A couple of days ago our Danish reader, commenter, and translator Kepiblanc sent me this note:
It was one of those rare “flying pig” moments. I was reading a book and beginning to feel a bit sleepy — it was late in the evening — and my wife, sitting in another corner of the living-room had the TV tuned to the late news on Danish Broadcasting Company (DR).
Now, of course I never pay any attention to DR — or for that matter its sibling TV2 — knowing that they are nothing but wireless ladies’-magazines with the occasional BBC-style biased news thrown in. But this evening was different.
As always, the “late news” was followed a “round-table” debate featuring the usual talking heads. My wife was about to hit the power-off button when suddenly a name made me feel alarmed: Lars Hedegaard! In disbelief I snatched the remote and kept the show going.
Lars Hedegaard is the former editor-in-chief of the left-leaning newspaper Information, and still declares himself to be left-wing. He claims that it’s not him, but the lefties who abandoned everything socialism used to stand for, such as freedom, culture, democracy, dignity, science and rational thinking.
In the wake of the Motoon affair he — like countless other Danes — felt the scales fall from his eyes. He’s now President of the ‘Danish Free Press Society’ and a vehement supporter of the free word. For that reason alone he’s normally excluded from the MSM, especially national TV.
I don’t know what went wrong that night, but somehow he slipped through DR’s “political correctness filter” and — in his usual calm and commonsense way — gave the assembled dimwits a run for their money. That night I slept with a smile on my face.
Baron, I give you: Lars Hedegaard
He included a link to a transcript in Sappho of a Lars Hedegaard speech from last October. It’s a long piece, but’s already in English, so you can read the whole thing. Here are some excerpts.
Last week, on September the 30th, exactly a year had passed since the by now famous newspaper Jyllands-Posten published its equally famous — or is it infamous? — Muhammed cartoons.
To mark this anniversary — which was top news all over the Danish press — an editor from the weekly Weekendavisen asked a few people to write up a so-called democracy canon. To those of you not immediately familiar with the concept, a canon in this sense can be defined as a body of works that may be accepted as axiomatic and universally binding in a field of study. So to create a democracy canon means to select those works that may be deemed indispensable if one wants to understand how democracy and free speech came about in Denmark. A democracy canon is so to speak a list of sacred books — not in a religious sense, of course.
One of the organizations asked to suggest a democracy canon was the Free Press Society. So we had an occasion to review 250 years or so of Danish history in order to pick 10-15 indispensable works by people who had paved the way for the democratic system we enjoy today.
It turned out to be a learning experience.
– – – – – – – – – –
[There follows a brief summary of the development of Danish democracy.]
Students of Danish history will undoubtedly have been presented with the contention that Denmark is a country of peaceful, smooth, benevolent and gradual transformations. A country blessed by good will and moderation all around.
This picture needs to be modified.
For about 150 years, it was a dangerous business indeed to speak one’s mind if it happened to contravene the opinions and interests of various ruling elites — the royal court, the big landowners, the nobility, the state bureaucracy, the religious hierarchy and later the capitalist class.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, any a editor or journalist worth his salt would expect to spend some of his professional life in prison.
And when Europeans rightly stress the difference between mainstream Christianity and certain strains of Islam, we would do well not to forget the despicable behavior of many Christian churchmen who did everything in their power to suppress free speech throughout much of the nineteenth century.
I am not saying this because I want to argue that Christianity is no better than Islam — for I do believe that Christianity has turned out to be more commensurate with free institutions than that significant other religion. I am simply making the point that no organized religion is benevolent in and of itself. Without popular vigilance and political, cultural and institutional modification, any religion may well degenerate into an insufferable tyranny.
Freedom was not handed to the Danes on a silver platter by a benevolent king, church or elite. Brave pioneers had to fight for every concession — often at a high personal cost.
I believe the same applies to almost every country now living under democratic constitutions, free speech and the rule of law.
I made another observation reviewing recent Danish history, and I hope you will bear with me. There is a point to this history lesson.
It is that free speech is not an abstract or lofty principle. The issue of free speech always arises as an urgent societal question because people feel the need to address and rectify concrete injustice, social oppression and political disenfranchisement.
And it is for that same reason that free speech is more often than not fiercely resisted by the beneficiaries of the old order. If people wanted an abstract right to speak out but had nothing very important to say, there would be no problem.
The mighty do not fear free speech as an abstract idea but as the beginning of the end of their privileges.
I will not here go into all the details. Suffice it to say that for a couple of years [before the Motoon crisis] there had been some serious attempts by Muslims to limit freedom of expression in the country.
