Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves

Archive for May 2017



Where I stand

It is no secret that we live in a contentious time right now. Not that this is unusual, we’ve been here before.

Nor is this necessarily a bad thing. I firmly believe that disagree is what free men do, and that the truth or at least a close approximation of it is best found in the riotous tumult of debate contending in the free marketplace of ideas.

But we do appear to be having a problem. For one, people are not arguing with each other, but often past each other.

How many times have you experienced lately the teeth-grinding frustration of having somebody argue with something you did not say?

Worse, though arguments are often misunderstood by people who assume they know what you believe, often on the strength of a single remark, these days there is a lot of deliberate misrepresentation of people’s positions by media figures.

And to be fair, if your world view is complex it’s hard to explain to people whose views rest on different foundations. Especially if their view rests on assumptions they haven’t thought deeply about.

I do not mean to be insulting or dismissive by that remark. Most people don’t make a habit of thinking deeply about the basic assumptions their lives rest on, as long as they are reasonably sure they’re working for them.

Those of us who aspire to be pundits however, are obliged to make clear where we are coming from and to explain ourselves when we are asking people to consider an issue from our point of view.

So, I consider myself to be an American patriot, a Western Civilization loyalist, and espouse a position that has variously been described as Libertarian-Conservative, Classical Liberal, or Philosophical Anarchist.

That probably doesn’t leave you any better informed than before, so here below I list a number of things I believe to be true that inform my opinions on pretty much everything else.


• Civilization is a Good Thing. The difference between civilized and savage is real and is not racism.

• Civilization can go bad, and when it does causes far more harm than any savage band ever could.

• Obviously, civilization could stand some improvement.

• The civilization most likely to improve and evolve into something better is the one we call Western Civilization.

• The reason for this is Western Civilization has evolved cultural and political institutions that support a greater degree of individual liberty than any other civilization. The result has been an explosion of wealth and prosperity unequaled in human history.

• This has created its own problems.

• The Western countries which have achieved this to the greatest extent are the English-speaking countries.

• The Western country that has been most successful at this to date (on a large scale at least) is the United States.

• The survival and success of liberty depends for the foreseeable future on the survival of Western Civilization.

• The survival of Western Civilization for the foreseeable future depends on the survival of the United States as a free country.

• Western Civilization in general and the United States in particular have external enemies who desire their destruction.

• Western Civilization in general and the United States in particular have internal enemies who desire their destruction and are willing to cooperate with their external enemies to bring this about.

• The internal enemies of the U.S. and the West come not from the ranks of the poor and dispossessed, but from the most affluent, educated and privileged parts of their societies. The people you’d expect would have the most at stake in preserving their civilization.

• The defenders of Western Civilization and the tradition of individual liberty are divided among themselves. This is a good thing in terms of intellectual diversity, and a bad thing in terms of coordinated action.

• There is a very real possibility of the United States breaking down into tyranny, disunity, disorder, or civil war, i.e. reverting to the norm of history. If this happens, the survival of the West is in serious doubt.

• The problem of free societies is how to be strong, free, rich and united all at once.

• There has not yet been found a permanent solution to the problem. There may not be one.

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The First Freedom

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
– First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

At a recent speech at UC Berkeley former Federal Election Commission chairwoman Ann M. Ravel called for regulation of speech on the Internet as a move against “fake news.”

In the current issue of The Wellesley News, the student newspaper of Wellesley College, a staff editorial denies free speech is suppressed at the college but goes on to say there is no place for “discriminatory speech.”

“Shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech; it is hate speech.”

In other words, we don’t deny anybody’s right to free speech, we just tell them what they can’t say.

And lately there have been demonstrations, often turning violent, by black masked thugs who right up front proclaim there is no right of free speech for “Fascists.” They also proclaim their right to define who’s a fascist.
I wish I could say these were isolated incidences. They’re not.

In 2015, a poll by McLaughlin and Associates found that 95 percent of 800 college students polled said free speech was “very important” to them, and 87 percent said there was educational value in listening to views you disagree with.

Nonetheless 51 percent supported campus speech codes, 72 percent supported disciplinary action against “any student or faculty member on campus who uses language that is considered racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive.” Half said they felt intimidated about sharing views that differed from their professors and classmates.

Note two things about this. One is that in answer to the question “Do you support freedom?” people are likely to respond, “Yes, but…” Followed by an elaborate justification why freedom to do or say something they personally disapprove of isn’t really about freedom.

That’s a common reaction shared by a great many people on all sides of the political divide, differing only in the specifics of what they want to make an exception.

More worrisome is the poll, and the Wellesley editorial, reveal the students don’t just disagree with freedom of speech, they have no conception of what it is.

I am old enough to remember when the major threats to free expression came from the right.

But back then it was mostly about porn. If you wanted to read Terry Southern’s erotic novel “Candy” you had to buy it in Europe and sneak it through customs.

And it was a common comedy schtick that all you had to do to sell out a play, or send sales of a book through the roof was to have reviewers denounce it as “filth.”

It was seldom ever about political speech, and on the rare occasions it was you could count on principled conservatives and classical liberals to defend the rights of people they disliked, to say things they despised.

Moreover, academics who took free inquiry seriously supported the right of people with different and antithetical views to teach in public universities.

Many lived to find out their tolerance was not reciprocated.

For the first time in a long time we have a significant number of people who favor repression of free speech in this country, and what is more are willing to act on it, sometimes personally and violently.

And these are not KKK yahoos but the most educated and affluent in our country. People who often call themselves “liberal” or “progressive” but who are neither liberal nor progressive. Some who call themselves “anarchists,” which ironically means “without rule” – but who mean to rule with an iron hand.

We live in a time when careers are wrecked by a chance remark, a careless joke, or expressing an opinion.

I do not think Americans will put up with this for much longer, it’s just not in our nature to be bullied. But I fear the damage done in the meantime.

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