Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Limits of Liberalism

Some friends of mine have been discussing the recent New York Times article about how the Mohammad cartoon flap illustrates the virtues of liberalism, and why arguments based on a culture of tolerance and discussion is going to be completely lost on the fundamentalist Muslim world.

Stanley Fish describes "liberalism" as the ability to hold certain beliefs seriously in private but casually in public, and to feel free to "let it all hang out" in the public sphere. This supposedly backs up the Danish publication for feeling free to overcome its "self-censorship", by deliberately printing cartoons they knew had the potential to offend the Muslim public.

I think we have to clearly define what "freedom of the press" means, and to do that we need to have a good understanding of what "freedom" in general means. "Freedom" means that you are not restricted by law in what you can do. But that has absolutely nothing to do with what you ought to do; we are always constrained by moral judgements of what's right or wrong. So, I can feel quite strongly that the government has no business telling people who they can sex with, and still feel equally strongly that sleeping with your neighbor's wife is reprehensible and wrong. I believe the press is legally free to say whatever it pleases . . . but there are still some things that are wrong to say, and we are free to say so.

To hold up freedom as a value that trumps moral judgement is not merely misguided. It is the beginning of real Evil. It is the attitude of Lucifer, wanting to do something hurtful, not because you want to, but precisely because you know it's wrong. It is Raskalnikov killing an old lady, precisely because he wants to show that his freedom of will transcends moral restrictions.

So, anyone who rushes to publish scandalous items (whatever their content) merely in the name of "freedom" is on very shaky ground. With freedom comes responsibility . . . and freedom untethered from responsibility quickly becomes something quite unfree: chaos.


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