February 12, 2009

Down the Slippery Slope

  • The editor and the publisher of a leading newspaper, The Statesman, from the Communist ruled state of West Bengal, India, are arrested and arraigned for republishing a commentary that is critical of the same fellow who was criticized by Mr. Wilders.
  • A pastor in Victoria, Australia, blamed the devastating bush fires in the region on legalizing abortion. God's protection for Victoria, he contended is no longer guaranteed, unless the mafioso is paid the ransom of curbs on a woman's freedom to choose.
  • A Dutch Parliamentarian, Geert Wilders, is barred from entry into the United Kingdom for producing and distributing a film, Fitna, critical of the founder of Islam, who has been dead for a millennium and a half.
  • A girl, 16, in Mangalore, India, publicly humiliated for being caught in a "compromising situation" with a man 10 years older than her, commits suicide. Possibly unrelated, the incident follows threats from a conservative Hindu politician to forcibly marry young girls to their dates, if found together on Valentine's Day.
  • The Supreme Court of the United States will be hearing on March 5, a plea to uphold Proposition 8 [California] and nullify the marriages of gay and lesbian couples who are still in love and would like to remain married.

The societies that are involved in these sordid attempts to curb freedom of expression and basic human rights are among the leading democracies of the world.

In three of these five events that have all happened within days of each other, the state is actively involved in muzzling freedom of expression. Although the state is not directly involved in the other two, the transgressors are nonetheless institutions of immense power and influence over both the society and the state. And, these are not isolated events; they are dots in a disturbing pattern of intimidation of free thinkers for daring to think outside the box. For exercising their inalienable right to live their lives according to their preferences, without prejudice to anyone else's life.

Far more consequential than the economic malaise that the world is struggling with today, these events portend a threat to the core values that civilization has been founded on, and nurtured by humanity over centuries. Liberty, equality before law, and the pursuit of reason, are today in mortal danger being overwhelmed by the forces of misogyny, bigotry, and ignorance. Sane voices that admonish the states for abdicating their constitutional responsibility to safeguard these values are silenced in the name of maintaining peace and harmony, an unfortunate euphemism for political expediency. Quoting from Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia,

Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them they will support the true religion by bringing every false one to their tribunal to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error and of error only. Had not the Roman Government permitted free enquiry, Christianity could never have been introduced. Had not free enquiry been indulged at the era of the Reformation, the corruptions of Christianity could not have been purged away. If it be restrained now the present corruptions will be protected and new ones encouraged.

The claim that a woman is worth only half a man, the religions that sanction killing in the name of honor, and the belief that the earth, the quasars and everything that lay in and between them were created by an unseen, unproved, and supernatural teacup, are nothing but gross errors in human judgment. The states that allow themselves to be blackmailed by a vocal, and often violent, minority into persisting these errors are as much, if not more so, failed states. They measure no better than those that are organized around the principles that are the anti-theses of freedom of thought and progress.

Nothing gives me greater pleasure and pride than republishing the following excerpts from Mr. Johann Hari's commentary, "Why should I respect these oppressive religions?" that appeared in The Independent:

Today, whenever a religious belief is criticised, its adherents immediately claim they are the victims of "prejudice" – and their outrage is increasingly being backed by laws.

All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don't respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don't respect the idea that we should follow a "Prophet" who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn't follow him.

I don't respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don't respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. This is not because of "prejudice" or "ignorance", but because there is no evidence for these claims. They belong to the childhood of our species, and will in time look as preposterous as believing in Zeus or Thor or Baal.

When you demand "respect", you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade.

