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.”



Ironies from Israel #4: The Embarrassing Benefactor

Well, this is not exactly an irony from Israel but rather an irony from the Third Reich that has put Israel in an ironic position.

Israel has a circle of honor for those who rescued Jews from the clutches of the Third Reich, whether it be one or thousands. Nominations are sent to a department of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial (built on land confiscated from Palestinian families, we must not forget), where the cases are checked and researched and then passed to a committee of ten Holocaust survivors, which makes the final decision. 24,356 people from forty-seven countries, five hundred of them Germans, have been so honored as the “Righteous Among the Nations.”

On the face of it, the case now facing the committee should be extremely simple. The candidate aided several dozen Jews and non-Jews in escaping from the Reich and set up Swiss bank accounts to help the exiles. On a number of occasions before the war he saved individual Jews from assault by Nazi thugs, and as an executive with the vast Skoda works in Czechoslovakia he aided resistance fighters and supported anti-German sabotage. He once took a truck to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and demanded workers for the Skoda factories, then driving them to a woods where they were released. All these activities are documented by witnesses, most especially the people (or their children) he helped to survive.

The only problem: the man’s name is Albert Göring.

Yes, the man in question was Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s little known younger brother. He was an apolitical engineer and a dapper womanizer, but despite his family connections he was also anti-Nazi and despised Hitler. Rather than turn a blind eye, however, he used those connections to rescue people from the system in which his brother was the number two man.

He obviously fits the bill for the honor of being a member of the Righteous Among the Nations, but his name is Göring, which might be a bit difficult for Israel to accept. But there is a way out. There is a rumor that Albert was actually the child of his mother and the family doctor, who was a Jew. This would give the Israelis an opportunity to avoid what might be an embarrassment in proclaiming a Göring one of the Righteous Among the Nations, since only non-Jews are eligible for the honor. There is, however, absolutely no evidence for this claim of a Jewish father, and even the Reichsmarschall would have had some difficulty protecting his brother had the Reich suspected Albert of carrying Jewish blood.

Confirmation of Albert Göring’s role in rescuing Jews would be a victory of truth over image, but unfortunately, Israel, more than most states, has allowed the image of its past to be built upon serious distortions of the truth, beginning with “A land without a people for a people without a land.” This must have been a baffling proclamation for the millions of Palestinians already living in the “land without a people.” Closer to the subject of this essay, missing from the list of the Swedish Righteous is the name Folke Bernadotte, who saved at least 1600 Jews (among tens of thousands of others) near the end of the war. But as a mediator during the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1947-1948 Bernadotte earned the ire of the extremist Stern Gang, and in 1948 he was assassinated on the orders of its leaders, one of whom, Yitzhak Shamir, was later Prime Minister of Israel. Clearly, it would be awkward to encourage public review of Bernadotte’s life.

With Jews, Czech resistance fighters and others defending him Albert Göring was completely cleared by the allies, but out of loyalty to his family he refused to change his name, and even a talented engineer could not find work in Germany with the name Göring. He died a poor man in 1966, his deeds unknown to the world until an Australian writer published an account in 2009.

Grass Roots on Israel

Nobel Laureate author Günter Grass has just published a short poem entitled “What Must Be Said,” in which he accuses Israel, with its undeclared stockpile of nuclear weapons and constant threat of attacking Iran, of being the real threat to peace in the Middle East.  The poem is hardly likely to enter the corpus of great literature, but in it Grass makes valid points that must in fact be made and has stirred a discussion – at least in Germany – that has been constantly avoided.

Granted, Grass has undermined his position and unnecessarily provided material for his critics by suggesting that Israel is poised to launch a nuclear strike that would destroy the Iranian people, something Tel Aviv is not likely to consider doing.  Even the ever-compliant United States would (I hope) bristle at the use of a nuclear weapon, and in any case in the highly unlikely event that Israel’s incredibly powerful conventional defenses were inadequate, the US would be obliged to step in.

Nevertheless, Grass’ basic point is certainly correct: the only Middle Eastern nation west of Pakistan possessing nuclear weapons is Israel, which has never even been asked to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, let alone accept inspection of its facilities.  This bit of grand hypocrisy is hardly surprising, given that America and to a lesser extent Europe have historically granted the Jewish state a blanket dispensation when it comes to accepted international law and behavior.

Critics are screaming at the barest suggestion that Iran may be the victim here, but this is perhaps not as outrageous as it first appears, certainly not from the Iranian point of view.  The West overthrew their democratically elected government in 1923, imposed the utterly ruthless Shah, occupied the country during World War II, created and supported a militarily powerful Israel and encouraged Saddam Hussein in his decade-long war against them.  And now, because of the interests of Israel and the Sunni oil barons, America has declared its (albeit reluctant) willingness to engage in a war of aggression because Iran might be working on nuclear weapons and might have one in a few years.  For all that Iran is controlled by a collection of ideological numbskulls there is at least an aura of victimhood, and certainly no rational person could ever consider imperial Israel a victim.

