Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Death of Free Speech

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties ~ John Milton
Free speech is the foundation of all other freedoms. There can be no defence of any other rights without the right to express yourself according to your conscience. Anyone who does not understand this does not understand the nature of rights, because true rights are intrinsic to our nature as human beings and can only be defended through the free expression and actions of individuals. Only those who believe that rights are privileges granted by authoritarian leaders could believe that free speech isn't a prerequisite for their preservation.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said that the protection of free speech contained in the First Amendment to the US Constitution was not 'for those who agree with us but...for [those] we hate.' This is self-evident - the right to say something that everyone agrees with doesn't need protecting, it is only the things other people find offensive that do. In other words, the right to free speech is the right to express hate speech.

It astounds me that so many people today appear willing to give up the right to free speech.  A free speech rally in Boston on Saturday drew a small handful of supporters and 15,000 counter-protestors, which led to the police to close down the rally. Leaving aside the newspaper reports that the pro-free-speech people were 'right-wing' (as if that is offensive in itself), I think it is amazing that 15,000 people in the land of the First Amendment would assemble to counter-protest against free speech. 

The irony is that if the counter-protestors achieved their aim, they wouldn't have the right to express their views. This exposes the peril of going down a path of abrogating free speech - if we lose that right, there is no easy way back. How do you advocate for something you don't have the right to advocate for? 

If you can't express your views, the only option left to make your point is violence, but I suspect the counter-protestors know that and it is precisely what they want to bring about.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Toppling Statues

I am in two minds over the issue of the removal of Confederate statues. The Confederacy was founded on the preservation of the evil that was slavery and that is reason enough not to honour it in any way, but on the other hand the destruction of historical statues smacks more than a little of the historical revisionism of 1984.

The toppled statue of a Confederate soldier in North Carolina

The problem is, where do we draw the line? It is a slippery slope and we are already hearing calls to remove statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they were slave owners. Some people are even saying statues of Martin Luther King should be removed because he opposed gay rights. And as someone more reasonably pointed out, where are the protests against the statue of the murderous Lenin in a Seattle park?

I think we should distinguish between the political leaders of the evil systems of the past and those who served their nation in good conscience. I do not have a problem with the statue of Erwin Rommel in Heidenheim in Germany because I think he was the closest thing to an honourable military man in the Nazi regime (and he did try to rid his country of Hitler), and for similar reasons I think statues of General Robert E Lee should remain standing. However, just as I would find a statue of any Nazi political leader offensive (fortunately none exist to the best of my knowledge), I think statues of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his close political cohorts should come down.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Age of Instant Infamy

I am sure that everyone reading this knows of the incident of a London woman being pushed by a jogger into the path of an oncoming bus on Putney Bridge. When I first read this story in the mainstream media, it made a little alarm bell go off in my mind. I thought this was just the sort of incident that the news media would blow up well beyond its local significance and something that was likely to provoke a disproportionate reaction from the hypersensitive British police. Sure enough, I was right on both of these counts.

The media immediately labelled it 'jogger rage', likening it to the conflicts between drivers that often escalate into violence, despite having no evidence that it was the result of a conflict between the individuals concerned. When I viewed the video of the incident (and it was no surprise to learn that there was video of it in a country that has more surveillance cameras than any other in the world), I thought the encounter appeared to be an unfortunate accident.

The Metropolitan Police mounted a hunt for the alleged offender and encouraged the public to come forward with information. They soon had their man - or so they thought. He couldn't have made a better villain if the story had been script-written - a wealthy American investment banker whom everyone could imagine was the sort of selfish and callous individual who would commit such a heinous act. The only problem was that they were wrong - the man they had arrested wasn't even in the country at the time of the incident.

Imagine if you had been that man. Your name is published all around the world and for 48 hours you become one of the most despised people on Earth. He was lucky he had a rock solid alibi because it was definitely a case of guilty until proven innocent. The incident reminds me of the case of the American executive who tweeted a nonsensical, supposedly racist remark about getting AIDS on a forthcoming trip to Africa. She found upon her arrival in South Africa that while in the air she had become a social media pariah and that her employer had bowed to pressure and fired her. You could at least argue in that case the woman had done something wrong, although there is no way it justified the international witch hunt that ensued.