Predictably, these writings evoked violent protests from several Muslims in Kolkata, India. After all, this is the city in which Taslima Nasreen paid dearly for writing similar passages criticizing Muhammad, in her Dwikhandito. What is worse is the shameful conduct of the Government of West Bengal, in arresting the editor and the publisher of the Statesman, Ravindra Kumar and Anand Sinha, for republishing Mr. Hari's commentary in their newspaper. What is even more shameful is that Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code, under which Mr. Kumar and Mr. Sinha were arrested, continues to remain in the statutes, despite this admonition from Justices H. K. Sema & Markandey Katju of the Supreme Court of India:

These days unfortunately some people seem to be perpetually on a short fuse, and are willing to protest often violently, about anything under the sun on the ground that a book or painting or film etc. has hurt the sentiments of their community. These are dangerous tendencies and must be curbed with an iron hand.

When a bunch of bigoted politicians and thugs (am I repeating myself?) threaten violence against teenage girls and boys having a good time together on Valentine's Day, that'd be criminal. When the state itself threatens incarceration against a pair of journalists for reproducing (with permission) ideas expressed elsewhere in the free world, what should we call it?

The economic mess that much of the world finds itself in is not because Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Adam Smith were all wrong. It is the result of many uninformed buyers and sellers mindlessly joining in the bandwagon, mistaking the collective hubris of a few for competence. The social abyss that we are being led into is once again the result of entrusting our lives and liberties with a few who profess to know what is best for the rest of us. Only the camouflages are different, not the characters underneath them. Just as less regulation, and not more regulation, is the remedy for a sick free market, "the answer to the problems of free speech is always more free speech", as Johaan Hari concisely puts it, and not less.

  1. While I heartily share all your alarm about the said incidents, it seems incorrect and over-reactionary to say that as a civilization, we are on a slippery slope down. Intuitively as well statistically, incidents of bigotry, injustice, and inequality are far less today than 30, 300, or 3000 years ago. No?

  2. I wouldn't say that as a civilization, we are slipping dangerously. Yet, the changes in the codes of conduct stipulated by national and international organizations to appease voices against freedom are disturbing, to say the least.

  3. The girls fight back:

    Also see:

    I joined the Facebook group, of course! Member count is up to 36,525 now.

  4. Are there not such things as 'universal morality' and 'conventional morality' -- the one remaining more or less constant at all times and in all ages and the other, relative to the time and place? Is not the State the custodian of the 'good' morals of its members ? The 'good' being qualified by the remark above? Violence, of course, is to be deprecated, but 'force' can be judiciously used by the State.


  5. divs,
    Thanks for the links.

    anonymous guest,

    In a democracy, we expect the Constitution to guarantee certain natural and equal rights to all - liberty (imo, includes freedom of expression), life, and property. The State is the custodian of the Constitution that created it, and by implication, the guarantor of these rights - nothing more, nothing less.

    If you wish to label these rights as "universal morals", I have no problem with that, but personally, I prefer "natural rights". Morality tends to fog the discourse.

    The only role of the State that I recognize is the protection and defense of these natural rights of its citizens, against threats of physical violation.

  6. In my opinion, what you consider as 'natural rights' are based on the values attached by any civilized society to the sanctity of life and liberty and institutions like marriage and private property with the power to exclude others. However, rights are conferred by the Constitution to be upheld by the State through its organs subject to 'reasonable restrictions' to defend 'public interests' in peace, order and morality apart from protecting the sovereignty and security of the State and its friendly relations with foreign States and the like. The 'resonableness' test is determined by the State itself through its organs subject to the discretion of its actors. Thus 'morality', whether of the 'universal' or 'conventional' kind, is defended by the State. And we know that anarchic societies are 'going down the slope'!

  7. Islam is very protective about their Prophet. It is perfectly understandable for them to be offended if someone speaks negative about them. If there is something negative to be said, then instead of saying out loud, try to educate them why Muslims need to see the other point of view. In essence, be more diplomatic. Right speech, rather than outright free speech.
    Every society has its own taboos. Whether they are justified or not is immaterial, but trying to overrun them by force will not help matters. Copernicus was persecuted for claiming earth was not in the center of the universe. But now it is an accepted fact. Things change, but many take time.


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