Free Speech. Where?

Freedom of speech is easily the most important of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, the most important freedom in any society.  If the people can say and write what they please, a government will have a difficult time becoming repressive, at least against the will of the people.  (There are clearly many who do not care what the government is doing so long as life is comfortable – five thousand years of civilization has not been so much a march towards greater freedom as towards greater comfort.)  Free expression is at the same time a fragile entity, easily damaged by political, economic and even social concerns.  Even liberal governments and politicians are very uncomfortable with free speech.  They do not like to be questioned or criticized or circumvented, and they certainly do not like to be made fun of.


The greatest threat to free expression inevitably appears when a society’s security is being threatened or perceived to be threatened.  Security is far and away the most common justification for enhancing the power of the government and at the same time checking the free speech that might be employed to expose and oppose the state’s actions.  Threats to the country are also the strongest motivation for the people themselves to do the government’s work and curtail the speech of those with unpopular and thus unpatriotic points of view.  Any American publically suggesting in 1942 that the Japanese were not entirely evil and had some reason to attack the US would immediately receive a personal and violent lesson in the limits of expression during wartime.  The popular protests against the war in Vietnam were tolerated in part because the state failed to demonstrate that there was in fact a serious threat to America.  It also allowed its credibility to be shattered by a news media permitted virtually unlimited access to the war, a situation that was corrected during the war against Iraq, when “embedded” reporters were fed carefully crafted reports.


The popular repression of speech that followed the 9/11 attack was particularly virulent, undoubtedly because the United States itself had been assaulted and we were suddenly at war with shadowy figures who might be lurking right around the corner.  Any criticism of government policies constituted a lack of patriotism, and even the barest suggestion that the terrorists had anything to do with our policy in the Middle East or that they were sacrificing their lives for a principle, benighted though it was, was akin to treason.  An admittedly insensitive crack about blowing up the Pentagon resulted in death threats and demands from individuals and state politicians for my dismissal from the university.  Meanwhile, the administration of the university, a place that should be a bastion of free speech, while justifiably criticizing my remark, refused to defend my right to make it and treated me as road kill,  requesting my retirement.  This attitude is of course that accepted by government, and in response to my comment the presidential press secretary publically stated that “Americans need to be careful about what they say!”  This is an outrageous idea and represents the sort of governmental intimidation that was subsequently built into the Patriot Act.

I worked here

I worked here


A more insidious threat to free speech comes with our attempts at social engineering, a questionable enterprise.  The unvoiced premise lurking behind much of this thinking is that freedom of expression means freedom of popular expression or decent expression or socially useful expression, all things that hardly need Constitutional protection.  So we now talk about “hate speech” and “fighting words,” that is, speech that is not popular, decent or socially useful but in fact constitutes a threat to social harmony and public safety.  This is all pernicious nonsense.  The only valid parameter for limiting speech is whether or not it is likely to cause immediate physical danger.  Inciting a crowd to riot would fall into this category, but hate speech that might indirectly lead to some problem in the future does not.  In the second case who would decide when offensive expression is offensive enough to be considered a danger to society?  Some government body?  Popular vote?  Do this and freedom of speech begins to crumble.  Or the “fighting words” notion, which maintains one cannot use speech that is so offensive to an individual that he assaults the speaker.  More nonsense.  You may be stupid for saying such provocative things, but speech can never justify doing violence to someone.


People seem to have a difficult time recognizing the burden of free expression: tolerance.  Your right to say what you please entails tolerating what others choose to say, no matter how disgusting you find it.  In fact, your duty as a citizen is to defend that person’s right to spout hate or nonsense. The grandest moment of the ACLU was defending the right of American Nazis to march through a Jewish neighborhood in Skokie, a principled act that led to the resignation of many members.  These hypocrites were in effect saying “We believe in free speech, but…,” a statement that guarantees that the speaker is ready to limit that free speech.  Many appear to believe there is a clause in the Constitution that guarantees the right to get through life without ever being offended.

