I was sitting at home the other night watching the fine HBO miniseries John Adams and wondering how long before the filmmakers got around to attacking George W. Bush and the War Against Terrorism. I didn’t have to wait long. The sixth episode to be exact, in a scene where Thomas Jefferson warns Adams against signing the Alien and Sedition Acts. “You will be trampling on the Constitution,” cries a stern Jefferson. Hmm. Where have I heard that before? Oh, yes, it was every liberal politician and libertarian writer’s response to The Patriot Act. Adams, of course, signed the Acts anyway, which are generally considered the low point of his administration and the one stain on an otherwise lilywhite career.
As the filmmakers’ made plain, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed at a time when the young nation was poised to go to war with Talleyrand’s French Republic, which believed the U.S. had taken the side of its eternal enemy Great Britain. At the time the U.S. was teeming with Frenchmen who had recently fled the slave uprisings in Haiti. The Acts were intended to protect Americans from cheese-eating saboteurs, spies and rabble-rousers. But their secondary and perhaps more important purpose was to outlaw criticism — particularly criticism by supporters of Jefferson’s Republican party — that could potentially weaken the federal government. Despite — or likely because of — the arrest of nearly two dozen prominent newspaper editors and one congressman, the Acts backfired and Jefferson defeated Adams, vying for a second term, in 1800, whereupon the new president repealed or let expire three of the four acts (the Alien Enemies Act remains in effect today).
So much for the two-bit history lesson. The next morning I came across a piece in the New York Times titled “Unlike Others, U.S. Defends Freedom to Offend in Speech.” The story’s author Adam Liptak complained that, “Under the First Amendment, newspapers and magazines can say what they like about minorities and religions — even false, provocative or hateful things — without legal consequence.” Liptak seemed to be asking, “How can we allow this? Gosh darn it, we will never have a perfect union until we can lock up hateful people who say provocative things!” Liptak also noted that in that peaceable kingdom to our north, where jihadists plot to storm parliament and behead the prime minister, “laws banning hate speech seem to stem from a desire to promote societal harmony,” something which our government, through our vile First Amendment, evidently wishes not to promote.
Further, the Times heaped scorn on America’s “distinctive approach to free speech,” which was a result of “fear,” while clearly siding with the leftist “legal philosophers” who apparently think there is too much liberty granted by the Bill of Rights. Bolstering the Times’s position were such old fashioned lefties as New Zealander Jeremy Waldron and the long retired Anthony Lewis, men who once would have climbed atop Volkswagens and screeched through bullhorns to demand free speech rights, but have reconsidered their positions, because, well, those positions now seem so mean.
But isn’t it odd for editors, writers and legal philosophers, who decry the excessive censorship of the Alien and Sedition Acts, to advocate restricting free speech? That depends on the speech. The Times isn’t seeking to curb the free expression of Screw magazine and Internet porn sites — not to worry, they will be just fine. The Times was talking about muzzling, well, guys like me.
OKAY, NOT like me. More like Mark Steyn and the editors at the now defunct Western Standard magazine, meanies who occasionally write exposes about fundamentalist Muslims, thereby injuring “their dignity, feelings and self-respect,” as if the latter were delicate flowers who cannot take a bit of journalistic rough and tumble.
Mr. Steyn follows in a long and distinguished line of humor essayists who have from time to time picked on religious sects. In the early 20th century H.L. Mencken was very often very mean to Methodists, Presbyterians (“Pissbyterians,” he called them), and Baptists. Samuel Clemens wrote an entire volume painting Christian Science as a sham and its founder Mary Baker Eddy as a charlatan. Today such social criticism is considered “stirring up racial hatred,” whether or not race is the element being criticized. None of Mencken’s or Twain’s essays led to mob attacks on Methodists or Christian Scientists, but it is today assumed that if a Muslim gets his beard pulled in the subway it is the direct result of a Mark Steyn piece, and not because some of their co-religionists publicly preach death to America. Curiously our “legal philosophers” have little to say about the utterances of fundamentalist Muslims. It is instead the statements of serious humorists that are the real danger to the peace.
The First Amendment, happily, says nothing about what an individual can or cannot say. It only prevents — or tries to prevent — a do-gooder government from restricting speech. Since its passage some 219 years ago the Amendment has been under constant siege from hordes of pecksniffs. I fear freedom’s defenses are weakening. I fear there will soon be a breach.