A Jewish lecturer at Copenhagen University had been abducted in the middle of Copenhagen and savagely beaten by a gang of Arabs because he had recited from the Koran as part of his course at the university. Nothing similar had happened since the university was founded in 1479.
A well known writer could not find an artist who dared to illustrate a popular book he was writing on Muhammed.
A fundamentalist mob threatened a group of Sufi-leaning immigrants to cancel a concert claiming that music is un-Islamic.
And there were other incidents.
If your do not put your foot down under such circumstances, where will it end? When will you have acquiesced in so many infringements on free speech that you no longer have it?
Finally, it struck me that free speech and its concomitant — democratization — cannot be separated from cultural, political and economic progress.
I will even go as far as to say that in the final analysis, economic progress hinges on free speech.
So long as blasphemy laws are not stricken from the books — and so long as the very concept of blasphemy as a criminal offense is not expunged from the minds of men — there will always be the possibility that new ideas may be labeled contrary to the will of God or injurious to the feelings of the true believers.
In a climate where novel thoughts or ideas may be suppressed because they contradict religious, political or any other orthodoxy, it is doubtful that intellectual, technical, scientific and therefore economic progress can be sustained.
It is characteristic of every known totalitarian system — in the modern world primarily varieties of Fascism, Communism and Islamism — that they will not permit people to make mistakes or deviate from a truth they consider god-given. But it should not be forgotten that every major new theory that has advanced human knowledge has at one point been considered ridiculous, subversive or even blasphemous.
The pioneers of the European Scientific Revolution did not evade their share of condemnation, even though many of its leading lights considered themselves devout Christians who had absolutely no intention of undermining church doctrine. This was certainly the case with Galileo and Newton. René Descartes even worked hard to prove God’s existence.
The scientists’ good intentions towards the established church were not reciprocated. In 1616 — 73 years after his death — the Catholic church condemned Copernicus’ heliocentric world picture as heretical. In 1633 the church basically crushed Mediterranean science by forcing Galileo to retract his contention that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Not that it made any difference in the real world — except that the Catholic Church drove serious science out of Italy and the Mediterranean lands and thereby handed the scientific and soon after the economic, political and philosophical lead to countries in Northern and Western Europe.
There is no simple and direct link between the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution that took hold in England around the time of [Carsten Niebuhr’s 1761] Arabian journey. But it is hard to imagine this burst of economic and productive energy without the confidence in man’s ability to effect changes in the world that was inspired by the previous scientific breakthroughs. And of course, the entire Industrial Revolution with its canals, railways, factories, developed capitalism, division of labor, competition, expansion of international trade, international investments, extraction of natural resources etc. was unthinkable without the philosophical underpinning provided by the Enlightenment philosophers. Primarily by the Scotsman Adam Smith, whose best known book The Wealth of Nations was published nine years after Carsten Niebuhr’s return, i.e. in the year 1776 — the year that has been called the Annus Mirabilis of the Enlightenment.
Let me emphasize that this entire development could not have taken place without critics who insisted on their right to free speech and more precisely without the hard-won freedom to criticize religion, including the right to express opinions that someone would find blasphemous. Let us recall — once again — that every major step of social progress — the abolition of royal absolutism and the prerogatives of the nobility and the religious hierarchy, the freeing of the peasants, voting rights for workers, equality for women, the abolition of slavery and apartheid, prohibition against beating servants and children etc. — has invariably been opposed by reactionaries and holy men as offensive to the god-given order. So there is no progress in human society without a relentless struggle against the very concept of blasphemy.
For this reason I simply cannot understand why a man like Denmark’s former foreign minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen and a group of leading capitalists, a great number of well known authors, artists and men of the media would demean themselves by condemning Jyllands-Posten’s publication of the Muhammed cartoons. Their despicable stand shows that they have understood absolutely nothing of what the Western world stands for or of the background of its success.
Naively they believe that we can compromise with reactionaries and religious fanatics and still sustain our progressive economy. They do not understand that if Westerners have to clear their statements with the sheiks of Al-Azhar or the mullahs of Teheran or some European fatwa council or the pope in Rome or some bishops in Copenhagen, that will be the end of our civilization.
But when we talk of people or forces that try to put limitations on free speech, we should not only look to society’s traditional power-holders — be they religious or secular.
Equally dangerous — in many respects far more dangerous — is the pernicious effect of so-called popular opinion. That which everybody is expected to think. And if they don’t think it — then at least what they are expected to say if they want to be regarded as part of the civilized, cultured and politically correct consensus.
