The War On Free Speech


In 1946, Martin Niemoller wrote a damning bit of prose to illustrate the rise of fascism and the cowardice of the intellectuals (including himself) who let it happen.  Here is one of the original versions.

First they came for the Communists —
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists —
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists —
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews —
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me —
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.

In the 21st century, they may call themselves innocuous names, profess their moral authority and say they speak for the betterment of society.  But don’t be fooled.  This is all about power.  This is about who controls the flow of ideas.  This is about silencing the opposition.  And the pattern is exactly the same.

First they came for Hate Speech —
And I didn’t speak out
Because it sounded like a good idea.

Then they came for Controversial Speech —
And a lot of people didn’t speak out
Because they didn’t want to get lynched on Social Media.

Then they came for Offensive Speech —
And most people didn’t speak out
Because the ones who did were losing their jobs.

Now they’re coming for Opinion,
And everybody is too frightened to speak out.

So when they come for Free Speech,
Don’t be surprised
When there’s nobody left to defend it.

You Don’t Have Any “Rights”

There’s been a lot of talk recently about rights.  Just who has rights?  What are they?  Why are some people being physically restrained from exercising their rights while others seem to have the right to rob us at every corner?   It doesn’t matter which side of the heated discussion you’re on; you probably see the other folks claiming rights they aren’t entitled to while simultaneously trampling all over yours.  This is a natural phenomenon when you deal in “them” and “us.”  However, let me let you in on a big secret. You’d better sit down because this is going to blow your bonnet off.  You have no rights.  None, zip, bupkis — and I’m not just playing with semantics here.  It’s an absolute, etched in stone, shout-it-from-the-rooftops fact.  And while we’re at it, you don’t have any privileges either; that’s just a word people use when they’re pissed off at dissidents.   As in: “Freedom of speech is not a right; it’s a privilege.”  Load-a-crap is what it is.  The only reason we can say what we like about Barack Obama (or anybody else for that matter) is that our society has a bunch of heavily armed young people who say we can.  But before you think you’ve landed in Hyperbole Heaven and gear up to take a run at the appalling “police state” tyranny we supposedly suffer under, that’s not what I’m talking about.  In fact, the quote/unquote police state everyone is so fond of invoking is one of the institutions that allows us to practice those things we mistakenly call rights.

Here’s the truth; like it or not.  Those things we call rights are nothing more than an ad hoc collection of laws that haven’t even been agreed on yet.  They are not inalienable, and they are certainly not universal.  How do I know this?  It’s quite simple.  In our society, two hundred years ago, I had the “right” to wander down to the local slave market and buy another human being to help me do the dishes.  I owned that person: they were my property.  Not only that but a hundred years ago, not one female in North America had the “right” to vote.  Actually, in my country, it wasn’t until 1929 that women were even considered “persons” under the law.  Historically speaking, there are tons of examples just exactly like this — temporary habits mistaken for universal rights and privileges.  Yes, those were “a relic of days more barbarous than ours”* but so is every moment of history before this morning.  Nobody is going to convince me that, in a mere 5,000 years or so of written history, we have reached the pinnacle of human achievement and awareness.  Nor, that in 2011, we finally understand the human condition so thoroughly that we can now pronounce what our rights should and always will be.  That’s just 21st century arrogance.  Honestly, if this is the peak, we are in trouble!  So all those rights everybody keeps yipping about are simply temporary accommodations that may (or may not) change, depending on the circumstances.

These days, we’re spending so much time demanding our nonexistent rights that we’re forgetting how we got them in the first place.  Our society is based on a very few generally accepted principles, guaranteed by the generosity of a whole lot of strangers.  For example, we, as a group, believe you, as an individual, have the “right” to worship your neighbour’s cat if you so choose.  We are willing to make contributions (in fact or in kind) not to you directly, but to the group as a whole in support of that “right.”  Also, we are willing — on occasion — to forego some of our own freedoms to ensure you have that “right.”  This is because it doesn’t belong to you; it belongs to all of us.

However, this guaranteeing generosity is not an infinite commodity, nor is it eternal.  It breaks down quite easily and with surprising regularity.  In times of crisis, it disappears entirely.  And as we have seen throughout history, once it’s gone, it’s very difficult to get back.  Depending on the kindness of strangers only
works as long as the strangers are kind: just ask Blanche Dubois.  Therefore, the only way we can maintain a continuity of liberty to think, speak and act as we please is to maintain the society which nurtures that liberty.

Without the institutions to back them up, our much heralded rights are just an illusion.  Until we understand that, all we’re doing is jacking our jaw or playing
around discussing how many rights can dance on the head of a pin.

*British Privy Council October 18th, 1929

Democracy Wins, Vancouver-style

God, I love democracy!  Most of the time it shuffles around, looking like nobody’s good version of Peter Parker, but then, when the jackboots come out, it suddenly turns into Spiderman and kicks the living snot out of the tyrants.  In Vancouver, we’ve just had an up-close-and-personal view of how democracy really works, and it feels good.  Here’s the slimmed-down version.