The mainstream media are often to blame for fanning these bushfires of public opinion. They do not control what people say on social media but they often take a holier-than-thou moralist viewpoint that gives legitimacy to the excesses of social media commentary, rather than urging caution. Social media has turned the world into a village, a virtual equivalent of the Salem of The Crucible, and the mainstream media have assumed the role of the village elders who are only too willing to find some witches to burn at the stake of popular opinion. 

We live in an age of instant infamy, when accusation is assumed to be guilt, and we should all shudder to think that we could be next in line.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Left's defence of Turei is remarkably shortsighted

A few weeks ago I wrote about the admission by Metiria Turei, the co-leader of the New Zealand Green Party, that she committed welfare fraud when she was younger. I had intended to leave the matter alone but have found myself drawn back to it, much as one is drawn to the sight of a rotting corpse - it is deeply unpleasant but fascinating nevertheless. More interesting than Turei's admission has been the reaction to it. An opinion poll shows nearly three-quarters of New Zealanders believe that her fraud is unacceptable but, as I said on Lindsay Mitchell's blog, it is discouraging that half of Green Party supporters, and even a significant proportion of National Party voters, think Turei did nothing wrong.

Turei defended her actions by saying it was a choice between feeding her child and complying with the law. A number of commentators have pointed out that her claim doesn't hold water, that she was living with the partner of her child and with her mother at the time she claimed a sole parent benefit. She has said she will not seek a cabinet position if the Greens are part of the government after next month's election but has refused to resign either as co-leader or as an MP. Her attitude compares with the resignation from Parliament of ACT Party MP, David Garrett, for passport fraud, which at least had the mitigation of not benefiting him financially.

This week two Green MPs, Kennedy Graham and David Clendon, resigned in protest against Turei's refusal to step down. It is reassuring to know that there are still some people with integrity in a party in which half of its supporters support benefit fraud. 

The worst thing about Turei's admission is the fact that the political left-wing have rallied behind her rather than condemning her actions. Her Green Party co-leader, James Shaw, has defended her and the new leader of the larger centre-left Labour Party has said she will work in coalition with a Turei-led Green Party. Left-wing bloggers have also defended her

I think the left's defence of Turei shows a remarkable lack of judgement. Do they not realise that the whole taxation-welfare state they so defend is completely dependent on the pretence that it is legally and morally right? The redistributionist system relies on the acquiescence of taxpayers because if enough people decided they did not want to pay their taxes, there is no way the state could enforce it notwithstanding the draconian sanctions available to the tax authorities. Does the left really want us to believe that defrauding the system is acceptable? It is, of course, a double-edged sword and those who are on the receiving end of the redistribution have everything to lose. 

A libertarian like me might look at all this as a good thing - anything that hastens the collapse of the system is to be encouraged. Unfortunately, the end of that road is what we see in Venezuela today and no one who loves freedom and individual self-determination wants to see that in their country.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Manners, courtesy and gender pronouns

English jurist Lord Moulton once said that manners were the mid-point between law and anarchy. He was calling for restraint in what should be the domain of the law and pointing out that not all undesirable human behaviour needs to be legislated against. It is surely an important characteristic of civilised society that up to a certain level human interaction should be self-regulated. We need laws against murder and assault because anyone who would commit such acts would not be restrained by anything as prosaic as manners, but we shouldn't need laws to prescribe how we greet one another.

