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I'll start this out by saying that I come from the position of a pretty strong free speech zealot. I'm a card-carrying ACLU member, and so on. But, there's a lot of confusion going on out there lately about what freedom of speech really is and means.

Free speech is a right of individuals and groups in relation to the state, not in relation to each other. This is something that the people who are kneejerking about the proposed or actual moderation of comments on web forums and blogs in response to the recent hateful and scary attacks on feminist bloggers should keep in mind. Allowing unfettered speech might be a good principle to try to uphold personally or as a community, but nobody has a right to be jerk or a bigot with impunity on anyone else's website or in any community's forum, any more than they have a right to spam someone else's site or forum. You delete spam, don't you? That's speech too, albeit often of a rather dadaist and puzzling variety.

And especially now that public outlets for anyone's speech are essentially free and fungible, even the principle of allowing unfettered speech is pretty weak. If someone wants to say hateful or bigoted things in relation to something I write, they can start up a blogspot blog for free and link/rant to their heart's content, and I can't and won't do anything to stop them unless they defame me or threaten me with violence. But I'm sure as hell not going to invite them to do it in my own sandbox that I'm paying for and maintaining and that carries my name and represents my identity to the larger world.

Reading this post at Slacktivist reminded me that these confusions about speech also extend to hate crime laws. The first big problem is a misapprehension of what hate crime laws actually do. Hate crime laws do not ban hateful speech. If they did, I would oppose them. The KKK and the Nazis can still have their marches and hand out their literature and run their websites, and I'll fully support their right to do so, though I'll also support my and everyone else's right to shout them down and/or ignore them. Again, they have the right to appear in the public square and say their piece without government interference, but the community has a right to express their opposition as well. If the community breaks other laws in trying to suppress their speech, such as by threatening or doing violence to them, then they're in the wrong, but vigorous opposition within the law is covered just as much under the 1st Amendment as the hateful speech being opposed.

As for the more nuanced issues regarding speech, thoughts, crime, and punishment: Hate crimes do indeed concern speech and thoughts, but only insofar as they pertain to motive, intent, and culpability for a crime. Consider the varying degrees of culpability involved in different scenarios in which a pedestrian is run down by a car: Someone who has a heart attack and runs down a pedestrian is less culpable than someone who accidentally does so, who is less culpable still than someone who is drunk and does so, who finally is less culpable than someone who makes and executes a plan to do so. As soon as you act on your thoughts to harm others, those thoughts become a part of the context and the evidence by which the nature of your crime and the degree of your guilt is measured, and it's hard to argue that the punishment is for some sort of "thoughtcrime," unless you think that either state of mind, thoughts, and speech should be inadmissable as evidence in any crime, or that everyone who thinks or expresses hateful or bigoted thoughts is inevitably going to act on them and should be preemptively charged.

So how is it any different to add another category to the above scenarios: someone who makes and executes a plan to run down a black man to send a message to others like him that they are not welcome or safe in a neighborhood, or to run down someone in front of an abortion clinic to scare others who might try to get an abortion? The murder is already a crime, and hate crime laws add in the possibility of an additional crime of attempting to terrorize a whole class of people, if said intent can be proven to the jury.

Something I don't quite get about conservatives who oppose hate crime laws is that they are often very much in favor of extra punishment for violence-as-speech when said violence is overtly political, which is called terrorism. Setting off a bomb and killing people is a crime already, so why add an extra punishment for the speech or intent part? That's the same logic as "assault is a crime already, so why add an extra punishment if the violence was intended to send a message to a particular minority?" And of course, it bleeds together at the margins. Was the KKK at the height of their power a domestic terrorist organization? I would say yes. They participated in and fomented violence intended to terrorize everyone else into accepting their preferred political and social arrangement. Their individual acts could be seen as hate crimes today, but when they became pervasive enough, it amounted to terrorism. When hate-motivated violence expands from individual cases to a broader social environment, it thus becomes political and pretty much indistinguishable from terrorism.

Now, there are some scenarios that are a little more exclusive to speech. You can probably be charged with a hate crime under some statutes for, say, burning a cross on a black family's yard. But, not all speech is protected. Credible threats of violence constitute assault under most assault laws (hence the distinction between assault and battery) and in the context of American racial violence, it is not hard to see a burning cross on your lawn as a credible threat of violence. In the very odd but I suppose possible case in which it wouldn't be, well, that's why we have prosecutors with leeway and jurys of our peers who have to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt.

So, to sum it up, speech is free, but not free as in beer, and lots of folks would do well to take that into account.

The Once and Future UN

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Time for more from the department of interesting crossovers and coincidences in reading. I find that this is one of the best parts of reading widely and voraciously... you start to see all kinds of serendipitous and productive new connections between different genres, groups of ideas, historical eras, and so on and so forth. The more you read and learn, the more your further reading and learning is enriched, and the more sense it all starts to make, at least internally, and at times externally as well. This is why reference and allusion, when done well, is so great. It's more than just being able to feel really smart whenever you "get" a reference. It goes two ways... modern writers invest their works with meaning through allusion and reference, and this in turn can make musty-seeming older works take on a new, modernized significance and applicability of their own.