For the obvious reason of its Nazi past criticism of Israel is very infrequent in Germany.  (Because of domestic politics it is also very infrequent in America, but the utterings of a European author typically do not stir the interest of the self-absorbed American media.)  Clearly, the atrocities of the Third Reich neither justify bad behavior on the part of Israel nor require reasonable Germans to be silent, but as Grass predicts in the poem, any criticism of Israel will result immediately in the accusation of anti-Semitism, which is exactly what happened.

Criticizing Israel is of course no more anti-Semitic than criticizing Germany is anti-German, and Israeli citizens in fact do it every day (only to be branded “self-loathing”).  But so great is western guilt and Zionist influence that it is now generally accepted that gainsaying Israel is in fact anti-Semitic; the latest edition of Webster’s does offer as the second definition of “anti-Semitism” criticizing Israel.  So, one does so at one’s own risk.

Sundry Germans, particularly newspaper columnists, immediately jumped on Grass as an anti-Semite, especially the Jewish writer Henryk Broder, who described the novelist as “the prototype of the educated anti-Semite,” in part for labeling the appropriation of Palestinian land as a criminal act (which of course it is by established international law).  As can easily be imagined, the extreme right-wing government in Tel Aviv promptly branded Grass an unrepentant Nazi, and Interior Minister Eli Yeshai barred the author from ever entering Israel, a petty measure already taken against others, such as linguist Noam Chomsky and Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maquire, who dared criticize Israel.  (In 2001 there were calls, unsuccessful, to do the same to Daniel Barenboim, who had the temerity to conduct a piece by Richard Wagner; these people are off the deep end.)  To their credit even some German politicians condemned this fit of Israeli pique.

Grass has on numerous occasions demonstrated himself to be something of a jerk, but he is undeniably a world-class novelist and certainly no ignoramus.  Whether or not one agrees with his appreciation of Israel and its nuclear arsenal, he has clearly made a valid point about the danger of criticizing the Jewish state, a point most Germans apparently agree with.  And a point amply demonstrated by the reaction of Israel, which once again has chosen to erect a wall rather than confront rationally those who dare object to its actions, whether they be Palestinian farmers or German authors.

What must be said

Why have I kept silent, held back so long,

on something openly practised in

war games, at the end of which those of us

who survive will at best be footnotes?
It’s the alleged right to a first strike

that could destroy an Iranian people

subjugated by a loudmouth

and gathered in organized rallies,

because an atom bomb may be being

developed within his arc of power.

Yet why do I hesitate to name

that other land in which

for years – although kept secret –

a growing nuclear power has existed

beyond supervision or verification,

subject to no inspection of any kind?

This general silence on the facts,

before which my own silence has bowed,

seems to me a troubling, enforced lie,

leading to a likely punishment

the moment it’s broken:

the verdict “Anti-semitism” falls easily.

But now that my own country,

brought in time after time

for questioning about its own crimes,

profound and beyond compare,

has delivered yet another submarine to Israel,

(in what is purely a business transaction,

though glibly declared an act of reparation)

whose speciality consists in its ability

to direct nuclear warheads toward

an area in which not a single atom bomb

has yet been proved to exist, its feared

existence proof enough, I’ll say what must be said.

But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Why only now, grown old,

and with what ink remains, do I say:

Israel’s atomic power endangers

an already fragile world peace?

Because what must be said

may be too late tomorrow;

and because – burdened enough as Germans –

we may be providing material for a crime

that is foreseeable, so that our complicity

will not be expunged by any

of the usual excuses.

And granted: I’ve broken my silence

because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;

and I hope too that many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger

we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.

No other course offers help

to Israelis and Palestinians alike,

to all those living side by side in enmity

in this region occupied by illusions,

and ultimately, to all of us.

Günter Grass

(Translated by Breon Mitchell)

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast.

For Israel to launch a military strike against Iran would simply be madness and have repercussions far beyond Israel and the Gulf.  Such an attack would of course be an act of war, but that has never bothered Israel, which seems to think that the fact of the Holocaust grants her the right to violate international law and take whatever action she might deem necessary to her security.  And the unqualified support of the United States, caught in a seeming stranglehold because of Israel’s immense influence in American elections, allows her the power and protection to act as she pleases, even if it is clearly against the interests of the United States.

Iran, however, is not Syria or Lebanon or Iraq and is very likely to defend her national sovereignty and honor by retaliating.  This might be of little concern to the world at large if this simply meant a war between Israel and Iran, although in the unlikely event that Israel is desperate she would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons, which would be disastrous.  But able to reach Israel only with a few missiles Iran is almost certain to assert herself as a victim of aggression by employing irregular forces to attack US interests around the world and cause a shutdown of the oil passing through the Straits of Hormuz, which Gulf would send the price of oil skyrocketing and quite possibly turn the global recession into a full scale depression.  Further, America is bound to come to the aid of Israel if she is attacked, apparently regardless of why, and the result would be another costly and unjustified war for the US and a disaster of Biblical proportions for Iran.

