Magazine | July 5, 2010, Issue

Free Association

New Threats to Freedom, edited by Adam Bellow (Templeton, 304 pp., $25.95)

Somali taxi drivers at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport come up twice in New Threats to Freedom, a lively but uneven collection of 30 essays assembled by HarperCollins executive editor Adam Bellow. Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens cites them to illustrate “the absurdity and potential risk — the threat to freedom — of confusing group rights with civil rights.” Stephen Schwartz, executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, blames the taxi drivers for “the most widely acknowledged case of Shariah imposition so far known.”

What exactly did these Muslim cabbies do? According to Schwartz, “they would not take airport arrival passengers carrying alcohol or accompanied by dogs (including guide dogs for blind customers), on the grounds that for them to do so would violate Shariah.” Per airport rules, the drivers had to go to the back of the taxi line every time they refused a fare. In other words, they paid a price in lost income for abiding by what they (correctly or not) believed to be an important religious injunction.

I fail to see how this counts as a “threat to freedom” or “Shariah imposition.” To the contrary, these cab drivers are exercising their freedom to run their businesses as they see fit; they may be inconveniencing and annoying people, but they are not imposing anything on anyone.

Another incident that’s recounted twice in this book is considerably more disturbing: the astonishing decision by Yale University Press to remove the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoons from a scholarly book discussing the controversy over them. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum plausibly argues that the press’s cowardly self-censorship, motivated by a fear of violence, illustrates “the increasing power of illiberal groups and regimes . . . to place de facto controls on American publishers, newspapers, and media companies.” Her point is reinforced by Comedy Central’s recent decision, driven by fear of touchy Muslims, to heavily censor an episode of South Park that satirized censorship driven by fear of touchy Muslims.

Still, it’s telling that both repetitions have to do with the threat to freedom posed by Islamic radicalism, which looms large in this book. By contrast, there is not a word about the threat to freedom posed by the reaction to Islamic radicalism. There is nothing about the detention powers claimed by the Bush administration, which were so broad that Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, no one’s idea of a bleeding-heart liberal, felt compelled to insist (in a case involving a U.S. citizen accused of taking up arms for the Taliban) that the executive branch cannot unilaterally suspend the writ of habeas corpus. There is nothing about the issue of how much process is due to people accused of links to terrorism (including American citizens arrested in the United States), about the privacy implications of warrantless surveillance, or about the claim that the president need not follow the law if he thinks national security requires him to break it. There is no suggestion that a never-ending war to make the world safe from terrorism might imperil liberty, not only by justifying extraordinary measures at home but by entangling U.S. forces in one doomed nation-building project after another, squandering trillions on misguided military missions at a time when entitlement spending is about to explode.

#page#Indeed, two essayists suggest the U.S. is not devoting enough resources to rearranging the world. James Kirchick, a contributing editor at The New Republic, worries that “transnational progressivism” threatens “American hegemony abroad.” The journalist Tara McKelvey frets about “the abandonment of democracy promotion,” saying “President George W. Bush’s disastrous efforts in this arena” should not discourage the U.S. government from attempting to “help establish democracies in other countries.” This time for sure!

McKelvey, by the way, is the author of Monstering: Inside America’s Policy on Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War, so she might have had a thing or two to say about unwise, unethical, illegal, or unconstitutional methods of fighting terrorism. Other contributors to the volume, including Hitchens and my Reason colleagues Katherine Mangu-Ward and Michael Moynihan, likewise have some reservations about the War on Terror, but they were asked to address different topics.

Bellow’s decision to omit any substantial criticism of the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism policies does not reflect a conservative consensus, since conservatives have been known to express concern about lawbreaking, an overweening executive branch, and military campaigns unmoored from national defense. The book’s most striking lacuna may instead reflect Bellow’s hope that the clash between Western civilization and Islamic radicalism will unite liberals, libertarians, and conservatives in the way that the clash between capitalism and Communism did. In his introduction, Bellow pines for the moral clarity of the Cold War and bemoans “the abrupt disappearance of the discourse about freedom and democracy that had preoccupied the noblest minds of the 20th century.” Today this discourse should include not only the illiberal influence of Wahhabi Islam but also the illiberal methods sometimes used to oppose it.

