The land of the free

September 8, 2010

I started walking into my editor’s office one morning about 35 years ago, but stopped after two or three steps past the door. This man was usually red-faced and loud; he usually would greet me with an obscenity and a coarse reference to my ethnicity — just to let me know he still loved me.

On this morning, I could see that there would be none of that, because he sat behind his desk, ashen-faced, with a New York City newspaper spread out in front of him and, when he was aware of my intrusion, only muttered something that I could not hear.

Nazi youth burning books

Eventually, I learned that he had just read a story about a group of students at a New York college who had reacted to some beef they had with the school administration by burning copies of the campus newspaper. While I didn’t need my editor to explain to me the principle that was at issue, seeing this brash man nearly made physically ill by the very idea of Americans burning a publication brought the weight of it down on me as nothing has before or since.

A great deal has been written and said about the plan to burn copies of the Qur’an at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. It is born of the ignorant idea that there is something inherently incompatible about being a Muslim and being an American — and idea John Adams debunked in the 18th century. John Adams — one of the “founding fathers” we hear so much about these days.

University of Alabama students burn desegregation literature in 1956.

There is nothing inherently incompatible about being a Muslim and being an American, but there is something inherently incompatible about calling ones self an American and burning books. And I wouldn’t be too quick — as some have been — to dismiss the Gainesville congregation as a fringe group. American “values” are being evoked these days by a lot of people who are not associated with that church but whose idea of American values is no less distorted. For every one willing to burn a book, there are plenty who would stifle any viewpoint other than their own. Anyone who hasn’t heard that in the rhetoric of the past two years hasn’t been listening hard enough.

Meanwhile, what comes after burning the Qur’an? Detention camps?



So Ann Coulter spoke at the University of Calgary last night, and Canada is still intact. There is no way to know whether Coulter’s remarks at the University of Ottawa – which she did not deliver because she was, in effect, driven away by a crowd of protesters – would have differed from the remarks she gave at Calgary, where she was treated almost politely.

The episode at Ottawa was interesting in its own way because the protesters presumably were to the left of Coulter on the political spectrum but were behaving a lot like people in the States have behaved recently — people who, one would assume, are in Coulter’s vicinity on the philosophical scale. So folks of all stripes are capable of intolerance.

This incident and others like it also expose the fact that many of us are almost infantile in our understanding of the very institutions we pretend to uphold.


In particular, people like those who hounded Coulter at Ottawa don’t grasp, or don’t want to accept, the radical principle that by whatever criterion we mitigate the rights of one person, we put our own rights in jeopardy. Such people also don’t grasp that they have to be willing to be offended if they want to live in a free society. It’s what the ancients called “a hard saying,” and far more of us subscribe to it rhetorically than like it when it’s put into practice.  “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all,” as Noam Chomsky put it.

There’s a guy who occasionally sets up shop outside the post office down the street to spread his vitriol about Barack Obama — which I don’t agree with, and Nancy Pelosi — which is negotiable. I hear neighbors complaining about that guy, but to me he is just a part of the big portrait of America. I don’t like Ann Coulter, but I feel much more secure in my own life to the extent that she is allowed to say what’s on her mind.