Free speech fundamentalism

Those crazy cats at Spiked (formerly Living Marxism) like to think of themselves as radicals, but are in fact ultra-liberals. They think that the liberal right to free speech is more important than, say, the right to live in Yugoslavia without getting butchered for your ethnicity, or the right not to live in fear of a new Holocaust. (See my critique of another ultra-liberal, Noam Chomsky, on these issues, and scroll down to point 3, as well as the links here.)

Now, Spiked’s Brendan O'Neill defends the free speech of Orhan Pamuk, someone who speaks out against the denial of genocide, as well as that of David Irving, who actively promotes the denial of genocide. My instinct is to take pleasure in
Irving’s incarceration in Austria. O’Neill correctly describes him as
“a racist crank, an historian whom no one outside of small fascist sects takes seriously. He denies the facts of the Holocaust, once claiming that 'more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz'.”

But I’m afraid that basically Spiked are right: Irving should not be locked up for saying this. Even Deborah Lipstadt agrees. We should not support the liberal anti-fascist strategy of calling on the state to censor any piece of politically incorrect speech.

But why go to any effort to defend this scum?

They are also right to say that, “as someone who uses England's illiberal and undemocratic libel laws to try to punish his critics - including Deborah Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust, in a case he lost in 2000 - Irving is not in a good position to complain about being robbed of his right to free speech.” But this is the thing about liberal free speech fundamentalists – they end up as apologists and useful idiots for the most illiberal of people (as Chomsky was for Faurisson).

On Pamuk, O’Neil asks what gives the British state the moral high ground to criticise Turkey. He quotes New Labour MP Denis MacShane: 'Turkey is on trial', not Pamuk: 'As in past centuries, state authorities or religious fundamentalists have put a writer on trial to stop him or her asking awkward questions, but end up in the dock themselves…Turkey will not join Europe unless Voltaire wins, and the ayatollahs - secular and religious - lose.' Then O’Neil continues: “Who the hell is MacShane to lecture Turkey about free speech, to put the Turkish authorities 'on trial', to decree if and when the Turks can 'join Europe'? His own government has ridden roughshod over free speech, recently introducing a Racial and Religious Hatred Bill that will seriously curb our right to ridicule religious obscurantism; bringing in a law that will make an offence of 'glorifying' or 'condoning' acts of terrorism (or saying other things that might be perceived as 'attacking the values of the West', in the words of Lord Falconer).”

On one level, this is right. The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill and the glorification of terrorism law do make a mockery of any idea of freedom of thought and should be vigorously opposed. But they hardly compare to making it illegal to denigrate Turkishness or to mention the genocide in Armenia – yet another case of silly liberal moral equivalence.


You will by now have noticed the rhetorical device which characterises the Spiked house style, as the non plus ultra of liberal infoolectualism. Who is Irving to winge about free speech when he uses libel law? Who are New Labour to talk about free speech when they criminalise anti-religious expression? Another Spiked writer uses the same tool against Ken Livingstone: he should expect to become victim of the repressive, politically correct, intolerant climate he has been one of the architects of. Or, as Barbara Amiel put it, Welcome Ken, to the gulag you helped create. (See also Blithering Bunny).


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