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Odd Wisconsin Archive

On Speaking The Unspeakable


Dozens of people have been killed in the last three weeks as demonstrators on four continents continued to protest the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad by Danish cartoonists. Buildings have been burned, workers evacuated, and at least one death threat made against an artist. This brutality is carried out by extremists whose faith appears to be stronger than their reason, while the West -- and the majority of Muslims -- look on amazed. "Freedom of speech" is their rallying cry, and tolerance their standard.

Unless, that is, one is a right-wing author in Austria and publicly argues that the Holocaust never happened. Then your speech is very unwelcome indeed: "An Austrian court sentenced British historian David Irving to three years in prison Monday," reported the Los Angeles Times yesterday, "for denying the Holocaust during a 1989 stopover in Austria, dismissing his argument that he had changed his views."

Or unless one wants to report in the press that the FBI has visited one's public library to see what books or Web sites citizens are consulting: "No person shall disclose to any other person," says section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, "that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has sought or obtained tangible things under this section." Reveal that authorities have requested your circulation records and you, too, can go to jail.

Such conditions have always prevailed, of course, to a more or less dramatic degree. Here in Wisconsin patriotic citizens burned German books in the streets and tarred and feathered a German professor during World War I. Fifty years ago it was impossible to publicly denounce Marx in Moscow or to publicly praise him in Milwaukee. In 1886, unarmed demonstrators speaking out for an eight-hour day -- which of course we assume is normal now -- were considered dangerous radicals and gunned down by the state militia in Milwaukee. Fifty years earlier, Grant County residents who spoke out against slavery were jeered at and humiliated by their neighbors. Two hundred years before that, it was impossible to assert in Rome that the Earth orbited around the sun, or in Boston that the Puritans' path to God was not the only way.

Something is always unspeakable to the majority. The only thing that protects scientists from being burned at the stake, artists from being assassinated by zealots, and writers from rotting in prisons is the spirit of intellectual freedom embodied in our Constitution. In February 1770 Voltaire wrote to a priest whose views he deplored, "Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write." That spirit manifested itself a decade later in the opening line of our Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

The actions of emotionally charged mobs, of course, are not so easily controlled as the actions of deliberating lawmakers. But a particularly perceptive editorial in yesterday's New York Times pointed in the right direction when it praised America for "creating a society in which faith and reason continually cohabit in uneasy proximity, and iconoclasm is as commonplace as belief." That is a responsibility we all share, when our neighbors are denounced, threatened, or intimidated for unpopular views.


:: Posted in Bizarre Events on February 21, 2006

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