Free Speech Makes for Strange Bedfellows


Today’s Pioneer Press (Thursday, October 04, 2007) on pages 1B and 6B took me quite aback.

I read there that Marv Davidov had taken a stance with which I fully agreed. This had never happened before. From my youth I have never had much truck with peace at any cost advocates, which is the camp in which I place Marv for his consistent, dedicated, anti-war, pro-peace advocacy.

I find war, from time to time, as a necessary evil playing its sad role in a fallen world of sinners. I proudly fought the war that came with my generation – Vietnam – and think I made a contribution to the cause of justice through my work in village development and political reform in South Vietnam.

Marv’s causes have not been my causes. So be it. We have our separate understandings and priorities. It’s a free country for differences of opinion in my book. He does his thing; I do mine.

But Marv has just spoken out against the University of St Thomas in favor of free speech. On this one, his cause is mine as well.

The University of St Thomas refused Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa permission to speak on campus. This decision was taken, said the Pioneer Press article, out of the University’s concern not to offend the local Jewish community.

So political correctness towards one community – the Jewish one – trumps political correctness towards other communities, which is the policy behind freedom of speech.

Under principles of freedom of speech, the politically correct thing to do is permit the speech in order to protect all from succumbing to error. In this moral universe, political correctness consists of truth, whether we like it or not.

One could, of course, argue that there is no truth; that all rhetoric and verbal signification is unprivileged selfish manipulation of words and emotions for crass advantage. Under this approach, if it serves my interests, I should be able to prevent you from having a chance to persuade others of my ignorance, greed or folly. Survival of the fittest.

I don’t like that approach and neither, I think, does Marv.

According to Julie Swiler of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, Tutu went astray in a 2002 speech in Boston where he referred to a “powerful” Jewish lobby in the US. This reference invoked a stereotype of Jewish power, Swiler said.

The point somewhere, and this is what I think Davidov has stood up to defend, is to learn what is the truth? Shutting Tutu up doesn’t get at the truth.

Is Tutu correct on his facts?

If so, then his speaking the truth is not hurtful stereotyping, only truth-telling.

If not, then his speaking deserves to be challenged, refuted, and corrected by those who know the truth better than he does.

Davidov apparently thinks Tutu may be telling the truth. He is quoted saying: ”The Israeli lobby in our country has been attempting to silence criticisms of Israel in the academic world. That does a disservice to the state of Israel and all Jews.”

Davidov is comfortable with his assertion that there is an Israel lobby in the United States. So are many others. Earlier this year an important paper by two academics, one at Harvard and the other at Chicago, was published in the United Kingdom because it was not accepted for publication in the United States. The paper argued for the effectiveness in American Congressional decision-making of an Israel lobby. The authors brought a lot of facts to bear in support of their conclusion. Their point of view was rejected by many in the Jewish community. It will soon be published in book form and many more can then consider how well they present their case.

Swiler also took Tutu to task for asking if Jews had forgotten that God cares about the downtrodden. She called his comments “going beyond legitimate criticism of Israel”.

Which raises in my mind an interesting question: who is to decide what is legitimate criticism of Israel? Israel? Arabs? Israeli Arabs? Russians? Chinese? Just who?

I recall that many books of the Old Testament are highly critical of former rulers of Israel. Criticism of the Israeli government and its policies towards the Palestinians is permitted in Israel itself and occurs there with some regularity.

In our democracy, does George Bush or Hillary Clinton get the final word on what is legitimate criticism of his war in Iraq or her feminism?

Freedom of speech generally holds that the criterion for legitimate criticism is very, very open ended stopping just short of slander and libel.

So Marv is on target this time with his opposition to censorship on the part of the University of St Thomas.