Even these idiots have the right to spew their venom

Even these idiots have the right to spew their venom


Truth is clearly not a necessary component of free expression.  If it were, politicians and advertisers would be in trouble.  Apart from the fact that it is often difficult to define precisely what is true and what is not, speaking nonsense is certainly protected by the right of free speech.  There is, however, a specific case of untrue speech being prohibited.  In Germany and Austria denying the Holocaust is a criminal offense, which is an outrageous abridgement of free expression, designed, presumably, to hinder the emergence of obnoxious and threatening groups.  While it is clear why this particular topic is a sensitive one in these countries, this is a dangerous practice.  Who is to decide what bits of history may not be denied or distorted?  When is an event in the past so horrible that one is punished for saying it did not happen?  Why not outlaw all speech which appears stupid or ignorant?


In Israel it is now illegal to publically support any agency or NGO engaged in boycotting Israeli products or services as a protest against the country’s policies regarding the Palestinians.  People who do so are “delegitimizing” Israel, an assertion that now takes a place alongside “anti-Semitism” as a standard reply to critics of Israel.  It may seem a small thing in a society that enjoys wide freedom of speech, but while an Israeli citizen is free to say all sorts of nasty things about his country, he cannot support or approve any boycott directed against Israel, which is to say, there is one traditional form of protest that is denied to him.  Asserting that it is criminal to “delegitimize” the state comes seriously close to punishing people who insult the state.


And now this Israeli – or at least Likud – assault on free speech in the interest of politics may be coming to America.  Opposing Israeli policies in Palestine, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has initiated an academic boycott of Israeli institutions and universities, which has now elicited a response from Israel’s many friends in the Congress.  The proposed Protect Academic Freedom Act provides that any academic institution that participates in the BDS movement will be denied federal funds under the Higher Education Act.  This is bad enough, but the definition of “participate” is breathtaking: “The Secretary shall consider an institution of higher education to be participating in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions or scholars if the institution, any significant part of the institution, or any organization significantly funded by the institution adopts a policy or resolution, issues a statement, or otherwise formally establishes the restriction of discourse, cooperation, exchange, or any other involvement with academic institutions or scholars on the basis of the connection of such institutions or such scholars to the state of Israel.”  Whatever one thinks of the BDS movement and the academic boycott, this ironically named bill would obviously put limits on free speech on the American university campus.


The man who introduced this constitutionally questionable act, Rep. Peter Roskam, explained: “These organizations are clearly free to do what they want to do under the First Amendment, but the American taxpayer doesn’t have to subsidize it. The American taxpayer doesn’t have to be complicit in it.  And the American taxpayer doesn’t have to play any part in it.”  (A perfect of example of “I believe in free speech, but…”)  So, federal funding of academic institutions that merely fund an organization that in turn makes a statement against a foreign country is somehow an unreasonable burden for American taxpayers to bear?  And only in the case of this one particular country?  The Congressman does not explain why it is on the other hand fine that the American taxpayer has to be complicit in and play a part in sending $3 billion dollars a year to a country that is universally recognized to be blatantly violating international covenants the civilized world is pledged to uphold.  How far is this from denying federal aid to a university that allows its faculty to publically support a boycott targeting American policy?  Well, probably very far, since the Congress often seems more concerned about Israel than the United States.

A bit frayed these days

A bit frayed these days

I don't need to show you no stinking Constitution

I don’t need to show you no stinking Constitution


Freedom of speech is the most fragile of our freedoms, since it is so easy to slowly pick away at it, to eliminate free expression in this or that seemingly small area in the interest of social and political welfare.  And most Americans will simply not care because it does not affect them.


A final historical observation concerning free expression.  While Athens was engaged in what would be a life and death struggle against Sparta, the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the comic play-write Aristophanes was producing very successful satires of Athenian society and policy.  Not only did he constantly lampoon the leaders of Athens, but he openly attacked the Athenian empire and the war itself, and he did this in a state that lacked any constitutional guarantees whatsoever, a state where the people in their assembly could take virtually any action they pleased.  It is hard to find a greater commitment to free speech.

"Take your war and shove it."

“Take your war and shove it.”



