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Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Conservative Standpoint Part 11: The Conservative on Freedom of Expression

This is Part 11 of the Conservative Standpoint by Cole D

Before I begin I’d like to post a handful of examples for the consideration of the reader:

  1. the pathetic failure of modern music embodied in Mily Cyrus “We Can’t Stop” Vs Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3”

2.  A brief excerpt from the emetic Last Exit to Brooklyn, which will come up later as an example. Selby writes:
Georgette sat back and sipped her gin for many seconds. Harry got up and chirped at Georgette, stoned out of his head, and plopped down beside Lee. Georgette followed him with her eyes, still sipping gin and still fighting for control of herself. She could not fuck it up now. It wont be long. Vinne and MS. She picked up the bottle of GIn and asked him if he would let Goldie do him. . . . [she] went to tell Goldie that everything was arranged. O everything is just so wonderful. Vinnie and his boys are stoned out of their heads and soon she would have Vinnie. . . . Goldie took her into the bedroom and gave her a syrette. Arent you going to take one? Not now honey. I/ll wait until after that big cocked guinea has fucked me. . . . everybody was swinging. . . . Camille felt real bitchy and daring and winked at Sal and he tried to speak but he couldnt stop grinding his teeth and his head just lolled back and forth, droplets of scotch dribbling down his chin, but he was so strong and handsome . . . she giggled thinking of the letter she would write to the pinkteas back home: O honey, do you know from nothing. What a gorgeous way to lose one's virginity!

Now let me ask you, what about the above examples is redemptive? Because that is the content, the apologist must defend if he wishes to draw a false equivalency between nonsense art, free speech, and free expression. Such an argument necessarily requires an assertion that logos and obscenity are one. I do not intend to make the case that we can effectively ban media from the public sphere; the internet, self-publishing, and cheap technology such as video cameras have heralded an end to that. Instead, I would like to assert the position that we have elevated freedom of expression to an absurdity, and we have failed to differentiate between expression and speech; in turn we have failed to at critical toward art and artists, and any such qualitative assessments are verboten any attempt at restriction is censorship, any assertion of good taste and aesthetics is backward. Our works and our media are important contributors to the life of the soul. Not only do we commit the cardinal sin of relativism if we deify the works of artists, but we also abandon our critical faculty and open ourselves to corruption. The real conservative is wise enough to know that free expression is not akin to free thought and free speech. The conservative believes the medium matters.

Free speech being the ability to communicate freely any message you desire, subject to specific restrictions within the nation (one may or may not agree with). For example, Canada prohibits sedition as well as hate speech, the United States technically does not, but the spirit of Free speech embodies a spirit of logos (reasoned Speech) as the ancient Greeks conceived it. A concept where the individual had the capacity to discuss ideas and debate them in a civil and professional fashion.

Expression however, has completely different connotations, yet so frequently is conflated with the freedom of speech. Expression by no means contains a message as a priority; it is a broad term, and an emotive term. Everything is expression not everything is speech. Expression does not depend on reason or civility one can just as easily express anger, sadness, and hatred, as one can express depth of thought and compassion.

The case to be made rests as Irving Kristol suggested in, “‘Porn Obscenity and the Case for Censorship,” on the way we used to understand society as encapsulated in a moral framework; a framework that places humanity at the forefront and believes in the deep effects of subtle things. In the essay, he notes that the pedagogical professions, which direct their efforts toward creating ethical and rational adults morally prepared to interact with the world, do so on the presumption that the material presented to children has a positive moral value. Yet, as Kristol states if we concede a book (or any other media) can enrich that someone, we must likewise concede that a book may corrupt them.

The conservative knows that many would certainly concur with the initial premise, but would recoil at the second; for better or worse, such an assertion has become morally alien to modern man. The cult of reason does not leave adequate room for the subtle manipulations of the consciousness through artistic works.

In our understanding of the capacity for art to be transcendental, we have failed to realize that the great body of artwork is not. We have divorced the form from the message not realizing that the form conveys meaning just as deeply. Irving Kristol noticed this trend was a part of a deliberate goal in America to both prohibit criticism of artwork and to use it as an instrument for political ends. Kristol makes the arguments in “It’s Obscene but is it Art?” as follows.  The government, to Kristol, writing after the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts, should have never brought its finances to bear on the artistic community. The government placed itself in a trap; the arts community, and dispensations too it, were too broad to track, and yet, if they failed to regulate the works they undermined the concept of moral and aesthetic judgment and removed their ability to legitimize artistic works.

