Tuesday, March 30, 2010


There’s a passage from one of the great plays of the 20th century, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, that comes to mind at times like these. Sir Thomas More inquires whether his son-in-law, Roper, would cut down the laws of England to get at the Devil. Roper says that he would do so without hesitation. To which More, in a famous riposte, replies,

“Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's. And if you cut them down ... do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!”

It’s over-quoted a bit, but it’s one of the more succinct and useful defenses of the principle of freedom of speech, and of civil liberties generally, to be found in 20th century literature. (I doubt that the real More would have been so liberal in his views.)

Last week, protesters at the University of Ottawa did an appalling thing. They succeeded in preventing Ann Coulter, a prominent right-wing comedian, from speaking on their campus. Well, I’m glad to know that some students are motivated enough to protest something, but I for one don't trust other people to tell me what I'm not allowed to read or hear or say. Coulter appeared recently on my own campus and I wouldn't have gone if you’d paid me, but that's not the point. The point is that it’s nobody’s business if I had wanted to go.

Coulter herself is not interesting and not even funny, and her followers, with their thunderous applause for her cheap and easy jokes — often made at the expense of people asking serious questions — reveal in the process something important about themselves: they are far too easily amused. It's because of people like them that reality TV keeps chugging along.

If Coulter's enemies really insist on doing something other than ignoring her (and why anyone would devote more than a paragraph or two to this clown is beyond me), it should be encouraging her to speak and write as widely as possible. If anyone is likely to discredit the right-wing, it's people such as her, much as the Michael Moores of the world do more to harm the authentic, anti-totalitarian, and humanitarian left than anyone on the political right possibly could.

Bolt’s version of Thomas More believed that there was safety in the laws of England, and the whole play serves an important reminder that in politically charged environments it’s probably good to keep your mouth shut most of the time – you never know what innocuous remark will be used against you by people such as Richard Rich. But if the quotation is about the law rather than about an ethical principle — which is the way in which it usually is employed — it doesn’t quite work for Canada, where our own laws categorically do not defend your freedom of speech in cases where other people can demonstrate that you've hurt their feelings.

Sooner or later the political winds will shift direction and the left will rue the day it ever conceived of the idea of "Hate Speech". Critics of the Church’s stance on same-sex marriage or the ordination of women will be hauled before Human Rights tribunals for “spreading hate” against Catholics; advocates for abortion rights will be charged with "hate crimes" against the unborn; opponents of Israeli government policies in the West Bank and Gaza will have the charges of anti-Semitism that are sometimes lofted their way taken seriously. All this will happen, and in some respects it already is happening. Coulter herself has made murmurings about filing a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. I doubt she will do any such thing, not because she herself cares about freedom of expression, but because there’s no particular reason why she should be bothered. She’s raking in money hand over fist precisely because some people take her seriously enough to protest her.

Lesson: give the Devil her day in court, people. For your own safety’s sake.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Busy week. Rather than a column, I thought that this update would take the form of a longish quotation on the subject above. This passage from Bertrand Russell's "A Free Man's Worship" (1913) expresses in some respects a remarkably Christian sentiment for a man who once wrote a famous essay about why he was not one. For Russell, it was a rejoinder to the claim that a non-believer's life must necessarily be without purpose. I first encountered it in my teens, and it has never been far from my thoughts. Actions, on the other hand...

"United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love. The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible forces, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instill faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need -- of the sorrows, the difficulties, perhaps the blindnesses, that make the misery of their lives; let us remember that they are fellow-sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy with ourselves.

And so, when their day is over, when their good and their evil have become eternal by the immortality of the past, be it ours to feel that, where they suffered, where they failed, no deed of ours was the cause; but wherever a spark of the divine fire kindled in their hearts, we were ready with encouragement, with sympathy, with brave words in which high courage glowed.