Out of Water: Opening Thoughts

There’s a lot of talk these days about what we can and cannot talk about. Colleges clamp down hard on “hate speech” and create “safe spaces” where only approved ideas can be discussed in ways that (supposedly) make things fair. There’s a lot of deferring to people based on who their parents were or how much money they have (or don’t have in most cases). There’s not a whole lot of talk about whether that’s good or bad for societies. It wasn’t always that way in America.

Consider the case of the National Socialist Party v. Village of Skokie, ruled on in 1977. The Nazis wished to hold a march there, the town wanted them to go away. The legal issue of the case was whether displaying the swastika in a town where one in six residents was a Holocaust survivor or direct relative of one constituted an attack on those people. The debate ran round and round the Illinois court systems and went to the United States Supreme Court briefly before being sent back to the state and ultimately resolved by the Illinois Supreme Court. The ruling was that the Nazis could march with all their uniforms and symbols intact, because doing otherwise would be a violation of free speech.

The Jews of Skokie fought back by planning a counterprotest, although the Nazis would eventually wind up returning to their preferred march site in Chicago when the ban against their meeting there was lifted. The community of Skokie then pooled their resources and built a museum to remember the Holocaust and inspire their descendants to work towards the prevention of such atrocities in the future.

Consider a different case. In modern Europe a sort of self-censorship called secularism has fallen into place. People believe whatever they want but they never share it in public venues. Religion or the lack thereof is only discussed with people of like minds. But now a large number of immigrants have entered Europe and they hold strongly to Islam. They do believe in discussing it in public, in fact they believe public life should be ordered by Islam and not secularism. This has caused a lot of social (and occasional violent) conflict in Europe.

Unfortunately, the self-censorship of secularism has left Europeans with weak skills in discussing religion. They barely understand how they think about religion (beyond that they should not talk about it) so they can’t understand how these newcomers think about religion. Many Europeans believe that living in Europe’s wealthier, freer culture will eventually win out over the religious training of Muslim immigrants. This is condescending and insulting, like offering a bribe to a man of strong principles. Europeans need to make the case for their culture in a context Muslims can understand and accept or there will never be a breakthrough.

Unfortunately after years of a culturally agreed upon censorship of religious discourse Europeans not only don’t have the rhetorical skill to engage in this debate, they’ve actually atrophied to the point where most of them can’t even see the kind of debate that is going on. Censoring free speech has left them too mentally impoverished to engage with the world around them.

There’s no doubt the people of Skokie hated the kind of free speech they faced on their own doorsteps. But by countering it with their own free speech the message of the National Socialist Party was rebutted and remains in ill repute. A lot of people in Europe got tired of the free speech of religious bodies and so they all agreed to censor it. But that left them vulnerable to a cultural conflict they now have no idea how to deal with it even as it grows ever more violent around them.

The Divided Futures started as a way for me to ruminate on political ideas in weird ways. I didn’t seriously think at the time that a penal colony for political dissidents was part of the future of American politics. In the last couple of years I’ve started to wonder. Who knows? Perhaps in a few years writing this blog will be enough for me to get thrown to the bottom of the ocean. In the meantime, I continue to support free speech in the hopes that the more people speak their mind the more bad ideas will be called out and the more all thinkers will grow and be ready to debate their ideas once again.

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