We in the United States have had our experiences with censorship.
At the close of the American Revolution, many hoped that slavery, that embarrassing hypocrisy in a land devoted to freedom, would eventually wither away. As the founders reached retirement age, it seemed to them that slavery was economically unfeasible in the long run, and that all eyes were opening to the Enlightenment principles of equality and freedom.
That optimism proved unfounded, even disingenuous. At the opening of the nineteenth century, several factors, including the invention of the cotton gin, made slavery more economically attractive, and the south’s willingness to defend it became more virulent. By the 1830s, southern intellectuals were promoting a new “positive good school” of slavery: arguing that it was not a scourge, but a benefit to society and even to the slaves themselves. This was not a fringe movement. The Vice President of the United States, John C. Calhoun, was among its most prominent spokesmen.
Meanwhile, opponents of slavery were speaking out. Benjamin Lundy and his protégé, William Lloyd Garrison, began publishing louder and louder denunciations of the peculiar institution. The abolitionist movement proper is typically dated to January, 1831, when in the first issue of The Liberator, Garrison pounded the table:
I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.
In retrospect we forget how fiery and dangerous these words really were—and how intensely the establishment wanted them stopped. Slaveholders in the south, understandably, feared that abolitionist writings would encourage slave revolts like those led by Gabriel Prosser (1800), Denmark Vesey (1822), Nat Turner (1831), or—most startlingly—Toussaint L’Ouverture (1791-1804).
But southerners didn’t just fear for their safety. They also denounced the abolitionists’ disrespect for “the southern way of life” and for their “domestic institutions.” After all, in their minds, slavery was not merely an economic institution, but a religious one. Southern churches preached that it was sanctioned by the Bible. As Mark Twain later recalled, “the local papers said nothing against [slavery]; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind—and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.” To denounce slavery was impolite; socially unacceptable; disgusting; morally outrageous.
Many, indeed, most northerners agreed. Why did the abolitionists need to raise such fuss? Their behavior was improper, offensive to southern religious sensibilities, and the consequences dangerous to the union. Abolitionism encouraged violence not only by slaves, but by southerners who responded to provocations with increasing anger. Northerners therefore joined them. They would put a stop to the abolitionists’ obnoxious rabble-rousing and teach them to get with the program.
John Greenleaf Whitter was stoned in 1835—not in Savannah or Mobile, but in Concord, New Hampshire. On October 28, 1835, a mob attacked William Lloyd Garrison, tied a rope around him, and dragged him through the streets, stopping just short of outright lynching—not in Atlanta or Richmond, but in Boston, Massachusetts. On May 15, 1838, a mob torched the lovely new Pennsylvania Hall during an abolitionist convention—not in Jackson or Raleigh, but in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Between 1836 and 1844, the United States Congress prohibited the receipt of any petitions against slavery, and tried twice to censure Congressman John Quincy Adams for his brave efforts to get the rule invalidated. At one point, he was accused of treason for his efforts. In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten on the floor of the Congress by a South Carolina Representative offended by Sumner’s speech, “The Crime Against Kansas”—beaten so severely that he was unable to resume his seat for two years. These things happened, not in Tallahassee or New Orleans, but on the floor of the U.S. Congress. In 1835, the Jackson Administration banned abolitionist papers from the mail. Not in Charleston or Houston—but throughout the United States.
On November 7, 1837, newspaper publisher Elijah Lovejoy was trapped in his printshop in Alton, Illinois, by a mob outraged at Lovejoy’s antislavery publications. Lovejoy had been warned that the community wouldn’t stand for him expressing his opinions about human liberty, and they had destroyed his printing press three times already. When the crowd surrounded his Alton shop, he swore to defend himself, and shot back when the mob fired first. They set fire to the roof, and when Lovejoy came out to stop them, shot him five times. They threw his press into the river.
Only days before his death, Lovejoy had given a brief speech, explaining why he was risking his life.
“I plant myself on my unquestionable rights,” he said.
I shall be protected in the exercise and enjoyment of these rights; whether my property shall be protected; whether I shall be suffered to go home to my family at night without being assailed and threatened with tar-and-feathers and assassination; whether my afflicated wife, whose life has been in jeopardy from continued alarm and excitement, shall, night after night, be driven from a sick bed into the garret to save her life from the brickbats and the violence of the mob? That, sir, is the question.
