political opponent in the name of public virtue. Or, as in the case of Imus, use his suppression as a chilling threat to others — who are one’s true political enemies.
Imus used a nasty phrase, reasonably believed by many to have been hateful. His transgression was merely a convenient moment to launch an intimidating suppression campaign against other "hate speech."
But we all know that "hate speech" is in the ear of the listener. In Europe, citizens can be — and have been — criminally prosecuted for calling elements of Islam violence-prone. The great crusading journalist Oriana Fallaci was forced to live out her last cancer-ridden days in exile to avoid paying the penal price for her honest (and accurate) expressions on that topic.
Dissent is often filled with hate — at objects well worthy of such hatred. But whether the hatred is justified or not, once we have accepted the proposition that hateful speech should not be free, we have lost the battle. The right to speak offensively is at the heart of freedom of expression. One needs no rights to say that puppies are cute, or that it’s nice to be nice.
And it is worth noting who has been defending Imus’s rights. Although he is a liberal and gave his microphone over to mostly liberal journalists, it was conservatives (and out of the mainstream lefties like Rosie O’Donnell and Bill Maher) who defended his right. Because we are the ones who value and need both a law and culture of free expression.
The liberal journalists were mostly hiding under their desks last week, because their ability to be published and broadcast is dependent, not on freedom of expression, but on friends in high media places (the executive suites of CBS. NBC, ABC, NY Times, Newsweek, Time, etc.)
If one has friends in the palace, one doesn’t need justice — but one must be careful not to displease one’s friends. It is the common people, the outcasts who need justice.
While the executives in the liberal media elite no more represent the views of Americans than Louis XVI represented the sentiments of the French people, they do represent current media power — and they are weak and easily scared by activists such as Sharpton and others who brandish the charge of "hate speech" at commentators who don’t support their political agenda.
Imus may be an imperfect martyr, but the malign forces that brought him down must be opposed ferociously.
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