Kristol describes postmodern art as, “politically charged art that is utterly contemptuous of the notion that educating tastes and refining the aesthetic sensibilities of the citizenry [is a desirable goal]. Instead its goal [was] to deliberately . . . outrage . . . and . . . trash the very idea of an ‘aesthetic sensibility.’  To Kristol the postmodern art movement as a radical attempt to liquidate the bourgeois society of the western world. The arts community, “is engaged in the politics of radical nihilism; it has little interest in, and will openly express contempt for, ‘art’ in any traditional sense of the term. . . . Self-destruction . . . is a key point in its agenda, accompanied by the ‘deconstruction,’ of . . . Western civilization itself.”  Humanities courses were at the vanguard of the movement to extinguish artistic standards. The universities were by this time just as likely to offer a course in a study of the Simpsons as Dante, and if there are no standards of excellence outsider ourselves who could object?

A key paradigm separates those who take our existence as political animals for granted and those who do not, the majority of whom are what one would term conservatives, and that is the belief in unknowable and unquantifiable things, things beyond reason as well as understanding; concurrent to this is the conservative, as well as classical Greek belief that our City, as Aristotle supposed, exists for the discovery and maintenance of an authoritative good, and that such a Polis requires virtuous men. The idea that a virtuous people would build a virtuous society is unfamiliar to use now, but Burke expressed a similar sentiment, “But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place. . . . There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” Who at this time can say we live in a lovely country? And who can reasonably say it has not be harmed by an excess of arbitrary freedom, often driven by profit, and the inundation of filth our communities have suffered?

Now critics would say lovely would be subjective, but Plato defined that, which he deemed virtuous and it is not an arbitrary definition, but one that is essentially eternal premised on two different ideas. One that the search for knowledge and wisdom is the governing principle of the just and virtuous man; second that a virtuous and just person lives in harmony with themselves not allowing the appetitive or spirited parts of the soul dominion over reason and judgment, but what does our current culture do but feed us a constant stream of indulgence for our appetites. None of us deliberate when we consume hedonistic, vulgar, and obscene materials. To Aristotle we have abandoned our capacity to deliberate. Despite our plethora of freedoms, we are no more than what he terms natural slaves, base and unconcerned about it.

Many both conservative and liberal will find my propositions objectionable: I state them as a true concept of a conservative relationship with the media definitive and right. To those who object I wish to examine a handful of the oft given apologies for absolute free expression.

I have already briefly mentioned that many would assert that the media and the consumption of materials can do no harm to the well-being of an individual, and proved this fallacious unless we completely abandon our assertion that media can produce or elevate the good in people. Secondly, some perhaps would maintain that even if it causes harm to consume such media that is not sufficient cause to abandon obscene or objectionable works, but what if, and it is not only harmful to those who consume media as such but also harmful and denigrating to those who produce such works. Take for example the analogy produced by Kristol in “Porn Obscenity and the Case for Censorship” he maintains that we are not all complete libertarians and that we would prohibit a great many activities, which seem outrageous to us, but at the same time are resistant to arguments of censorship and consent.

For example, we do not approve of cockfighting, gladiatorial contests, and artistic suicide, and as Kristol asserts this is not because of consent, affection toward animals, or a lack of artistry, but rather because authorization of such conduct is debasing to the human spirit.

Kristol makes the comparison of a well-known man, dying in bed, in a great deal of pain; he suffers so deeply that he can no longer communicated and he voids his bowels and bladder regularly: his death is just a matter of time. Kristol suggests, “it would be, technically, the easiest thing in the world to put a television camera in his hospital room and let the whole world witness this spectacle. We do not do it . . . because this is an obscene invasion of privacy. . . . we would be witnessing the extinguishing of humanity in a human animal.”

Thirdly, one may make the argument that we do not— have— to consume the forms of expression, which we reject. All I can say to such a proposition to look around you to the billboards, the signs, the depraved souls who wander the street with vomiting forth lewd comments, the television and its endless adverts ever more salacious; the public world has become private in its entirety and we cannot avoid it, but we can and should expect a level of civility on behalf of the public world. A person has no right to avoid offence, but a good society offends in an intelligent way. Truly valuable offence has a telos, there is an end to it, and good satire is different from crudeness for the sake. To feed our consumptive desires however is no worthy purpose and the vast majority of public display on offer directs itself at the commoditization of the violent, the vulgar, and the venereal.