At these words, Lovejoy broke down in tears, but after taking a moment, he continued.
Forgive me, sir, that I have thus betrayed my weakness. It was the thoughts of my family that overcame my feelings. It was not, sir, I assure you, frm any fears on my part. I have no personal fears. Not that I am able to contest this matter with the whole community: I know well that I am not. But what then? Where shall I go...? I have concluded, after consulation with my friends and earnest seeking of counsel from God, to remain at Alton and here to insist on protection in the exercise of my rights. If the civil authorities refuse to protect me, I must look to God; and, if I die, I am determined here to make my grave.
The Slave Power demanded that the abolitionists’ troublemaking be stopped. Northern leaders demanded that the Slave Power be appeased. And they were appeased. Time, and time, and time again. Why offend southerners? Abolitionists were asked. Who are you to criticize? That’s just your opinion. It’s not prudent to publish or speak on such subjects. Sure, some slaveowners are cruel, but others are not, and why should we paint them all with the same broad brush? Slavery is part of their religion! Why must you be so offensive? Let’s just go along to get along.
To these things, Frederick Douglass had the best answer: “It is asked, ‘What good will this do?’ or ‘What good has it done?’ ‘Have you not irritated, have you not annoyed your American friends and the American people rather than done them good?’ I admit that we have irritated them. They deserve to be irritated. I am anxious to irritate the American people on this question. As it is in physics, so in morals, there are cases which demand irritation and counter-irritation. The conscience of the American public needs this irritation, and I would blister it all over from centre to circumference, until it gives signs of a purer and a better life than it is now manifesting to the world.” He would not be silenced. Thank god.
America has had its experience with violent censorship in the service of evil. Today, cowardly news publishers and broadcasters, confronting a far less serious risk, ignore the heroic precedents that helped build our proud—and now deteriorating—tradition of free speech. They refuse to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, or even to reprint tasteful depictions of statues of Mohammed. And the excuses they employ are the same their appeasement-minded predecessors used: why offend? Why be imprudent? Not all Muslims are murderous fanatics—so why paint all with the same broad brush? This is their religion. Let’s just go along to get along.
Militant Islam—Islamofascism—is deeply evil. It is as evil as slavery ever was, and for the very same reasons. Whatever one thinks of Islam’s religious claims, the political movement of Islamism is a movement of the chain, and the noose, and the lash, and the gun; it is a doctrine of ignorance, obedience, desolation, poverty, and enslavement. It is an ideology that seeks the end of human freedom—indeed, of all we know of as civilized life—an ideology that has enslaved the good people of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, and now arrogates to itself the power to dictate what we shall read, what we shall publish, what we shall say. Quislings in the west, afraid even to admit that they are afraid, say to us, What good will it do to republish the cartoons? What good has it done? Have you not irritated, have you not annoyed, both our western allies and our Muslim friends, rather than do them good? Well, the conscience of the whole world is much in need of such irritation. The Muslim world has a cancer in its breast which it must excise, and we cannot afford to politely ignore it.
But the conscience of the free west, too, is much in need of reaffirmation. Many of us have come to take for granted the freedom of expression that our forefathers fought so bravely to secure. It is important for us to engage in free speech now, to remind ourselves of what these rights mean.
These rights are not just for us. They are human rights: all people, everywhere, are entitled to freedom, toleration, and peace. And our free societies respect the freedom to write, and speak, and publish as the right of all—from west and east, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist. You are welcome to join us: to write and publish your own criticisms of our society, or even your own offensive cartoons ridiculing things we hold dear. But whether you join us or not, we will not be silenced.
We will not be silenced, or made to fear, and we will not be persuaded to accept the idea that silence in the face of injustice is just, or that appeasement of those who threaten us is safe, or that pretending we are not afraid, by saying we are just being culturally sensitive, is honorable. The right to offend, to chastise, to ridicule and condemn: to these, we will hold fast, knowing as our ancestors knew a century and a half ago, that all freedom, and all that makes life a joy instead of a burden, depends upon it just as slavery depends upon silence and terror.
On that, we will not equivocate. We will not excuse. We will not retreat a single inch. And we will speak.