February 27, 2006

Freedom of Speech...

Cathy Seipp writes:

A FRIEND OF MINE took his young daughter to visit the famous City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, explaining to her that the place is important because years ago it sold books no other store would — even, perhaps especially, books whose ideas many people found offensive.

So, although my friend is no fan of Ward Churchill, the faux Indian and discredited professor who notoriously called 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns," he didn't really mind seeing piles of Churchill's books prominently displayed on a table as he walked in.

However, it did occur to him that perhaps the long-delayed English translation of Oriana Fallaci's new book, "The Force of Reason," might finally be available, and that because Fallaci's militant stance against Islamic militants offends so many people, a store committed to selling banned books would be the perfect place to buy it. So he asked a clerk if the new Fallaci book was in yet.

"No," snapped the clerk. "We don't carry books by fascists."

Now let's just savor the absurd details of this for a minute. City Lights has a long and proud history of supporting banned authors — owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti was indicted (and acquitted) for obscenity in 1957 for selling Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," and a photo at the bookstore showed Ferlinghetti proudly posing next to a sign reading "banned books."

Yet his store won't carry, of all people, Fallaci, who is not only being sued in Italy for insulting religion because of her latest book but continues to fight the good fight against those who think that the appropriate response to offensive books and cartoons is violent riots. It's particularly repugnant that someone who fought against actual fascism in World War II should be deemed a fascist by a snotty San Francisco clerk...(Thanks to Austin Bay).

It's ironic and repugnant, but it is not surprising. Neither Ferlinghetti nor his bookstore believed in free speech in 1957. If there had been a thoughtful well-written conservative book that criticized the Beat Movement and Howl, they would not have carried it. (Important note: If there had been an absurd or unreasonable anti-Howl book, say by a foaming-at-the-mouth KKK leader, they would have carried that, and proudly proclaimed their commitment to "free speech.")

It's the same with the leftist ACLU, which boasts about defending the right of the American Nazi Party to march. But that's easy for them to do; the existence of neo-nazis makes the Left look good. It helps them. The real test for them is whether they will defend the free speech of reasonable people opposed to their leftist views. I've heard over the years of a number of instances where the ACLU has failed that test. It was against the right of teachers to march against school busing. And against a young man who wished to remain in the US when his parents returned home to the Soviet Union. (NOTE: these decisions are made by local chapters of the ACLU, and don't necessarily indict the organization as a whole.)

If I defend the right of of moveon.org to publish, that doesn't show much of a commitment to Free Speech. They help my side, and we often quote them as examples of leftish loathsomeness However, if there were a thoughtful leftist blog that was actually wooing people away from conservative positions (ahem, I'm still waiting), my defending their free speech would be meaningful.

Posted by John Weidner at February 27, 2006 7:41 AM
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