I have written before about the decline of manners and common courtesy and I believe it is no coincidence that at a time when governments are seeing fit to regulate every manner of human interaction, manners are falling into disuse. The latest area of government intrusion into what should be the preserve of manners is the use of gender pronouns in relation to transgender people. Canada has recently passed a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression and it has been predicted that it will have the effect of criminalising the use of pronouns other than what the subject wants. Canada seems to be in the vanguard of this because even before the new law was enacted, University of Toronto psychologist Professor Jordan Peterson got into hot water about his refusal to use new gender-neutral pronouns such as 'ze' and 'zir' in compliance with his university's policies. Peterson said he does not object to using whatever traditional pronoun an individual prefers but he objects to the heavy-handed imposition of new language, seeing it as yet another way for post-modern neo-Marxists to enforce control over every area of human interaction.

The way we address each other is a personal matter and very much within the realm of manners. There are traditional rules about the degree of formality that is appropriate in different situations and these are particularly strong in languages other than English that have grammatical rules about when to use the formal/plural third person form of address and the informal/singular. New Zealanders are renown for their informality and personally I find the forms of address that many of my countrymen use (such as calling a stranger 'mate') to be inappropriate and sometimes mildly offensive, but if I am not addressed in the way I prefer, I just politely correct the person. This is the way it should be - a matter of courtesy between the individuals concerned.

The problem with legislating everything is that it kills voluntary action. You cannot legislate to make people think in a particular way and using the cudgels of the law to force behaviour that should be the realm of manners is counterproductive because it destroys trust and mutual respect. If people cannot be left to negotiate even the form of address they use with other people - in other words, if there is no voluntary space left between the law and anarchy - then don't be surprised if more people choose anarchy.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The limits of democracy

New Zealand faces a general election next month and it has got me thinking about the nature of democracy and the collective wisdom (or lack of it) in the electorate. New Zealand has had nine years of a conservative National Party-led government, which has largely continued the policies of the previous nine-year Labour Party-led government, leaving libertarians like myself with Hobson's choice. This election campaign mirrors the recent UK election in many ways with the National Party sitting on a 20-point lead over Labour but with some signs of that lead being eroded and smaller parties like the left-wing Greens and the nationalist New Zealand First likely to determine who governs.

One of the more hypocritical arguments of the political right-of-centre in recent times has been their impassioned defence of democracy. We saw this with Brexit and Trump - their supporters crowed about the people having spoken, as if a plurality of support (and in Trump's case it wasn't even a plurality) justifies any decision in and of itself. Of course, we have seen a corresponding volte-face on the part of the left-wing, which for years has justified increasing intrusion of the state into every area of our lives on the basis of their democratic mandate, and they are suddenly not so enamoured with a system that produced Brexit and a Trump presidency.

If you want an example of voters making consistently bad decisions you only need look at Venezuela. A relatively free and prosperous country two decades ago, Venezuela is now an economic basket case and its voters have just provided a mandate for President Maduro's decisions to strip the country's parliament of its powers and replace it with a new assembly that is stacked with his supporters. Maduro has said that he has a "prison cell waiting" for his political opponents. Admittedly, you could hardly call recent Venezuelan elections free and fair, with estimates of 70% of the populace opposed to Maduro and his Chavismo Socialists, but Maduro maintains that everything he and predecessor Hugo Chavez have done has been with a democratic mandate.

Democracy can be, to paraphase Winston Churchill, the worst of all systems. It shouldn't be an end in itself but rather it should deliver good government that limits its powers to the functions of defending individual rights. Unfettered democracy is often in conflict with these aims because it enables the majority to sacrifice individual rights in the name of collective good. The only way of preventing this is to limit what governments can do even with a popular mandate, through an entrenched constitution. 

The problem is how do you get an entrenched constitution that protects individual rights in a democratic system? We have seen the risks in New Zealand with the former prime minister, Geoffrey Palmer, proposing a constitution that proposes new rights such as to 'an adequate standard of living' that are the antithesis of real rights. A better example is the Constitution for New Freeland proposed by Lindsay Perigo but even its authors would concede that it has no chance of being adopted by democratic mandate. 

Perhaps the only way to get a genuinely rights-respecting constitution is following a revolution when the vacuum of power allows a fresh approach, such as was the case with the American Revolution. On the other hand, the French demonstrated that even the most noble revolutions do not guarantee good outcomes and the American Constitution has proved to be less of a bulwark against government abuses of power than the founders envisaged.