Stuff from Way Back #19: All Hail the (Greek) Phallos

Virtually overnight the western world, including even parts of Latin America, has come to accept homosexuality, and the major issue is no longer tolerance but the public and legal status of a homosexual marriage.  On the other hand, there is central Africa, where practicing homosexuality can mean death, and the hypocritical Islamic (mostly Arab) world, where homosexuality is typically a crime but often engaged in because of the extreme sexual segregation, especially in the Gulf states.  And of course Russia has now enthusiastically embraced homophobia, hardly surprising in a county where the majority of the population is still coming to terms with the nineteenth century.


This sort of serious hostility towards homosexuality is yet another gift of the No-Fun God, who declares such behavior unnatural and an abomination, and prior to the arrival of the Christians (and outside Judea) attitudes were very different.  While there are exceptions, most non-Abrahamic societies have tolerated or in some cases even accommodated homosexuality in their social and religious values.  The Greeks are an excellent example, and ironic, since Greek values and ideas are at the heart of the western tradition, while their sexual practices were vehemently rejected by the religion that affixed itself to that tradition.


Because of deep-seated hostility in the Christian west to such practices, Greek homosexuality traditionally received little or no attention in the standard histories, and when it did, the account was typically distorted by the moral prejudices of the author.  Otherwise competent scholars turned a blind eye to the evidence of widespread homosexuality, including the so obvious and explicit scenes found on pottery.  (The Greeks depicted every sort of activity on their pots.)  Only recently has classical studies turned to serious investigation of Greek sexuality, much of which investigation is unfortunately marred by new prejudices.


It should be noted right off that if modern terminology is to be used, Greek society was not homosexual, but rather bisexual.  Homosexuality may be defined as the more or less exclusive sexual preference for members of the same sex and must be considered some sort of biological aberration (no offspring can be produced) affecting a minority in every society.  Bisexuality is the willingness to entertain sexual partners of either gender and would appear to be in large measure a socially determined trait, unless we assume that the Greeks were somehow physiologically different from other people.  Thus, while there was surely the usual homosexual minority, many urban Greeks, especially those of high social status, were apparently bisexual, seeking different things from the different sexes.  In fact, to judge from the large numbers of female prostitutes and evidence such as the successful sex strike launched by the Athenian women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, heterosexual relations were very important to Greek men.


Using modern terminology is in any case a dangerous practice, since there is the risk of also projecting into the past modern concepts that have a different or no meaning in ancient society.  The terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual,” which are little more than a century old, are valid classifications for Greece only in the most superficial sense, that is, labeling a single different-sex or same-sex act.  As more general characterizations they are useless because they group behaviors that the Greeks considered very different, the sex of the partner, for example, being almost a trivial concern compared to the all-important issue of social status.  Dominance and issues of penetration and receptivity were frequently of far greater importance than gender, and certain areas of Greek society might be more appropriately described as phallocratic rather than heterosexual or homosexual, though this term as well is too restrictive and potentially misleading.


Why ancient Greece – or at least the upper levels of its urban population  – should have been one of the very few openly bisexual societies in history, certainly in the West, is not perfectly clear.  The origins of male homosexuality were seen by the Greeks in the sexual segregation of the military societies of the Dorians (the second wave of Greek-speaking invaders from the north, c. late 13th to early 11th centuries), and Plato in fact blames the Spartans and Cretans, who were Dorians, for spreading the practice.  But while Plato may be reflecting an opinion generally held in Greece during the classical period, that opinion is not necessarily true, and there is no hard evidence for the diffusion of Dorian practices through the rest of Greek society.  It is true, however, that the overwhelming male orientation of polis (city-state) society, which resulted in a sort of sexual segregation, can probably be traced back to the warrior communities of the early Dark Age, which resulted from the Dorian invasions.  The warrior hosts disappeared, but because of the endless intercity warfare, the polis was in many ways also a warrior society, and the absolute dominance of males continued.