First of all, you need some background.  For the last 10 of 12 years, there’s been a running battle between the government of China and a quasi-religious group called the Falun Gong.  Although it was originally encouraged in China, the government there became very wary of the Falun Gong’s rapid growth and increasing power — and with good reason.  The last time a religious group, The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, got out of control in China, the result was a fourteen year civil war and 20 million dead bodies.  The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) may be the bloodiest domestic disturbance in history.  Either way, the Chinese government banned the Falun Gong in 1999, on the grounds that it is an “evil cult” and disruptive to Chinese society.  Since then, they’ve done a pretty good job of stamping it out and driving it underground.  On the other hand, the Falun Gong believe they were just peaceably going about their business when the government went bananas and started dragging them off to face the People’s Justice (which, has never been timid about torture, conviction, execution and dismemberment.  In fact, one of the major accusations the Falun Gong makes is that the Chinese government is murdering its members and harvesting their organs.  There is even some serious speculation that China’s scientific exhibit, “Bodies: the Exhibition” is made up of Falun Gong followers who were not given an opportunity to sign the organ donor card.  Obviously, there are no Falun Gong protests inside China anymore, but around the world, the group has targeted every official Chinese institution they can find.  The Chinese government is decidedly miffed at this international black eye and spends a lot of diplomatic time — and muscle — trying to put a stop to it.  There’s tons more information, but you get the idea.

One of the many Falun Gong protests around the world is a 24 hour silent vigil in front of the Chinese Consulate in Vancouver, Canada.  This has been part of the Vancouver cityscape for a number of year; it started around 2001.  However, just before the 2010 Winter Olympics, for some reason, the Vancouver City Council decided the Falun Gong protest actually violated city by-laws.  Who knew?  The result was the Falun Gong spent the Olympics far away from the Chinese Consulate — and the world’s media — in a protracted legal battle which ended when – surprise! – the courts upheld the Falun Gong’s right to protest and told the city to redraft the by-law.  So, during the first part of April, 2011, hidden away somewhere between City Hall’s multi-million dollar makeover and the stacks of debts left over from the Olympic Village, Mayor Gregor Robertson and his (dare I say) henchpeople were busy — tearing a page out of Woodrow Wilson’s playbook and trying their damnedest to make the world safe from democracy.  They produced a document that succeeded beyond anybody’s wildest expectations.  It was a complicated mess, but, in essence, the new by-law limited protests in Vancouver to a select group of affluent dissidents who had conveniently planned ahead.  More importantly, however, it legally kicked the stuffing out of the Falun Gong, which was the reason for the by-law in the first place.  They, of course, were shocked and appalled, but everybody knows that you can’t actually fight City Hall so it looked like democracy was going down for the count — at least, in Vancouver.

This is where we get to the good part because, just when all seemed lost, Peter Parker strangely disappeared, and Spiderman showed up.  Under tyranny, people accept the laws as they’re written and do as they’re told.   In a democracy, however, people ask questions.  They want information.  They want clarification.  They say things like, “Hey! Wait a minute!” and “You can’t do that!”  And that’s what the people of Vancouver did.  Spiderman (aka Democracy) started demanding answers, and the folks at City Hall started dodging around on the defensive.  Councillors began tiptoeing through the halls, justifying their position and qualifying their support, whenever they actually did get caught by the media.  Mayor Robertson even invoked the Geneva Convention, for Godsake, insinuating that his hands were tied by international law or something.  And it was revealed that the City of Vancouver had “consulted” the Chinese Consulate on the wording of the by-law.   OMG!   Suddenly, everybody (including the janitor) was looking the other way, as if they’d never seen the new by-law before in their lives.  It was kinda like Penny Bellam and the city staff had been working on a remote island for six months and had appeared, out of nowhere, with the new by-law in hand.  Mayor Robertson demanded that the odious document be taken from his sight and rewritten — as though he was repulsed by its very presence.  The fact is, even though nobody within bike-riding distance of City Hall will admit it, everybody in town knows that the mayor of Vancouver and the city council have “consulted” one of the most oppressive regimes on the planet for advice about the fundamental tenets of democracy: “free speech” and  “peaceful protest.”  There’s nothing else to say.  I’m surprised the whole works of them aren’t wearing paper bags over their heads; too ashamed to show their faces to the citizens of Vancouver.

Luckily, democracy works.  Mayor Robertson wants to be Premier of British Columbia some day. Thus, every time his administration does something sticky like this, he’s got to wipe it up and make it look good.  In the end, it doesn’t matter who kowtowed to Chinese diplomatic pressure or who gets tossed under the bus.  But believe me, his name isn’t going to be Gregor.  What matters is democracy won.  The “new” new by-law has a bunch of face-saving language and poor sport regulations, but it allows the Falun Gong — or anybody else, for that matter — the right to say and do as they please in a peaceful manner.  For now, all is well, in Vancouver, it’s Democracy: 1, Tyranny: 0.

But the war isn’t over.