March 4, 2006

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH says we should stand up to the creeping tyranny of the group, whether we’re talking animal-rights fanatics or Islamic terrorists:

Human lives are saved by medicines developed as a result of tests on animals; no comparable good is achieved by the republication of cartoons of the prophet. But the mechanism of intimidation is very similar, including the fact that it works across frontiers and is therefore hard to tackle by national laws or law enforcement agencies.

If the intimidators succeed, then the lesson for any group that strongly believes in anything is: shout more loudly, be more extreme, threaten violence, and you will get your way. Frightened firms, newspapers or universities will cave in, as will softbellied democratic states, where politicians scrabble to keep the votes of diverse constituencies. But in our increasingly mixed-up, multicultural world, there are so many groups that care so strongly about so many different things, from fruitarians to anti-abortionists and from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Kurdish nationalists. Aggregate all their taboos and you have a vast herd of sacred cows. Let the frightened nanny state enshrine all those taboos in new laws or bureaucratic prohibitions, and you have a drastic loss of freedom. That, I think, is what is happening to us, issue by issue.

Expecting politicians to protect free speech is probably expecting too much. It’s up to us.

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