- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2010


It can be dangerous to make free with free speech in modern America, lest you offend someone with a perfectly harmless remark. Agents of the Thought Police are lurking everywhere, searching for something to be offended by.

Juan Williams, once a distinguished commentator for National Public Radio (NPR) and now a distinguished flinger of opinions for Fox News, learned this when he made the commonsensical observation that he gets nervous when he sees a group of men in Muslim regalia follow him aboard an airliner. A sense of self-preservation, after all, is the strongest human impulse, stronger even than hunger. Why should we expect Mr. Williams to react any differently than any other American insuch a situation? But he was fired nonetheless for making free with his free speech.

What we suffer in America, observes Michael Kinsley in Politico, the Capitol Hill political daily, is an excess of umbrage, the demand for apology when someone is insulted, thinks he has been insulted, or when someone says something he doesn’t like. “Umbrage,” Mr. Kinsley writes, “is the engine that moves election campaigns and the fodder that feeds the media’s politics maw.”

But umbrage must be selective. There is a definite order governing who is entitled to umbrage. You can, for example, say anything about white people, and indeed the practice of good citizenship in certain circles requires you to occasionally throw out an insult of white Christians. Insulting Jews, once a violation of one of the most inviolate taboos, has become fashionable once more. A careful insulter usually clothes his anti-Semitic remark as merely an insult of Israel, and counts on perceptive listeners to get the point.

Few members of the chattering class, usually eager to pounce on “gaffes” and the outrageous remark, took notice the other day when a fresh dump of Nixon White House tapes from four decades ago revealed an astonishing remark by Henry Kissinger, Mr. Nixon’s secretary of state. “Let’s face it,” Mr. Kissinger, a Jew himself, said to the president, “the emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern.” Then, as if to give himself cover if such a remark became public, he added: “It may be a humanitarian concern.”

Careless remarks about black folks - or African-Americans as they must be called, lest you insult the progeny of an entire continent - are easy to make, by even the most well-meaning innocents. Some years ago a white bureaucrat in the D.C. government almost lost his job when, in a budget discussion, he decried a certain cut in benefits as taking a “niggardly” approach to budget-making. After it was pointed out in a brouhaha lasting several days that “niggardly” is an ancient word with no linguistic connection whatever to either “Negro” or the bastard “n-word,” the villain of the piece was told that, well, OK, but since the word “niggardly” sounds similar to the naughty word, it could nevertheless offend the uneducated. Umbrage taken, and no one north of the Potomac has been heard using the word in public since.

Offending Muslims is the least forgivable offense. U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. can go on for hours about the threat to American lives and limbs by “radical” terrorists, as he did a fortnight ago, without once so much as hinting as to who these terrorists might be, or what dark and bloody interpretations of doctrines from the eighth century might be driving them to acts of malignant evil.

Our elites are fond of looking to Europe for tips on living, and what some people need are clearly tips on how to practice their free speech. The undiluted First Amendment can be too robust for the very model of the modern American.

Political Correctness, or self-censorship, governs the conduct of these elites, who would be more comfortable with the European model of free speech, as set out in Germany, where talking about certain subjects is against the law. The Germans nevertheless insist that they, too, practice free speech: You can say anything you like as long as you say only what the government says you can say.

Americans could once laugh at such concepts of “free,” given our constitutional guarantee of the right to say anything. There were only natural limits: “Your rights end,” went the schoolyard warning of yesteryear, “where my nose begins.” This is the only “context” for free speech we’ve ever needed, and it’s the only one we need now.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.



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