Over at Shakespeare's Sister, Melissa McEwan indulges in a gloat over the news that the utterly loathsome Phelps clan has been denied entry to the United Kingdom, thus thwarting their plans to stage a bigoted protest against a pro-tolerance play called The Laramie Project.
Now, if McEwan wanted to engage in a serious discussion about whether nations may — or should — bar ideological "undesirables" from entry, I would be up for it. The United States has done so on many occasions, and the question presented — the contest between national and territorial sovereignty and freedom of expression — is open to colorable debate.
But McEwan is not satisfied to address this through the reasonably narrow prism of immigration control. She uses the exclusion of the Phelps clan to support a vastly broader proposition:
That's what a free speech policy that recognizes the fundamental difference between speech and incitement to hatred looks like.
What nonsense. A policy that distinguishes between actual incitement of imminent violence and other speech is, potentially, principled. A policy that bans "promotion of hatred" or "incitement of discrimination" is unprincipled and infinitely malleable. Britain's vaguely stated policy of preventing "extremism in all its forms" and excluding those who "spread extremism, hatred and violent messages in our communities" can be used largely at the whim of the state, as amply demonstrated by their recent exclusion of Dutch MP Geert Wilders over his overheated (but definitely not imminent-violence-inciting) rhetoric about Islam. Such a broad and unprincipled policy could very easily be used to exclude most of the writing staff at Shakespeare's Sister, given their penchant for ill-tempered rhetoric and given the right (or wrong) government.
It's tempting to say that people like McEwan are too dumb or addled by ideology to grasp this. But McEwan is not dumb, and that's not right. I think that people like McEwan simply don't care. Such people take too much pleasure in the temporary triumph of their ideals and beliefs over those of others, and don't want to sully the feeling with thought about the implications of how they got there. They are free speech's moral cowards.
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