Friday, February 12, 2016

The Future of the Past

"The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David (I787)
The notion of free expression is almost quaint. Will the equivalent of history texts in the year 5000 record a period in civilization where people actually treasured notions like inalienable rights? Will they look at such ideas as form of dystopia masquerading as utopia? Of course free speech has always been a complex issue. Am I free to make defamatory comments about my adversary? Am I free to scream the equivalent of fire in a crowded theater or in common parlance creating a witch hunting atmosphere which exploits fear of political or sexual aggression. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the famed Schenck decision which placed limits on free speech, but seemed to reverse himself in Abrams v. United States. Would that such issues were black and white and we could say that either free speech is impossible and must be disgarded in war time (an element of Schenck by the way) or that it must be prized and nurtured at all costs—even when, for instance, you find that the incendiary exhortations of ISIS followers are inflaming disturbed individuals and causing them to become mass murderers. There are opponents of pornography who would say that violent porn has an insidious effect on the minds of those who can’t distinguish imagination from reality. In the case of ISIS it’s the lone wolf copy cat murderers, the Raskolnikovs, the Underground Men, the outliers, who are the most dangerous since they're the very ones who fall off the radar of security agencies and are thus almost impossible to track—as was apparently the case in the San Bernardino shootings.  But getting back to the year 5000. Will American society at the apogee of its constitutionality be looked at the way we do Athens today--as a series of old men in togas, whose short lived dream, ran afoul of the barbarians and one of whose greatest spokesmen was forced to drink Hemlock because of his beliefs.

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