Here’s a book I’m looking forward to reading. I think. It’s a book I know will excite me, infuriate me, challenge me, provoke me, and have me scrawling an enthusiastic ‘yes!’ or a bad-tempered ‘no!’ in the margins of practically every page. And very often both on the same page.
It’s a book, that is, on free speech.
I can think of few people more qualified to write such a book than Timothy Garton Ash, whose dispatches and commentary on political repression appear regularly in The New York Review of Books and The Guardian. And I love the idea of him drawing up ten free-speech commandments — or rather, per his subtitle, “his ten principles for a connected world.”
Here they are:
1. We — all human beings — must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.
2. We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.
3. We allow no taboos against and seize every chance for the spread of knowledge.
4. We require uncensored, diverse, trustworthy media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.
5. We express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human difference.
6. We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.
7. We must be able to protect our privacy and to counter slurs on our reputations, but not prevent scrutiny that is in the public interest.
8. We must be empowered to challenge all limits to freedom of information justified on such grounds as national security.
9. We defend the Internet and other systems of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers.
10. We decide for ourselves and face the consequences.
That all sounded great until I read it through a second time. And realized that the one that stumps me is #6. Really? Respect anti-Semites and Islamophobes and racists and sexists and pry-my-gun-from-my-cold-dead-hands shmucks of all stripes? I can understand them — that is, I can put myself in their shoes and figure out why and how they came to be such shmucks. But understanding, at least for me, does not necessarily entail respect.
Perhaps Garton Ash will persuade me otherwise (I have the book on order, so am only working off this New York Times article), but as with most people, it takes quite a bit for me to be persuaded to change a treasured stance.
Which means that #4 is not exactly a non-stumper either. In an ideal world, maybe. But “trustworthy” is a matter of preexisting opinion. There are hordes of people who consider Fox News trustworthy. Others, like me, consider the NYT trustworthy (for the most part, and with significant exceptions such as its coverage of Palestine). A terrifying number of people once considered Pravda and Der Sturmer to be trustworthy. The news sources you trust are likely more a reflection of your preexisting opinions than of any objective measure of reliability or — that ever-elusive ideal — “truth.”
And then, now I think on it, #5 also stumps me somewhat. I’m assuming that the book will define “robust civility” — I like the concept, since civility too often has an aura of mild-manneredness, and the idea needs some guts. In fact I’d like to see Garton Ash write a manifesto just on that.
Of course his new book is already attracting detractors. Some of them are quoted in the NYT piece , which, since flames always lead, begins with his idea that other newspapers should have united to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Muhammad. I get the idea — solidarity in the face of intimidation and terrorism — but wouldn’t it have been a perfect example of the tail wagging the dog? Of otherwise respectable media giving in to what Glenn Greenwald calls emotional blackmail?
Despite such caveats, I generally admire Garton Ash’s writing. But I’m more stumped by his ten commandments than I thought I would be. The more I look at them, the more vaguely idealistic they seem.
But then Garton Ash is no vague idealist. And of course, I haven’t read the book yet. And since it’s not due out until tomorrow, and is a somewhat daunting 491 pages long, I’m assuming that neither have the detractors cited in the NYT.
Could it be that criticizing a book you haven’t yet read is precisely part of the problem?
[Update to come when I’ve read it!]