Maybe Churchill was right with the rest of his saying, that democracy is the worst of all possible systems except all the others and that the best we can expect is that the voters will be sensible with the responsibility they have. I hope that is the case in New Zealand next month.

UPDATE: A few hours is a long time in politics - the Labour Party leader, Andrew Little, has resigned following recent poor poll results. Jacinda Ardern is the new leader.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Then they came for Richard Dawkins

First 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 for me.
- Martin Niemöller
Universities are not what they used to be. Once they were places where students and faculty enjoyed greater freedom to express and debate their views than in mainstream society. They were sanctuaries where young people could explore the full smorgasbord of opinions and beliefs about politics, religion, morality and social mores without the constraints of traditional norms. Unfortunately this is no longer the case - they have become a different type of sanctuary, a gilded cage where people are protected from exposure to anything other than a narrow set of acceptable views. This is particularly true of the United States where recently we have seen:
  • Somali-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali banned from giving a speech at Brandeis University because her views on Islam's oppression of women were deemed offensive to Muslims
  • British pro-Trump gay activist Milo Yiannopolous forced to cancel his address at UC Berkeley because of violence protests
  • American conservative commentator Anne Coulter disinvited from speaking at UC Berkeley (although later rescinded).
There have been many other incidents that demonstrate that our most fundamental right  - to hold and voice our own opinions, which is surely a prerequisite for all other rights - is now considered less important than the precept that no one should ever be offended by anything.

The latest incident is the cancellation of the appearance at an event hosted by a radio staton in Berkeley of the renown biologist and perhaps the world's greatest science writer, Richard Dawkins, because of his views on Islamist terrorism.

Several years ago I heard Dawkins speak in person and I left the presentation with two main impressions. Firstly, he does not speak as fluently as he writes. This is not unexpected as it is rare that great writers are as eloquent in their spoken words as in those they write, but what Dawkins had to say was riveting in spite of his somewhat awkward delivery style. More importantly, I thought he delivered the most complete and easily understood explanation of the biological basis for evolution by natural selection that I have ever heard or read. 

He described how the cells of all living things are made up of chains of protein molecules that are capable of curling up into an almost infinite variety of shapes, and that these shapes are determined by a digital code that is held in special molecular chains called DNA. He went on to describe what is perhaps the most important discovery in biology - but one that has never occurred to me despite my keen interest in science - that when living things reproduce by replicating from a single fertilised egg cell, they follow the whole of evolution from single-celled organisms to complex higher lifeforms. They are able to do this because all of evolution is stored in the digital code in their DNA and is simply replayed during gestation. In other words, each of us is the output of a computer programme that has stored the knowledge of three billion years of evolution, run over just nine months! This is the reason why the zygotes and early embryos of all animals look so alike - they show the point in evolution when all animals did look alike. 

Dawkins made me see that evolution is not some dry historical fact but is something that plays out in the birth of every baby. I found this fact jaw-dropping and ironically it is perhaps the closest thing I have experienced in my life to a religious revelation. It made me think that every human being needs to hear the story that this man tells so well, and that to ban him from imparting his knowledge to others is to commit a crime against human knowledge.

The political correctness stormtroopers have now come for Richard Dawkins and that makes me ineffably sad because it is precisely their ignorance and intolerance that Dawkins has spent his life trying to overcome. The radio station said it was specifically his criticism of Islam that led them to ban him. Dawkins has been a frequent critic of Christianity and his criticism of Islam is for the most part confined to Islamic extremism, but in the strange world of victim group politics it seems Christianity is fair game but Islam is a no-go area where free speech does not apply.

The size of the space that contains acceptable opinions is becoming smaller and smaller. You may think your views are safe because you are an open-minded, tolerant liberal who celebrates diversity and just wants to live and let live. You are wrong. They are coming for you because it is not so much your views that are under assault as the right to have any opinion of your own.

We all need to speak out in defence of free speech before there is no one left to defend it.