Thursday, October 29, 2009

Men shall learn wisdom, by affliction schooled*

I was disappointed to read the following in Jonathan Turley's Oct. 19 op-ed in USA Today, via Radley Balko:
Around the world, free speech is being sacrificed on the altar of religion. Whether defined as hate speech, discrimination or simple blasphemy, governments are declaring unlimited free speech as the enemy of freedom of religion. This growing movement has reached the United Nations, where religiously conservative countries received a boost in their campaign to pass an international blasphemy law. It came from the most unlikely of places: the United States.
But I was relieved to read the following today at the Washington Post, via Little Green Footballs, via Jeffrey Goldberg:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized on Monday an attempt by Islamic countries to prohibit defamation of religions, saying such policies would restrict free speech.

"Some claim that the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to implement so-called anti-defamation policies. . . . I strongly disagree," Clinton said. "The protection of speech about religion is particularly important since persons of different faiths will inevitably hold divergent views on religious questions."

Nothing too complicated at work here. Just two fairly non-committal comments by Obama administration officials about a non-binding UN resolution transformed by the medium of the press into the following seeming contradiction: when faced with the mutually exclusive choice between blasphemy and censorship, the Obama administration sides with both against both.

This reminds me of a wide-ranging essay I read (skimmed) about two years ago by Slavoj Zizek, "Tolerance as Ideological Category," in which he attempts to wrestle with the "impasse of tolerating intolerance":

Liberalist multiculturalism preaches tolerance between cultures, while making it clear that true tolerance is fully possible only in the individualist Western culture, and thus legitimizes even military interventions as an extreme mode of fighting the other's intolerance...
(I.e. if there's one thing I can't stand, it's intolerance!) It's a fascinating essay, but I'm going to give it short-shrift and boil the conclusion to this: "the particular ethnic substance, our 'life-world,' which resists universality, is made of habits," (emphasis mine) and:
[t]his obscene underground of habits is what is really difficult to change, which is why the motto of every radical emancipatory politics is the same as the quote from Virgil that Freud chose as the exergue for his Interpretations of Dreams: Acheronta movebo - dare to move the underground!
Zizek, in this essay at least, seems still to consider humanity a universal a featureless remnant derived from the subtraction of particular differences (humanity is the nothing left when one subtracts from the American man the habits of his American-ness and male-ness), but it strikes me, and perhaps Zizek would agree, that humanity is also a habit and that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would not seem so inalienable had I not learned them by rote. And perhaps, instead of horror and guilt at the news of Lakhdar Boumediene's treatment at Guantanamo Bay I should feel something else. Because it turns out that wisdom, if not information, is the fruit of torture.
"I'm an animal? I'm not human?"
You're welcome.

*from Agamemnon, by Aeschylus

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