Fourth and most common of the arguments against any form of restriction on the freedom of expression is the dystopian fear that any form of regulation will start us upon a slippery slope into the arms of Big Brother, the Thought Police, Newspeak and the Telescreen. However, our world would not look like this and the conservative can comfortably argue this because in the past it did not. Prior to the 1960’s the western world had a great many restrictions on the distribution of harmful media. To object to some degree of censorship marks a person out as a product of 1968 and willfully ignorant.

In “The Way We Were” by Irving Kristol he writes about the generational changes that swamped America and the issues related to absolute freedom in society and the culture it engendered.  He noted prior to the 1950’s so called censorship was a normal part of American life, and the only people who seemingly resented it were those who thought they could profit off the trafficking of explicit materials. As Kristol states:

“Perhaps no issue excites such hysteria today as does censorship, and the threat it supposedly poses to our liberties. . . . I do not know of a single case where the prohibition against pornography/obscenity was directed against political speech, political writings, or scholarly books. . . . Hollywood, for its part, has decided it’s a ‘creative community,’ . . . so any interference with its pursuit of prosperity by producing entertainment with soft porn, hard porn, or obscene violence is a censorship that threatens all freedom of expression. . . . The confusion between liberty and license, or entitlement and privilege, is one of the least endearing traits of the American character today.”

From the conclusion we can effectively note that not only was, freedom of expression not sacred to our ancestors, but it did not need to be. Other objects in life took on the air of the sacred: the family and the church stand out in this regard. We effectively deified our artists and made expression into holy writ as unquestionable as the Sermon on the Mount. We have abandoned our critical thinking as well as our connection to the transcendental and filled the void with artistic works of unquestioned merit.

The conservative will note that not only was the battle against censorship in many ways a superficial one, errors were made, but censorship itself was infrequent. The conservative likewise will note that the failure to circumscribe expression in the public sphere has had great consequence and it was not a partisan political issue, but one rooted in time and the hunger for freedom expressed by youth and allied elites who saw the need to restore a system that by functioned adequately.

Peter Hitchens notes the same in the Abolition of Britain Britain experienced a non-partisan divide in the case of censorship and obscenity laws; it was a generational divide. Hitchens notes that after Lady Chatterley and the advent of the required literary merit as a standard of judgment, and a horribly subjective one at that, it would be impossible to ban a book in Britain ever again. You could always find some intellectual or liberal to testify on the behalf of the media.  The culture warriors’ campaign was largely successful because not only had the old defenses of high culture ceased to stand, but that the instigators framed the debate in terms of the ability to act as free citizens and to question authority, a point which, for a democracy was very hard to reprobate.

Following Chatterley, Oz Magazine, and later The Little Red Book as Hitchens describes it “a manual of sexual license of children,” came Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn a book, which is so vulgar that they asked that no women sit on the jury. Yet, once the hearings had begun, one witness managed to compare the violence in the book to the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear.

This time an effort was made to prevent publication of the book and the defence mustered McGill Professor George Catlin, who said the book was absolutely obscene, and that the only reasonable motive for publishing the work was that its significant earning potential for the publisher, who by some estimates, had already sold 250,000 copies in America. Meanwhile, one publisher said it absolutely harmed his “memory and mind” to read the book and that he had withdrawn the book from the shelves of his store once he had discovered its nature. Others from the church testified for and against the book. The divide was clear even among the so-called traditionalists. Hitchens notes, that such matters as the British book trials were not such a big thing, but the precedents they established for the TV industry were immense.

Nevertheless, it was not just the precedent set for the television that harmed us. Rather it was the expectation, which only a true conservative maintains of a civil life, of civil conduct, and civil people; people who act virtuously (through good judgment, wisdom, and self-rule) to determine the good of the community as a whole, and to do so requires judgment. Judgment to Plato was the number one reason for censorship, the Poets were harmful not because they told stories, but because they failed to judge them in terms of right and wrong. Amoral gods were entertaining, but not substantive. This was the ethic of the west until the middle of the twentieth century, and such a paradigm deserves reassessment. The failure of our western societies to place value in judgment has left our communities and nations as soulless and empty as everything else, and is always the case we cannot turn back the clock. The future marches on.