Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World by Timothy Garton Ash – review

Source: The Guardian


Freedom is worthless if it is not lived. However important rights are in a constitutional democracy, they will wither unless you use them. From John Milton’s polemics against the Presbyterian attempts to enforce Calvinist censorship on the England of the 1640s, via John Stuart Mill’s rebellion against the conformism of the Victorians, to Salman Rushdie’s argument with the Islamists, the urge to defend and expand freedom of speech has been created by the threats of its enemies

What applies to great writers applies to everyone else. No one thinks hard about freedom of speech until they are forced to. In Timothy Garton Ash’s case, the pressure came from within.

When Ayaan Hirsi Ali fled to Holland from Africa she might have expected the support of European liberals. Here was a black feminist arguing against female genital mutilation and the God-sanctioned religious oppression of women. How many more “progressive” boxes did she need to tick?

Her enemies were the enemies of all liberals: armed reactionaries, who had murdered her friend the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh for exploring misogyny in the Qur’an, and were making all-too-plausible threats to kill her, too. Yet rather than turn on their enemies, her friends turned on her. Dutch liberal politicians threatened to strip her of her citizenship. Garton Ash and other “liberal” intellectuals derided her with enormous and unwarranted condescension.

People only took notice of Hirsi Ali because she was beautiful, he opined. His donnish gaze could peer beyond her superficial attractions, however, and see that she was “an Enlightenment fundamentalist”, the mirror image of Islamist fundamentalists, even though Hirsi Ali did not advocate the murder of gays, apostates and Jews and the establishment of a global theocratic tyranny.

The treatment of Hirsi Ali provoked an understandable uproar. Whole books were written about the failure of intellectuals to live by their values. As the cries of “trahison des clercs” grew ever more pleasurably raucous, I attended a confrontation between Hirsi Ali and her accuser in 2010 in London.

There was no contest. Hirsi Ali was not only beautiful but dignified, principled and brave. Her living presence was a victory over the most repressive forces on the planet. Beside her, Garton Ash looked small and his thoughts seemed mean. It was if he was up against Daenerys Targaryen. And he knew it. Garton Ash expressed his regret for drawing a moral equivalence between the targets of fundamentalist oppression and their oppressors, and then said that, of course, he believed in robust free speech. To prove it, he offered up a couple of salty comments about Islam.

Given our neurotic times, I am sure you can guess the sequel. Garton Ash was gripped by the same terrors that haunt Hirsi Ali, Pakistani liberals and Bangladeshi atheists. The organisers of the event refused to wipe his comments from the YouTube tape of the meeting. Panic spread. Hirsi Ali put an end to it with a magnanimity that made me admire her all the more. She said that no one should have to live with the fear she lived with, not even the men who had derided her when her life was on the line. On her instruction, the organisers censored.

Moments of crisis define you. The coldness of the European liberal-left pushed Hirsi Ali into the arms of America’s neocons, the only people who would welcome her. After his scare, Garton Ash might have carried on making “liberal” excuses for illiberal forces, like so many of his colleagues in academia and leftwing journalism. Instead, he used his fear to find his better self.

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