Je suis Charlie: The spirit of liberty is under attack. Will it survive?

“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

Free thought either means that—-people are free to publish and write all sorts of opinions, including those that ridicule in the most scurrilous fashion religions, politicians and our most sacred beliefs—or it means nothing and the Paris terrorists have won. In the latter case, we should shut down this as well as billions of other web sites, newspapers, magazines and people who like to think and talk.

Jefferson, the target of terrible accusations in the election of 1800, defended the right of newspapers to say the most outrageous things about him (By the way, some of them turned out to be true).

But if the Jeffersonian libertarian standard is now meaningless, then we in the West are reverting to the Middle Ages. That’s where accepting the logic of the recent terrorist attack in Paris would put us. The ghastly murders are a warning to all free people everywhere, but most especially in the West. Here, over the last six centuries or so, we finally returned to the wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome.

Centuries ago before the ideals of the Renaissance were accepted, men and women were actually burned at the stake for having the wrong religion (Think John Hus, the patron saint of Czechs and religious tolerance) or prosecuted for the wrong opinions or opposing absolute power through newspapers and parliaments (Think John Peter Zenger. Think of the parliamentary opponents of Charles I, who marched his troops into parliament to arrest his critics, triggering the English Civil War).

Centuries ago theocracy backed by the divine right of kings ruled in most European countries which, whether Catholic or Protestant, often lived in darkness. It was a darkness that equated doubt with treason. Free countries generally could be measured by which ones were the least intolerant.

I believe that it is not a coincidence that likely the most tolerant and decentralized nation in 17th century Europe, the United Provinces, or what we today called Holland, became the wealthiest. Its economic and political accomplishments as well in the arts and sciences inspired others. It is exciting to see Flemish paintings depicting the four generations of Dutch struggles for freedom from the Spanish Empire.

Eventually, Europeans became convinced that burning and slaughtering people just because they were different was evil. It was a roadblock for any society that wanted progress. They and their American progeny came to see that religion, while for many people a precious institution, must be separate from the state. The state had no business telling people how or how not to worship God or even whether they should believe in one.

So, little by little, Europeans freed themselves of theocratic tyranny as did Americans in the Bill of Rights, which forbade a state religion. Still, we certainly had some tyranny on this side of the pond. Some colonies attempted to “purify” religious beliefs, leaving a great thinker and friend of liberty like Roger Williams, who dealt justly with Native-Americans, fleeing from Puritan tyranny.

The movement for religious and political liberty spread from country to country through Europe and America. In a sense, it is a struggle that never ends. So it has also broadened in each country. The spirit of liberty; the spirit of economic liberty, commerce, both triumphed. Then the Western world, which once lagged the East, became a better place. It became a place that people no longer fled, as in the last days of Roman Empire, but tried to enter.

It is ironic that so much of the Arab world criticizes the West, yet the Arab elite often sends its young people to be educated here. If the West is “the great Satan” why do so many Arabs immigrate to Western Europe? (This is a variant of a debate I have with mainstream economic historians and journalists. They often say there was nothing good about the Industrial Revolution. Then why did so many people leave farms and come to cities that they knew had problems but also offered opportunities? The answer is in F.A. Hayek’s “Capitalism and the Historians”).

Enlightened European and American opinion in the 18th and 19th centuries came to see that the freedom of our neighbor was as important as our own; that the freedom of the radical—including the freedom of the satirist, a kind of comic radical—was as important as the freedom of the average person. The average person might shun radical or outrageous opinions (Think Rabelais, Mencken or Ingersoll). But I believe most Westerners in relatively free countries believe in the Holmes standard. They know how important it is to protect the liberties of even people they might detest.

All minorities need to be protected in the peaceful exercise of their opinions under law. But those principles, if not learned and re-learned by each generation, can be forgotten. Not understanding the traditions of liberty is dangerous. Perhaps, on some dark day, those traditions could be lost. Perhaps, these traditions will be lost owing to some American public schools that teach that “all cultures are equal.” This is as laughable an idea that all human beings have the same talents. Human beings and cultures progress and decline at different paces. Sorry, they’re not equal, but each person’s individuality—from Archie Bunker to Erasmus—is a blessed creation.

Individuality, especially dissent forcefully expressed through satire, is something to be protected, if not nurtured. The world would be a boring place if intellectual competition ceased; if debate over things such as religious doctrines was forbidden on pain of death. It would be a place with no progress, if everybody thought the same way or had to subscribe to the same religious principles forever, with no possibility of debate or change.

This loss of the Western secular traditions of liberty and tolerance seems unthinkable, but it’s happened before. Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century was once quite tolerant of Judaism. Jews served in many German state institutions, including the German army in World War I.

But those freedoms eroded and sometimes with the tacit consent of otherwise decent Germans. Think of the Jews in Nazi Germany. How many Germans in the 1930s believed that, once their Semite neighbors were thrown to the Nazi crocodiles, that the killing would stop? However, crocodiles have huge appetites.

It is usually the Jews or some other small conspicuous group that terrorists come after first. But once the killing has begun, and no one objects or stops it through the rule of law, it goes on and on. Terrorists, whether they are Nazis, Communists or Islamist terrorists, don’t stop. They even start going after the rest of us.

The blood lust of the terrorist or the Nazi, once it begins, never stops unless governments, whose job it is to maintain law and order, fight it. That is unless they commit to a standard of freedom that protects the controversial or unpopular idea. I can’t say I’m always optimistic about that since, for far too long, Europeans have done little to protect themselves, assuming U.S. Forces, spread all over the world, would solve their problems.

Still, this blog, GregoryBresiger.com, continues to oppose superfluous wars; the attempt of some in the West to forcefully plant Western institutions in other parts of the world. This is a fool’s errand. This has been proven time again by horrific wars like the Vietnam and Gulf Wars. Despite these wars’ many deaths, Americans did not convert these countries to Jeffersonian republics. That’s despite the promises of President George W. Bush, who expected the whole region to become democratic after America went to war against Iraq. The nation building wars should have never been waged.

However, hunting down terrorists—of whatever stripe, on the left or the right—-is certainly the job of civilized countries. It is well within their legitimate powers under international law. In the meantime, it is to us, the average people, to honor the recent victims of terrorism in Paris. How do we do that? We should exercise our rights to free speech to the full limit and then some. And yes these opinions may be unpopular and they may scorn some religions.

Listen. I’m writing and speaking. Can you hear me?

Right or wrong, controversial or not, those are the sounds of liberty.

Still, these opinions can be very important because they can potentially begin a process of change. And, even if they are wrong or outrageous, they all help preserve the most important right of all: The right to dissent.

Nous sommes tous Charlies

About The Author

Gregory Bresiger

Gregory Bresiger is an independent business journalist from Queens, New York. His Personal Finance articles have appeared in publications such as The New York Post & Financial Advisor Magazine. He is the author of the eBooks “Personal Finance For People Who Hate Personal Finance” and “MoneySense”.