There are other puzzling gaps in the book, which is supposed to be about “cultural trends that are undermining our liberties.” I noticed only a single passing reference to drug prohibition, which has vast implications for privacy, property rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of conscience. And while Mangu-Ward mentions a few examples of “public health” paternalism in an essay that begins by provocatively comparing ice-cream crackdowns in Afghanistan and New York, this excuse for meddling surely deserved a chapter of its own, given its totalitarian implications and the boost it is likely to get from President Obama’s expansion of the government’s involvement in health care — another important and timely threat to freedom that is virtually ignored. Amazingly, given the grand interventions our government is contemplating to ameliorate global warming, there is no discussion of that topic either, or of the general threat posed by orthodox environmentalism, including its opposition to biotechnology and its insistence on a prohibitive “precautionary principle” as the basis for regulation.

#page# “No doubt we have overlooked important aspects of the subject,” Bellow concedes, calling the collection “very far from comprehensive.” Fair enough; he can’t be expected to cover everything. Yet even while omitting “important aspects of the subject,” Bellow managed to include more than a few essays that either do not fit in a volume on “threats to freedom” or do not deserve to be published at all. David Mamet is a brilliant playwright and screenwriter, but he leaves something to be desired as a policy analyst. In his essay on “The Fairness Doctrine,” he repeatedly misquotes the First Amendment and creates the impression that government-enforced balance in broadcasting is a brand-new policy pushed by progressives who hate Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, as opposed to an old policy they want to revive.

Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum and culture critic Lee Siegel each contribute a cranky rant about aspects of the Internet that offend them. I suspect freedom will survive the nastiness of online commenters decried by Rosenbaum as well as “untrammeled individuality in popular culture,” which Siegel says has given us both “an egalitarian antidemocracy” and a “participatory/popularity culture.” These are bad things, in case you were wondering, though exactly why is not clear.

It is hard to take “bad political theatre,” the subject of Alexander Harrington’s essay, seriously at all, let alone as a threat to freedom. To his credit, Harrington, founder of New York’s Eleventh Hour Theatre Company, does not really try to make that case, and his open-minded discussion of what makes for good political theater is interesting, though it does not belong in this book. Likewise GlobalGiving CEO Dennis Whittle’s eye-opening discussion of international aid.

The strongest contributions, which address the book’s ostensible theme in an engaging, informative, and thoughtful way, include Max Borders on “The Urge to Regulate” (which does mention the precautionary principle), Michael Goodwin on “The Loss of the Freedom to Fail,” Greg Lukianoff on the campus thought police, Naomi Schaefer Riley on state and federal interference with philanthropic freedom, and Christina Hoff Sommers on the U.N. Women’s Treaty. I count five essays, representing a sixth of the book, that focus on left-liberal political correctness, which is probably too many given all the things the collection leaves out.

Bellow’s introduction and a few of the essays — most notably political theorist Mark T. Mitchell on “Ingratitude and the Death of Freedom” — suggest a proposition that might have been the subject of a productive debate. Bellow approvingly notes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s condemnation of decadence in capitalist democracies, which he believed (wrongly, it turned out) crippled them in their struggle with Communism. “Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space,” the Soviet dissident complained. “The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals.”

Many conservatives will, like Bellow, nod in agreement with these claims, even as they concur with Hoover Institution scholar Shelby Steele (another contributor to this collection) that “modern American conservatism has been nothing if not a freedom-focused politics.” To consistent anti-statists, however, the notion that too much freedom threatens freedom, or that protecting rights undermines them, seems like an Orwellian excuse for tyranny. Exploring the reasons for this cleavage might have given this book some much-needed coherence.

– Mr. Sullum (jsullum@reason.com) is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

Jacob Sullum — Mr. Sullum (jsullum@reason.com) is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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