The Clare Spark Blog

January 12, 2015

What “free speech”?

free-speechThe march of millions in the streets of Paris on January 11, 2015, in solidarity with the libertarians of Charlie Hebdo (, has been met with either euphoria or cynicism. What no one is interrogating is the history of free speech, though much ink has been spilled over political correctness, politeness and tact in verbally assaulting our enemies du jour. I am still waiting for some French or Francophile academic to trot out the postmodern objections regarding (mis) representation and the elusiveness of precision in language.

My favorite enemy of “free speech” is Bill Donahue of the Catholic League. He makes no bones about good manners, tact, and impropriety, and like some Fox anchors, still fuming at Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, just as Donahue’s predecessors did as they compiled the Index or burned heretics at the stake. See, and

Are all these censorious institutions and practices safely tucked into the bad old days? Or do they linger into the present, affecting everyday speech and action in what one Herman Melville character described derisively as “free Ameriky”? I do remember my delight when I came across Melville’s abundant markings in Goethe’s autobiography, where Goethe described his frightening proclivities toward Prometheanism after he discovered the Pelagian heresy (a denial of original sin), taken up by the Moravians. For it has long been my position that Captain Ahab is a stand-in for the author himself, defying authority by proclaiming “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.” Yet cautious Ishmael, not Ahab, survives the wreck that is the outcome of “the fiery [i.e. Promethean] hunt.”


For Melville, even his much admired Shakespeare was “a muffled man”. One reason that “deep-diving” Melville is in vogue among the pessimistic postmodernists is his poem “In a Church in Padua” that ends with this verse: “Dread diving-bell! In thee inurned/What hollows the priest must sound/Descending into confidences/Where more is hid than found.”

As I wrote in my blog, as long as hierarchies exist, free speech is a fond dream. We are all more or less tongue-tied; we are all acting whatever roles will keep us out of trouble with our superiors or even our closest friends and children.

And even were the pecking order to magically disappear, would we “tell the truth”? That would be a relief, assuming that we know ourselves and are safe from persecution or banishment from polite society.


Fat chance of that, no matter what Socrates or his predecessors advised

No wonder the frustrated young resort to punk, impudent rapping, and related forms of ritual rebellion. (See, retitled “Rappers, primitivism, and ritual rebellion”). Is it only a coincidence that the young rebels are often hyper-masculine?


  1. […] I have written this very brief blog because many on the internet and Facebook believe that they are, in fact, practicing free speech. I questioned this assumption here: […]

    Pingback by Pacifica Radio and how I achieved free speech | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 30, 2015 @ 6:29 pm | Reply

  2. […] I am most concerned with the widespread notion that we actually have free speech and exercise it at will. That is one subject on this blog. ( […]

    Pingback by What is “context” and how is it relevant to the Pamela Geller flap? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 5, 2015 @ 9:15 pm | Reply

  3. With regard to France in this context, French media outlets have had a continuous mention of ‘Republican values’ — as in those of the French Republic — stemming from the December 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and the State. More recently, this has come to mean that no religion may dictate to the French Republic.

    Post-Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Casher — both still functioning, the latter having reopened on March 15 — the topic has polarised France. On the Leftist side, a number of Frenchmen (and women) say that France is responsible for a form of institutional ‘racism’, including what Prime Minister Manuel Valls (Spaniard, now a French citizen) called social ‘apartheid’ in terms of housing. On the other hand, other leftists, along with centrists and conservatives, have said that there is a clear lack of social integration in certain urban areas on the part of the residents and that no one should have to bow to someone else’s idea of religion.

    I read and listen to a lot of French media. The debate rages on, therefore, it is not surprising that the root reason has not been elucidated. The law most often referred to is that of 1905 — a secularised state — although, in reality, everyone knows that is far from being the case. Few policemen want to enforce the law against Muslim veils; it is too much trouble for them. They have little support from local community organisers and politicians who are Socialist or Conservative.

    Comment by churchmouse — March 16, 2015 @ 11:16 pm | Reply

  4. Great article. Its not only the lack of free speech that’s troubling but the absence of an engaged audience is also a problem. Heaven forbid that we dive deep and surface with an idea that was supposedly thrown overboard and drowned by our favourite enemies.

    Comment by noel murphy — January 13, 2015 @ 5:39 am | Reply

  5. I understand your message that speaking the truth is invariably disruptive. One has to rid him/herself of any kind of fear of or dependence on any human being in order to be truthful.

    Comment by Maimon Chocron — January 13, 2015 @ 5:35 am | Reply

    • It is even more difficult than dependency on those who have power over us. To me, seeking any kind of truth is a life-long and never-ending process.

      Comment by clarelspark — January 13, 2015 @ 6:18 am | Reply

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