I remember back in 2010 and 11 writing about the bogus Reverend Terry Jones of Gainesville. You may remember the idiot. He’s the one who held those “Burn a Koran Day” and drew all sorts of unfortunate attention to Gainesville and Florida while triggering riots in Afghanistan that ended up killing dozens of people, including United Nations aid workers.
He is a miserable human being who only made a name for himself by demeaning the religion of a billion people and provoking as much harm as he could by abusing his rights to free speech, like his fellow bogus reverend Fred Phelps, thankfully dead, who went around with his congregation holding up homophobic posters at the funerals of American servicemen killed in the line of duty.
But I also remember writing without hesitation, as I would again, in defense of Terry Jones. He may have been an idiot. But if he wanted to put the Koran on trial, burn it in a public ceremony and disseminate the videos of his vileness, it’s his right. We may disagree. We may find it repulsive as any reasonable person should. But it’s not illegal, nor should it be. Words don’t kill. Burning a Koran doesn’t kill anymore than burning a flag. Terry Jones did not kill those innocent victims in Afghanistan. Only Islamic fanatics and murderers who were themselves blaspheming what the Koran stands for did so.
The U.S. Supreme Court used pretty much the same reasoning when it defended the vileness of Fred Phelps and his trolls to do what they did at servicemen’s funerals and elsewhere, even though they are among the most disgusting hate groups in the nation. That’s saying something in a country where it’s beginning to take something special to stand out, if hate is your business. Like being president.
Unfortunately for Gainesville, it’s been in the news again this week for all the wrong reasons with the speech at the University of Florida by Richard Spencer, a better dressed but no less vile sort of Terry Jones. His message is a bit different. His organization, called National Policy Institute, which is neither national nor policy-minded nor anything like an institute, believes in a white-only America. Everyone else should be ethnically cleansed. If it sounds familiar, it should, because it’s basically the cliff notes to Mein Kampf, the autobiography of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. The difference is that Spencer hates anything not white, not just Jews.
And yes, he was among the organizers of that orgy of hate in Charlottesville in August, that so-called “Unite the Right” rally that lit up the night with tiki torches and the goons that carried them, chanting primitive phrases like “Jews will not replace us,” and that culminated in the murder of Heather Heyer. But Spencer was not her killer and does not appear to have had a conspiratorial hand in the act.
And yet this whole business of trying to ban him or stop him from speaking at UF seems to me to have been as exaggerated as the governor’s emergency declaration and all those cops going haywire with snipers and overhead helicopters over Gainesville. I’m not saying tight security to keep another Charlottesville from happening wasn’t necessary. But turning Gainesville into a scene from “The Longest Day” was not. It contrived a state of siege that gave the goons more credit and influence than they deserve, and it set the sort of precedent that could just as well be applied to any other ideological event, left, right or indefinable. That show of force was far more ominous than the disruptions it was meant to contain. And as they have with increasingly McCarthyist shrillness on many campuses across the country, counter-protesters’ flirtations with violence–and at times outright acts of violence–have undermined their message and makes a sham of academic freedom, however delinquent its occasional practitioners.
Any talk of preventing Spencer from spewing his stupidity on campus seems to me itself more offensive to our principles of liberty than anything he could possibly say. I’m tempted to say that the way University of Florida students handled it today was not bad. Half the auditorium was empty, and much of the other half was filled with protesters there to drown out whatever Spencer had to say. But I’d have rather seen the students respect what the University itself ultimately was forced to respect, once Spencer had properly and legally secured a venue from where to speak: a person’s right to speak, however vile the person and the words. By getting drowned out by protesters inside the venue, Spencer scored a rhetorical victory. The story will be the students’s shouts, not his brays.
The First Amendment is resilient. Like the heart of a nation’s principles, it’s strengthened by being exercised, tested, honored, whether people are taking a knee in front of a flag, burning a flag or raising it above a liberated continent. The amendment wasn’t written so we could post kittens and Oprah quotes on the Internet. It was written to protect freedoms for the thoughts that we hate, to paraphrase the line by Oliver Wendell Holmes. We don’t have to concede when confronted with words of hate (acts being a different matter altogether). We should certainly protest, be angry, scream and yell up to a point. The speaker’s indoor venue was that point in Gainesville. But let’s not turn out the mob on our own principles.
Words people like Richard Spencer speak are vomit. Let’s give these Aryan asses all the freedom they need to drown in it.