The pertinent fact here is that outside of childbearing everything that mattered in the polis was in the hands of males, which meant in turn that outside of heterosexual relations everything that was of any concern to a Greek male involved other males.  With very few exceptions women were completely uneducated and uninvolved in anything beyond the household and the odd cultic practice, and consequently, for meaningful companionship and a relationship with any intellectual content whatsoever a male normally had to turn to another male.  Male relationships thus filled a basic social need.  This situation of course does not necessarily lead to open homosexuality and did not in most other similar societies.  Further, while it is perfectly clear that extreme sexual segregation inevitably leads to some degree of homosexual behavior (look at any prison population), it generally does not lead to open, socially acceptable homosexuality.


Why then the Greeks?  An entirely satisfactory explanation is elusive, and I can only suggest a few reasons.  First, the relatively high level of social and intellectual freedom in Greek society, due in part to the open nature of the constitutional polis and in part to the fragmentation of Greece into hundreds of separate political units, which encouraged some small measure of diversity.  This resulted in a social atmosphere more conducive to change and acceptance of different practices.  This is not to suggest that Greek society was wildly progressive – it certainly was not, even in the heady days of change in the sixth century – but rather that the polis was at least marginally more inclined to accept nontraditional behaviors than the average pre-modern society.  Much more important, the Greeks had no inherited prohibition of homosexuality, no command from god that erotic experiences between persons of the same sex were wrong, which would allow the homosexuality inevitably practiced in secret in sexually segregated societies to come out into the open.  Finally, because sex was viewed as an important expression of status and citizenship, social position became much more important than the actual gender of the partner, producing an environment more open to sex between males.  In short, the male dominance and sexual segregation fosters the bisexuality, and the relative social freedom and lack of any serious religious prohibition brings it out of the closet.


But let us not misunderstand Greek sexuality and think simply of cheap thrills and bathhouse promiscuity.  Obviously, there were those who engaged in casual sex, especially with slaves and male prostitutes, but a serious relationship involving free males was bounded by a strict set of rules, and behavior that publicly violated those rules was socially unacceptable and sometimes criminal.  An acceptable pairing involved an older male, the erastēs, who was the active partner, and a younger male, the erōmenos, who played a passive role.  The erōmenos could not be too young, less than about twelve, and there would be talk if he were still playing the passive role much beyond the age of fifteen or sixteen (“when the beard was grown”).  The pair could not openly engage in oral or anal sex, because that would compel the erōmenos to play a subordinate, female role and not only bring shame upon him, but also injure his future status as a citizen.  Personal physical inviolability was one of the hallmarks of citizenship, and penetration of a male would place him in the category of slave and woman.  The kinaidos, the man who allowed himself to be so used, was the negation of everything represented by the hoplite, the heavy infantryman who defended the polis: manliness, citizenship and dominant status.  Indeed, the worst insult you could deliver to a man was to call him euryprōktos, “wide-assed.”  The acceptable practice was intercrural copulation, in which the erastēs, facing his partner, thrust his penis between his thighs, thus avoiding penetration.


Such at least was the social ideal, and some men maintained lofty attitudes regarding their liaisons, emphasizing the educational aspect of the relationship and their responsibility for the development of their erōmenoi as men and citizens.  There is some truth to this, inasmuch as Greek society (excepting Sparta) had no formal educational apparatus and the continued absence of the urban father from the household may have strained the relationship between father and son, but this must not be exaggerated.  The evidence suggests that sexual attraction to and pleasure with adolescent males was the common motivation and that penetration was frequently practiced, for all that one never spoke of it in public.  The Romans, incidentally, shared these attitudes, though unlike the Greeks they considered citizen youths out of bounds, and the distinction between penetrating men (permitted for virile males) and being penetrated by men (definitely not permitted) is still made among males in some Mediterranean and Latin American societies.

Greek honesty concerning homosexual behavior was only a single facet of their incredibly open attitude about human sexuality in general.  Sex, and in fact body functions in general, rather than being a taboo subject were a source of great amusement, as is readily obvious from Aristophanes and from Greek pottery (the stuff hidden away by Christian museum curators).  Aristophanes’ comedies were at heart social and political satire, the highest form of comic expression, but that satire was wrapped in humor that a modern audience would find obscene and puerile – jokes about farting, penis size and suchlike.  But the Athenian audience loved it, and these were people who had just sat through and enjoyed several tragedies; the modern equivalent might be several Ingmar Bergman movies followed by some mixture of Redd Foxx and the Three Stooges.


