Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bin Laden is Still Wrong

Tibor R. Machan

Stubbornness is not a disease but mostly a moral problem. If in the face of reason someone keeps holding on to irrational ideas, it isn’t that he or she cannot change but that he or she will not change. It can, of course, be very difficult to reexamine one’s ideas; their foundations can be very deep seated and resistant to scrutiny. But for those who have chosen to be specialists about the veracity of belief systems there is a moral obligation to keep vigilant about getting it right.

Osama bin Laden seems unwilling to consider that his views on freedom of speech just don’t cut it. Once again, in response to the republication of insulting cartoons in some European newspapers, bin Laden seems to have unleashed physical threats, refusing to understand that in a country with any degree of justice in its legal system, it is not possible or desirable to officially censor the press however much some think its content is blasphemous or impolite.

Bin Laden is reported to have said that "The response [to the republished cartoons] will be what you see and not what you hear and let our mothers bereave us if we do not make victorious our messenger of God," amounting to a somewhat vague but still ominous warning. He continued by saying that "You went overboard in your unbelief and freed yourselves of the etiquettes of dispute and fighting and went to the extent of publishing these insulting drawings...." "This is the greatest misfortune and the most dangerous and the judgment for it will be stronger."

Consider, for a start, that bin Laden appears to be addressing all Europeans--specifically, governments and VIPs such as the Pope--when he says “You went overboard.” But in a free society these people have no authority to edit privately owned newspapers, no legitimate power to force editors to expunge what bin Laden thinks are unwise features in their papers. In such societies there are innumerable insulting drawings and columns that target various icons that are, in the opinions of others, sacred and holy. Comics routinely make fun of people’s most deeply held convictions. Cartoonists relentlessly hammer away at people and events that others insist must not be treated humorously.

In free societies the proper response to such offensive materials in the press and elsewhere must be confined to words and other peaceful protests and rebukes. No government official is permitted to shut down a newspaper for publishing even the most inconsiderate and ridiculing materials about what some people want to have left free of defilement.

Bin Laden seems to have no clue at all that any government that would be legally permitted to become censorious would then have the authority to expunge criticism of its own policies. Bin Laden doesn’t appear to understand that people in relatively free countries have no legitimate power over each other’s peaceful conduct and he fails to appreciate that drawings, words, symbols and such are not knives, bullets, bayonets, or swords. Bin Laden seems clueless about how free men and women have the right to speak out on anything they choose while others are free to turn away and not listen, look, or otherwise take notice.

No one can deny that many people in free countries can behave unwisely, disrespectfully, even without etiquette, with impunity. That is just the meaning of “free.” (Sadly, of course, even in most free societies this is lost sight of when people get upset with what others give expression to, as when they voice racist or sexist ideas, when they say what’s politically incorrect! But that inconsistency is a matter to be lamented at another time.)

Even in the parts of the globe that bin Laden criticizes and threatens there are many who regard him with some measure of respect, probably because of his posturing, his demeanor which mimics that of an educator and hides from immediate perception his true nature as a thug. Yet bin Laden does indeed appear--if the reports of his opinions are accurate--to be a vicious thug, not a lofty guru, as he appears to wish to be perceived. Only once he grasps that human beings must be free to say what they think, good or bad, can he expect to reach the level of civility that would earn him respectful attention.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Too Much Love for Royalty

Tibor R. Machan

Every time I encounter admiring references to royalty in America I cringe. Like when recently The New York Times Magazine ran a special advertising section for Dubai in which “the ruler of Dubai” was displayed in all his royal splendor. But that’s just the beginning.

What about all those hotels and other establishments that have names such as “crown,” “royal,” “queen,” “duke,” and the like? What is it with all of this apparent lingering adoration for monarchical titles in a country that lost thousands of lives in its fight to rid itself of the sham of the entrenched class system of feudal times?

Well, as I see it, too many people are still subconsciously attached to eras when the bulk of the people were being ruled by kings, queens, tsars, Caesars, pharaohs, sheiks, khans, dukes, and barons. They still appear to have some yearning for societies with a hierarchical structure where individuals are deemed to be in need of strong governmental leadership instead of mere skilled administrators. Even in the current election campaign there is a lot of talk about who will be the best leader, as if the country were populated with sheep in need of constant direction and supervision.

But the United States of America has citizens, not subjects, and the difference is considerable. Subjects are, strictly speaking, subservient to the will of some allegedly naturally higher authority than they are. Citizens recognize no such divisions in the population. Yes, there are people who have earned authority in, say, medicine, engineering, education, and so forth but the operative term is “earned.” Unlike in feudal systems where one’s title comes with the accidental good fortune of being born to parents who are members of an elite--ones who had no need to achieve anything other than to remain in power mainly through sheer force of arms--in a country where people are citizens no one is taken to be innately better than anyone else. Yes, some may be more fortunate than others but no official benefits are supposed to come with this.

The government in a country with citizens is also made up of citizens, not rulers. This helps to remind everyone that these people are not better born than others, have no special authority over others apart form what they are freely granted by other citizens (with appropriate limits attached even then), and that governments are by their nature no magical institution to be entrusted with superhuman wisdom and virtue.

When this is lost sight of, as it seems to be by altogether too many people in America, there would likely be an embrace of statism, the idea that government officials possess innate superiority over the rest and are thus destined to run things. And that is surely the very opposite idea to one so brilliantly laid out in the Declaration of Independence, the brief but very true philosophical summary of the American political system.

My inclination is to stand up and protest whenever I detect signs of lingering adoration for royalty, even while others chide me for being paranoid, for making a mountain out of a molehill. A recent book, Liberal Fascism, by Johan Goldberg (Doubleday, 2008), shares my concerns by showing that nearly all of what liberal democrats are supporting--including or especially in the current election campaign--turns out to be a step in the direction of a reactionary policy of micromanaging society, just as this was deemed proper under absolute monarchies in which king or queen had the duty to be keepers of the realm and under 20th century fascist regimes. Just what subjects can expect and citizens would reject. Reaction to this book--for example in The New York Times Book Review (December 30, 2007) by David Oshinsky--has been to chide it for paranoia, for worrying too much about the expansion of government power in America.

Unfortunately there is no paranoia--which is to say, exaggerated and irrational fear--involved in concerns about liberal fascism, no more so than there was about all the fiercely authoritarian and totalitarian regimes of the last century. They were all developed by calls for what their intellectual supporters deemed to be needed and moderate discipline and top down regimentation, only to graduate in time to Draconian dictatorships.

Americans should become more self conscious about elements in their culture that amount to nothing less than a reactionary nostalgia for statism. That is not what made the country special in the world, the beacon of human liberty.