This is much of why I tend to defend at least some sort of loose form of the literary canon. There are certain things that you just have to read, or at least certain concepts and ideas that you have to be familiar with, to be able to fully understand and get the most out of just about anything else you read, and vice-versa. Most "important" books are that way for a reason... because many people who came afterward saw fit to write about them. Even if you don't greatly enjoy, say, the Iliad or the Odyssey on their own merits, slogging through them will truly enrich your experience with an innumerable number of later books and authors.

Anyhow, this week, it's been the confluence of TH White's The Once and Future King, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and an article lamenting the possible demise of internationalism, in the latest Mother Jones. These at first don't seem like a terribly likely combination; an Arthurian fantasy novel, a terse historical document, and a despairing commentary on current events, but, they dovetail quite nicely, at least in my addled brain.

King, besides being a delightful and poignant modern update on the Arthurian legend, is also sort of a tradegian look at the ongoing experiments of liberalism, human rights, and civil society. It casts the forming of the Round Table by Arthur as an attempt at replacing the Medieval idea of Might as Right with one of the use of controlled Might to defend Right, with the eventual goal of establishing equality before civil law, and abolishment for the need of violent, warlike power at all. He brings the knights, the most powerful and invulnerable weapons of his time, under his central control, and uses them to prevent the various feudal lords and barons from using them to promote tyranny and anarchy for personal gain.

The United Nations was formed with similar goals in mind. Horrified by the carnage and chaos that typified the first half of the 20th century, the internationalist founders of the UN tried to restrain the use of Might by nations for selfish means, by attempting to set up a global version of concentrated power enforcing civil law. They neglected to attempt in earnest to concentrate true Might behind it(perhaps a mistake in retrospect, perhaps not), relying more on consensus and mutual benefit, but the main idea was the same, to replace the idea of kill or be killed with that of cooperation and the concentration of power for mutual safety and benefit.

There is a dual tragedy operating in White's book, that of Arthur's own personal life, fatal error, and eventual unfulfilled death, paralleled by that of the demise of his grand project. He harnesses Might productively at first, subjugating the warring barons and bringing peace and prosperity to the kingdom. However, with nothing else to occupy and direct it, the controlled violence of the Table soon begins to turn on itself and others. He then tries to direct Might on a cleansing spiritual quest, in the form of the Holy Grail, in the hopes of both occupying and taming it. This also succeeds for a time, and the knights who succeed are indeed cleansed of violence or killed, but this sadly leaves only the more mercenary among them in place with no countervailing force to restrain them. The end of the book documents the slow unravelling of Arthur's dream in internecine warfare and chaos, both in the case of his kingdom and of the fate of himself and the people he loves.

Reading the utopian vision of universal rights that is the Universal Declaration, the defining document and hope of the UN, I couldn't help but think of what I had just read about the failure of Arthur's beautiful dream. Both were incredibly worthy ideas, which society and human nature in the real world are sadly just not ready to practically allow. The UN and internationalism are currently threatened with irrelevance by the same uncontainable forces and human failings that destroyed Arthur's vision, the same streak of irrational violence, fear, hatred, and selfishness that runs through the heart of us all, and by extension all of our aggregations together as nations or societies in greater or lesser degrees. The same failings that have destroyed every attempt at ending war and providing liberty, equality, and justice for all. The eternal bane of all Utopias.

So, does this mean that we should come to our senses already and just stop trying? I'm not so sure. White ends his book on a more hopeful note, having Arthur call in a youthful page named TomFootnote
Sir Thomas Malory, of course. See what I was saying about allusion and references above?
, and ask him to stay out of the coming (and fatal) battle, and instead to make sure that the ideas for which it was being fought would live on.

"Thomas, my idea for those knights was a sort of candle, like these ones here. I have carried it with me for many years with a hand to shield it from the wind. It has flickered often. I am giving you the candle... you won't let it out?"

I think that Arthur finally realized, right there at the edge of death's door, that there would be no winning of a decisive ultimate battle, no magic bullet that would fix everything and lead us to a Utopian world. What matters is slow progress over time, and what allows that is ideas that survive and pervade, that change individual minds, the sentiments and choices of which filter upward to form what we call societies, nations, and the global community. Arthur would die in a futile and foregone battle the next day, but he would not be a failure, because his dream would live on, and others would work towards bringing the world closer to approximating his vision.

Even if the UN meets a similar fate and eventually fails politically, and this incarnation of internationalism goes by the wayside, there's no reason to despair or quit. The world is a better place now than it was looking backward from 1948 by almost every measure. The ideas that the UN and the UDHR made legitimate and important on a global scale are here to stay, enduring in the hearts and minds and actions of millions of people and many governments around the world. The candle may gutter at times, and the ideas may come to manifest themselves in a different form in the future, but I don't think there is any way that particular flame is going to go out anytime soon. Like Arthur, the Once and Future King, they too will return to lead us one day, if we are willing to fight on their side.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Rights category.

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