It appears from the events of recent decades that America has fully adopted the international mechanisms and attitudes pioneered by the Israelis (and sundry loathsome states before them): contempt for the national sovereignty of other states, disregard for international law when it is inconvenient, the murder of individuals considered enemies and the acceptance of outright military aggression if there is perception of some future threat.  These are of course the positions taken by the very people responsible for the Holocaust.

Implicit in the support of a subservient America and European countries with guilty consciences is that Israel is a “good guy,” living in a neighborhood inhabited by various “bad guys,” of whom Iran is clearly one.  Israel is a tiny democracy whose very existence is continually threatened by surrounding autocracies.  Unmentioned is the fact that Israel is also an outpost of understandingly attractive western culture (even if Jewish) in a sea of supposed inferior Arab culture.  Further, completely missing from the established image of evil and predatory neighbors is the righteous indignation of the locals at having an essentially European state established on their homeland by an organization – the UN – created and controlled by westerners bent on assuaging their guilt.

A tiny Jewish David surrounded by Muslim Goliaths, that has been portrait of Palestine.  Yet, even in 1948 the American OSS predicted that the new state of Israel would have no problem defeating the invading Arabs, and in 1967 the successor CIA estimated it would take the Israelis no more than two weeks to crush their opponents, which they in fact did in half that time.  Today of course Israel has the most powerful military in the region, limited only by the need of resupply by the Americans, but she still presents the strategic arguments of the mid-twentieth century: “We must control the
West Bank because Israel is so tiny and vulnerable” or “We must retain the Golan Heights because from there Syrian artillery could pound Tel Aviv.”  It does not take any serious military education to understand how obsolete and nonsensical such propositions are; the high ground and other territorial considerations become irrelevant if you have complete control of the air, which Israel has maintained since the Six Day War.

As yet it is too soon to tell if the Arab Spring will actually produce functioning democracies, but it is certainly clear that Israel is something less than completely democratic.  At heart is the contradiction inherent in the very nature of Israel: it claims to be both a democracy and a Jewish state.  What exactly does that mean for the 25% of the Israeli citizen body who are not Jews?  It means discrimination of course, a discrimination exacerbated by the fanaticism of the “settlers” and the growing political influence of the ultra-orthodox sects, who do not even like most of their fellow Jews.  The Israeli Foreign Minister has actually publicly called for the expulsion of non-Jews, the sort of ethnic cleansing normally associated with especially vile governments.

Finally, one might ask by what right do Israel, America, Britain and
France require that Iran produce no nuclear weapons and back up that demand with the threat of military action.  Behind this blatant double-standard there is clearly the arrogance of power: we have the military and economic resources to bar you from the nuclear club.  At least the Athenians were more honest when they justified their unjust and immoral bullying of the tiny island of Melos: “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”  That Israel itself has nuclear weapons and has never even been asked by the US to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty must strike others in the region as a particular example of American hypocrisy.

After six decades an understandable Israeli concern for security has evolved into an almost irrational paranoia fed by incredible arrogance and self-righteousness.  Hearing a head of state call for your annihilation must certainly be unnerving, but is the Israeli government so foolish that it takes the utterly simplistic view that the outlandish rhetoric of Ahmadinejad actually represents the policy of a state in which the centers of power lie elsewhere?  Are the rulers of Iran so completely idiotic or suicidal that they would seriously threaten Israel with a nuclear weapon, knowing it would mean the complete destruction of their country?

The government of Iran is obviously repressive and champions a religious ideology unpleasant for most westerners and hostile to the Sunni autocrats beloved by the west for their oil, but there is an Iranian point of view.  In 1941 the western allies invaded and occupied Iran as a staging area for supplying the Russians, and in 1953 Britain and America conspired to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh and replace it with the autocratic and ultimately terror-filled rule of the Shah.  Since 1979, when the Revolution overthrew the hated Shah, America has maintained a constant hostility towards Iran and has become even more identified as the enabler and protector of Israel.  And the Iranians are not likely to forget who supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran.

Because of the embedded image of Israel as the “good guy” and the cowardice of the American political establishment in the face of the Israeli lobby, there is little official attention is given to the non-Israeli perspective in the Middle East.  Could it be that the other states in the region fear Israel as much as she expresses fear of them?  Israel after all possesses several hundred nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them and has shown an increasing lack of restraint in resorting to military action.  In her modern history Iran has never attacked her neighbors, while Israel feels free to assault anyone she deems hostile or an obstacle to her policies, including even the Americans (the attack on the USS Liberty in 1967).  Iran may support groups unfriendly to Israel, but at the same time Israel feels free to murder any individual considered an enemy, most recently Iranian physicists.  Finally, what other state in the area is engaged in actual territorial aggrandizement and colonization?

Unfortunately, seeing the other guy’s point of view has never been an American strong suit.