Free of any divine commandments to the contrary, the Greeks were able to develop a more open attitude about human sexuality, and I suspect their society was all the more psychologically healthy for it.  The Greeks were far more willing than most civilized peoples to recognize the inner nature of the human animal and squarely face what this meant in terms of human needs and behavior.


Finally, a popular Greek “pottery joke.”  There were traditional shapes for wine cups, and one was similar, though smaller, to the common chamber pot.  A picture of a woman peeing was painted on the inside bottom of this type of cup, and when the imbiber (inevitably male) finished his drink, he suddenly discovered the squatting woman and got the joke.  Yes, these are the same people who discovered democracy and philosophy, and yes, they would have found dribble glasses and whoopee cushions completely hilarious.


When men were men

When men were men

Hey, it's Greek art

Hey, it’s Greek art

And women were women

And women were women


Stuff from Way Back #7: Flip the Avis

(NOTE: These posts are not appearing as frequently as I would like because of time spent on my book and because they occassionally – as with this post – take a lot of time in research.)

(This piece was prompted by bird flippage observed in the Super Bowl halftime show.)

Extending the middle finger as an insulting gesture – “giving the finger,” “flipping the bird” – seems as American as apple pie, but in fact it has a long history, stretching at least as far back as the Greeks.  This is hardly surprising since all humans have hands with five digits and half of them have a penis, and it seems likely the obvious phallic symbolism of sticking up the middle digit would occur to any culture.

Conquer this, Caesar!

             In Aristophanes’ (c.455-386 BC) comedy Clouds (l. 1023) Right Logic refers to someone as filled with καταπυγοσύνης  – “unnatural lust” in polite academic language, more accurately “desire for anal sex.”  In his Onomasticon (2.184) Iulius Pollus (2nd cent. AD) says that in Attic Greek καταπύγονα, another form of the word, specifically meant a gesture with the middle finger, which dovetails nicely with the use in Aristophanes.  Elsewhere in Clouds (ll. 649-654) Aristophanes puns on the word δάκτυλος, which can mean both “dactylic,” a Greek poetic rhythm, and “finger,” and while it is not explicit, the joke only makes sense if Strepsiades is referring to his johnson when he says “this,” which suggests that his earlier finger reference is to the middle finger.  In Peace (l. 549) Aristophanes uses the verb σκιμαλίζω – “jeer at,” “flout” – but the scholiast on this line adds “to hold up the middle finger.”

And on to the Romans.  In Latin the expression is quite clear: digitus impudicus or digitus infamis may stand in for digitus medius.  One of Martial’s (AD c.40-c.101) epigrams (6.70.5) sports the line: Ostendet digitum, sed impudicum, which is pretty much Latin for “flip the bird.”  In his Life of the Divine Augustus (45.4) Suetonius (AD c.70-c.130) relates that the emperor banished from Italy the actor Pylades because demonstrasset digito at a spectator who was hissing him.  Since simply pointing at a member of the audience was hardly a crime, the digitus used could only have been the infamis – the middle finger.  Also frequently cited is Suetonius’ Life of Caligula (56.2), where the emperor insults a member of the Praetorian guard by offering his hand to kiss, formatam commotamque in obscaenum modum, but this means “formed and moved in an obscene fashion,” which could indicated all sorts of things.

And you thought classics was boring!  Well, it certainly used to be a lot more stuffy, and early translations of Aristophanes, whose plays are filled with stuff modern society considers obscene, featured a great deal of mistranslation in the quest to keep the classics pristine and edifying.  Earlier editions of the Loeb Classical Library, a favorite with students because they feature Latin or Greek on one page and the translation on the facing page, often had a sequence of pages with no translation at all, an indicator that these were indeed the good parts.  In fact the Romans and especially the Greeks were nowhere near as prudish as we with our No Fun God and found human sexuality and bodily functions a huge source of humor.

So, the next time you flip somebody off remember that you are continuing a proud tradition that goes back more than two millennia.