katha pollitt’s misguided take on freedom of speech

Although I am a committed subscriber to The Nation, I was immensely disappointed by Katha Pollitt’s narrow and unoriginal piece, “Freedom of Speech Round 5,425“, The Nation, 2/18/09.

By quoting fatwas against Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasreen, Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, she does nothing new. Those are the same old examples used ad nauseum by Western protagonists of freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is an excellent idea. However, it is part and parcel of a larger charter of human rights, within which it makes sense and without which it becomes ridiculous to selectively mourn its compromise. Would freedom of speech apply to people let’s say who are held indefinitely in jail and tortured without due process or a fair trial? Would their inability to defend themselves and be heard by an impartial jury or an impartial judge also be deemed an attack on their freedom of speech? High profile cases such as those of Aafia Siddiqui and hundreds held at Guantanamo come to mind.

How much hate speech should be protected by freedom of speech? Western media is saturated with lopsided, distorted, even fabricated coverage of Islam and Muslims when the same people are most vulnerable to persecution and witch hunts. The profiling, deportation and detention of Arabs and Muslims which is now widespread within the United States attests to this reality. Pollitt probably understands the concept of hate media. For example, Radio Rwanda was used in the 1990s to promote the killing of Tutsi. That’s an extreme example but it’s safe to say that hate media can indirectly promote hate crimes. Pollitt’s concern for the rights of Dutch MP Geert Wilders who, according to her, should be given carte blanche to preach hate at the highest levels of European government, by using his own propagandist, anti-Islam film called “Fitna” (source of trouble) seems grossly misplaced.

It’s comical that in the same article where she so defends absolute freedom of speech, Pollitt chastises the Pope for welcoming back a “Holocaust-denying schismatic bishop” into the church. Shouldn’t that be covered by freedom of speech?

Pollitt tries to stray away from blaming it all on Islam by giving lame examples of mostly Christian acts of extremism from the 17th century. But she can’t help reiterate the thesis of her essay, “It’s true that Islamic fundamentalists are the most active and violent attackers of free speech and the most tyrannical enforcers of religious conformity through the organs of the state”. Let’s forget about the 17th century and let’s not focus so narrowly on religious sanctions on freedom of speech. What if freedom of speech were not just defined as the right to mock and defame but as people’s essential right to voice their opinion and make it matter?

Let’s talk about political freedom of speech. Should the people of Pakistan be allowed to speak their minds and elect their own leaders or should the United States get its way and install one military dictator after another? Military dictatorships don’t come with a lot of free speech, I can tell you that. Should the people of Iraq and Afghanistan be able to decide what governments they want or is that the prerogative of the American government, elected by the American people?

Let’s talk about journalistic freedom of speech. The targeted killing and harassment of journalists in Iraq is well-known and well-documented by the United Nations and FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). Is that conducive to freedom of speech and freedom of information?

Pollitt’s crusade in the name of free speech is as ridiculous as that of American artist John Currin who inspired by the mullahs’ attack on free speech on account of the Danish cartoons became convinced that he could check this current of fascism by producing pornographic paintings. The ultimate gift to the gods of free speech!

If we open our eyes to what is going on in the world and choose to focus on the big picture, not just meaningless cliches readily available for public consumption, then the mainstream Western definition of freedom of speech begins to look selective, small-minded, and self-serving. It’s like Thomas Friedman’s condescending and offensive metric of what success would look like in Iraq: “…when Salman Rushdie can give a lecture in Baghdad… you are not going to get a reformation in Islam or Arab politics without this”.

What arrogant, imperialistic, racist hogwash is that?

Leave a Reply