Evil is what others do to you. Contemptible is what you do to yourself — such as refraining from saying what ought to be said for fear of being ostracized.
What is called public opinion should not be confused with what people really think. It is not the sum of all private opinions, which can be determined through democratic elections or opinion polls. Public opinion is what is being propagated by the press and by society’s leading institutions.
And this public opinion is powerful. So powerful that one cannot rule against it even if one is backed by the silent majority. Those who can shout the loudest determine the course. Thus public opinion is not the general opinion but only one opinion among several possible opinions.
It gains its power by having morality on its side. This means that the propagators or custodians of public opinion need never give reasons for their points of view. They only need to portray the opinions of others as outrageous, immoral, reactionary or something even worse. And often the guardians of public opinion are incapable of realizing that their way of looking at society and the world is but a partisan set of beliefs or opinions — one among many others. But the belief that one represents public opinion often makes one blind and deaf towards other ways of understanding the world.
Today freedom of expression is almost universally defended at least in the West. But to test its limits in the real world by saying things that go against public opinion is quite another matter. It may totally destroy you as a public persona. Far better to defend free speech as a general concept with some buts added. Yes, free speech is a good idea and we all support it, but one should not say things that offend others, things that fly in the face of good taste and proper manners.
Such as the Muhammed cartoons.
The upshot may be that public opinion will become a collection of lies. This was the situation which Hans Christian Andersen described in his story about The Emperor’s New Clothes, and which Vaclav Havel identified during Communism’s rule in Czechoslovakia: A situation where citizens are forced or enticed to reproduce opinions which nobody believes in.
Unless we are constantly aware of the danger, the tyranny of public opinion may well become the bane of free speech and thereby of the very concept of freedom.
Let me conclude by offering this observation:
In the era of globalization, freedom must either advance or it must give way to the forces of darkness. And to those who cannot believe that a civilization as mighty as the Western and European civilization can simply collapse and humanity regress to some state of semi-barbarity — who cannot imagine that we can lose our technical accomplishments, our knowledge, our science, our humanism, that we can go back to hunger, illness and early death — just look at what happened to the Roman Empire.
And the first harbinger of imminent collapse will be the curtailment of free speech.
The following day Kepiblanc sent me this afterword on Lars Hedegaard:
Lars Hedegaard is quite representative of a lot of “left-leaning” Danes, myself included. You see, the traditional right-left rift in Denmark is a bit different from your “Democrats vs. Republicans” one. Mainly — I think — due to historical facts, such as our Communist party leading the bulk of resistance against the Nazis during WW2.
The Communist Party doesn’t exist anymore, but memories of occupation, oppression and persecution do. And I know for certain that many former Communists are just as appalled by this new wave of fascism as you and me. And they are leaving the remnants of the Communist party (some 4-6 minor political factions) in great numbers. Unfortunately, they have no other party to join.
And yet, they have. Our traditional right-wing parties, such as the Conservative Party and the Liberals (presently in power) aren’t options. In most people’s minds they represent the worst sides of capitalism, such as greed, egoism, selfishness and upper-class mentality — to say nothing about high treason by being a fifth column for the EU. But a relatively new political party came into existence about a decade ago, namely “The Danish People’s Party”.
This party is a bit hard to classify. On one hand it’s some kind of “working man’s party” — taking over thousands of voters from the old, almost fossil Social Democratic Party — and on the other hand it’s a “populist”, nationalistic party — often (untruthfully) accused of outright racism. In fact, it’s the party that every other politicians and all gutmenschen love to hate. Maybe that’s one of the reasons for its success with ordinary Danes…?
It is still not “politically correct” to admit that one votes for “The Danish People’s Party” , but when alone in the ballot box, people do so nevertheless. Including a lot of my friends from the so-called “leftist parties”. I don’t know if Lars Hedegaard does so, but recently the party has made great efforts to emphasize its anti-Islamic nature — as opposed to racism. But first and foremost it has a firm stance against the EU-quagmire.
My guess is that now, while we’re seeing the EU reveal its true nature — ignoring the referendums in France and Holland, cancelling its promises on referendums about Turkey, and its ever tightening bonds with Arab barbaristans — people from left and right will flock to the party. It may become a strange mix of socialists and bourgeoisie, but if it can keep clear of the traditional political corruption and nepotism it will be a lighthouse for other European countries in due time.
And it’s five minutes to twelve.
Photo credit: Steen of Snaphanen.