Lots of pundits, bloggers, and non-writers have been talking about free speech and the affronts to it. The occasion for all this jabber is the event managed by activist Pamela Geller and her event at Garland, Texas, that resulted in the death of two would-be invading Islamist gunmen.
Some commentators have complained that the drawing of a cartoon of Mohammed was provocative and incendiary, while others have vigorously defended untrammeled free speech, let the chips fall.
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. (https://clarespark.com/2015/01/12/what-free-speech/.)
But I am also amazed by William J. Donahue’s statement on Fox News Channel, referring to the larger “context” of Geller’s alleged provocation. (He had already written about angry Muslims earlier this year with respect to the bombing of the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris: http://www.catholicleague.org/muslims-right-angry/.)
As I have described here before, the once fact-based profession of history has been taken over by postmodernists, who, following Hayden White, view all published history as “literature.” I myself have advanced the observation that we are “prisoners of our contexts,” (https://clarespark.com/2014/12/18/rape-culture/), though I would never go so far as the postmodernists by throwing out all science as a swindle insofar as it affects “objectivity.”
As I discovered when first conducting my Melville research, finding the relevant context for artists and their critics (or for our own cherished beliefs) is a challenge. For instance, Freudians will focus on Melville’s family situation; Marxists will scrutinize him for class, racial, and gender prejudices; “progressives” attempting to co-opt both Freud and Marx will, and have, looked at his family very selectively, and then will praise him to the extent that they believe that he generally reflects their own “moderation.” If they have to suppress documents that contradict progressive notions, they will do that too. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/06/10/herman-melville-dead-white-male/.) And the preferred “moderate” position is “multiculturalism” for it keeps us divided and racism and collective categories are intact,. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/03/28/index-to-multiculturalism-blogs/.)
The relevant context for the Pamela Geller/free speech flap is “multiculturalism”. No one sees this, for the assumption is either that Geller is a “hater” who “incites” Muslims, or, conversely, that we have untrammeled free speech and we must go to the wall on its behalf, lest we betray the First Amendment.
This latter position ignores case law, and worse, often reads back into English history the precedents for free speech, ignoring that the common law originated in medieval times when perfect obedience to orders and personages above oneself in the Great Chain of Being was taken for granted. Kings, Popes, and the nobility were at constant war with one another over conflicting rights, but the notion that peasants and townspeople should enjoy the same privileges was unheard of.
Get used to it, readers. The progressive bourgeoisie and growing mass literacy brought us such free speech as we currently enjoy, and “free speech” has always been contested by special interests that want freedom of expression for their own causes, but would deny it to their adversaries.
Do academics enjoy free speech and academic freedom, as they proudly proclaim? It depends on their superiors. As sociologist Stephen Turner has observed over and over, all scholarship is subsidized. But even if academics could get jobs based on pure merit and objective criteria, we would still be faced with our own limitations. As the lady said, we are to some unknowable extent, all prisoners of our contexts (personal and institutional).
Herman Melville would agree with me.