Monday, March 29, 2010

'Freedom', American-style and Canadian-style

Ann Coulter at the 2004 Republican National Co...Image via Wikipedia
Of all the things in the world there are worth talking about, Ann Coulter is not one of them. I have next to nothing to say about a person so ultimately empty that she seemingly requires controversy merely to exist.

No, but her little sojourn in Canada did raise an interesting question. Rather cleverly, she managed to turn the whole dismal affair into a discussion on 'free speech'. Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but 'freedom' must be one of the next-to-last.

I'm saddened to see other Canadians rally around the cause of 'free speech', because as Ann Coulter and a good many Americans define it, free speech is no good thing at all, and nothing to lament Canada's so-called lack of. The plain and simple fact is that, by American standards, we do not have freedom of speech in Canada. We have, instead, freedom of speech by the standards of the rest of the civilised world. In Canada we acknowledge that freedom exists within carefully defined limits, and that these limits are required because of the existence of people, like Ann Coulter, who push those limits, claiming it their 'right'.

Worldwide, freedom can only exist when balanced by responsibility, and when people refuse to take responsibility for their own words, when they refuse to engage in the self-censorship that any intelligent adult knows is a necessary part of public discourse, uncontrolled freedom leads to anarchy.

In English-speaking Canada we obsess about the little ways that we are superficially different from Americans, silly things like linguistic peccadilloes or malt beverages, all established around an unspoken feeling that, ultimately, we're pretty similar. Clearly Americans feel the same way, or else Ann Coulter might have been less surprised when she came up here, presumably expecting more or less the same as she might find in her home country.

The fact is, though, that in many ways Canada and the USA are profoundly different, and I think the American fascination with pure, uncontrolled freedom goes hand-in-hand with the American knee-jerk distrust of government in demonstrating the depths of that difference. There is no topic, I think, that can delineate Americans and Canadians more clearly than the Westboro Baptist Church's so-called 'right' to picket the funerals of dead soldiers or of dead gay Americans. I have discussed this very thing on many an occassion with Americans, and I'm constantly stunned by how intelligent people will, time and again, insist that these belligerent imbeciles be allowed to disrupt funerals and traumatise the mourning - why? In the interests of 'free speech'. To think that any so-called 'right' that gives the picketers power over the mourners in these tragic farces is something worth cherishing is, in my opinion, sheer ridiculousness. If that's freedom, you can have it.

Canada and the USA are parallel experiments in nation building. When I was younger, I sometimes mourned the relative lack of inspirational ideals in Canada. As often claimed, 'peace, order and good government' has nothing on 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness' as a motto to wave a flag for or to die in war for (perhaps why we rarely do either). But ultimately, when it comes to day-to-day quality of life, peace and order really do triumph over an uncontrolled, unlimited 'liberty'. For decades, the American government and American conservatives especially have been able to use the single word 'freedom' as an amazing tool: in 'freedom' they can justify everything and excuse everything. With 'freedom' they can shout down all opposition and defend any action. Ann Coulter is just one of many Americans who presumes that American ideals are, or at least ought to be, global ideals. But the fact is that the USA represents a ridiculous extreme of laissez-faire uncontrolled freedoms, an extreme that the rest of the world recognises as dangerous. If Ann Coulter was surprised to discover that, she shouldn't have been. She was, after all, in another country. When in Rome... shout loudly about how much you hate the Romans, I guess.
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