Alex Massie

1st Amendment Rights

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I'm not quite so pessimistic as Kurt Anderson here, but he does get to the guts of why politics in America can be so wearying these days:

Almost any argument about race, gender, Israel, or the war is now apt to be infected by a spirit of self-righteous grievance and demonization. Passionate disagreement isn’t sufficient; bad faith must be imputed to one’s opponents: skepticism of affirmative action equals racism, antiwar sentiment equals anti-Americanism (or terrorist sympathy), criticism of Israel is by definition anti-Semitic, and so on. More and more people think they’re entitled to the right not just to ignore or disapprove, but to veto and banish. And the craven fear of triggering tantrums leads the responsible authorities—university administrators, politicians, corporate executives—into humiliating, flip-floppy contortions of appeasement.

Maybe, I tell myself hopefully, it’s all a spasmodic reaction to the unfettered discourse that the Web and cable TV and talk radio have unleashed—that because freedom of expression is rather suddenly greater than ever in so many ways, people are trying desperately to reestablish limits on what can and can’t be asserted in their vicinity. And no doubt this sort of panicky, anti-democratic exceptionalism—freedom of speech for us, but not necessarily for you—is fed by the chronic sense of emergency that has prevailed since September 2001, when the White House press secretary warned that “Americans … need to watch what they say.”

Maybe the fever will pass. Or maybe a lot of us are permanently losing our taste for liberty, devoted to “freedom” in the abstract but unprepared to endure all its messy particulars.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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