Friday, 2 May 2014


The name of this blog is Canadian Defence Matters, and it does matter. But what also matters is what we are defending. The principles and beliefs that a relatively few have stood on guard to defend, for the rest of us, must surely matter or their sacrifices will have in vain.

To paraphrase Dickens, Donald Sterling is a jerk; there is no doubt whatever about that. This must be distinctly understood or nothing good can come of what is to follow.

The now well known Mr. Sterling was taped by his mistress, in a private conversation, making repugnant and ugly remarks. His punishments have been swift and the condemnation universal.

Public shunning is a powerful thing. It undoubtedly has more influence on personal behavior then any legislation ever contemplated. It is the universality, and to a lesser extent the sanctimony, of this reaction that should give us pause.

People more often speak of “freedom of expression” nowadays then they use the phrase ‘free speech”. It would appear that the reason for this is that they have become separate things in the public mind. It seems that “freedom of expression” denotes the right to say conventional things in unconventional ways. “Free speech” is a far different and more powerful concept.

The trend away from the traditional concept of free speech is particularly dangerous in the modern age.  In a world in which the news cycle has been shortened to the speed of Twitter, institutions are under pressure to react before they understand the situation. In the case of Tom Flanagan it was enough for political opponents to misquote him to destroy his reputation in the space of a day.

Having been accused of societal taboo, in this case a form of child abuse, Flanagan was immediately denounced by anyone made aware of the charge. For the record, Mr. Flanagan does not condone child pornography in any form. Nor has he ever said he does. It does not matter; because once the charge was made no one in a position of power believed they could do anything but condemn him in the harshest terms.

In part, this over reaction was because the concept of “fair comment” or the ideal that everyone is entitled to their own opinion is no longer widely accepted in our society.

Perhaps the most disagreeable part of “free speech” is the notion that to be real it must be extended to those we disagree with. When David Ahenakew was acquitted of the charge of willfully promoting hatred Saskatchewan Provincial Court Judge Wilfred Tucker made the point that while Ahenakew’s statements were "revolting, disgusting and untrue", they did not show intent to incite hatred.

The judge, correctly I believe, erred on the side of caution when refusing to uphold the conviction of Mr. Ahenakew for ‘hate crimes’. It has been said that “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins”. In that same sense, many believe that the right to free speech ends where harm can be seen to be done. This is a slippery doctrine, easily abused, and dangerous to the whole concept of free speech. Words have power, rights can be abused, but it is better to accept a degree of discomfort then to give up hard won and important rights for the illusion of security.

It is easy to accord the ‘luxury’ of free speech to reasonable people. It is easy, for example, to say that “while I disagree with his position, I defend his right to have his opinion” when speaking about someone like Steven Staples . It is far harder to do when speaking about someone like Sterling or Ahenakew. However in some ways, it is actually more important that the worst among have this right protected.

Which brings us back to the odious Mr. Sterling.

At least some of the allure of denying the right of free speech to all is that it is makes life easy. It’s easy to condemn and dismiss Chief Ahenakew, much more difficult then to talk about how he, and his views, achieved a position of power and influence. It is easier to just not think about it.

The instant anger and unthinking public condemnation of Mr. Sterling were very convenient. Convenient for the NAACP which didn't have to explain why they took his money, convenient for the league officials who knew what he was but didn't feel the need to do anything about it, convenient for the media who didn’t feel the need to report on it, until it became public.

 It is interesting to consider that fifty years ago Mr. Sterling’s racist commentary would have garnered little or no attention. Sadly, his beliefs were not uncommon at that time. In fact about the only thing he could have said fifty years ago to attract the same amount of public anger would have been to espouse the cause of gay marriage.

This writer has no idea what will compromise common wisdom in fifty years. The one thing we can be sure of is that it will be very different then that of today. Someone, somewhere, will say something perfectly scandalous that will turn out to be true. When everybody is wrong, one person will be right. To hear that person, to put their ideas to the test of public discussion, we have to be willing to hear everybody.

Freedom of speech will mean nothing if it is not extended to everyone. Too many brave men and women have given their lives in defence of that principle for us to forsake it now just to insure a more convenient life.

Clippers owner Donald Sterling banned from NBA for life

 How Tom Flanagan went from respected political scientist to pariah

David Ahenakew

Steven Staples