PARIS, France -- Although I grew up almost in Joe McCarthy's backyard and
attended a Catholic school that used bowdlerized history books, I've
always believed that freedom of speech was absolute -- a principle to
be cherished above all and defended with the last drop of the last
redblooded American's blood.
Well, hush my mouth!
As it turns out, according to democratic leaders everywhere, the
freedoms set forth in the Bill of Rights are not Commandments. They're
more like "guidelines."
In this fresh new outlook, "respect for religion" -- even if the
religious are prone to bombing buses, mutilating women, shooting
doctors, murdering children and practicing genocide -- is more sacred
than freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and
religion (ironic, huh?) and the other liberties granted to Americans
(and copied by other nations) on December 15, 1791.
A veritable geyser of anti-free speech speech followed the depiction,
by a Danish cartoon, of the prophet Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban.
It gushed from an all-star cast of "democratic" leaders — British
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Prime Minister Tony Blair, Swedish
P.M. Goran Persson, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President
Jacques Chirac, the U.S. State Department and President George W. Bush.
There were others, of course.
The Bill of Rights' only defenders were Denmark's beleaguered Prime
Minister, and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, who
said: "It's better to publish too much than not to have freedom." Oh,
those hotblooded Spaniards!.
The consensus, endorsed by publishers and politicians, is that free
speech is nice, but inadvisable when it might irritate the sort of
religious nuts who tend to react by burning Pizza Huts and beheading
tourists -- then blaming it all on whoever pissed them off. The
increasingly popular "tut-tut" school of not-so-free speech was
nutshelled by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, President of Indonesia: "The
rights of press freedom are not absolute. Whatever the faith, we must
Granted, the point America's Founders were making with the Bill of
Rights was that various religions had spent eons viciously silencing
rival faiths, but America was going to be the place where anyone could
glorify, disparage or disregard any belief -- with the full protection
of the government. "Say what you want," said Jefferson and Hamilton,
Ben Franklin and George Mason. "We got your back."
That was then. This is now.
Now, the Religious Right occupies the Oval Office. Throughout the
world, the streets flow with the blood of the insufficiently pious.
Leaders are biting their tongues, lest they ignite a sectarian carnage
that plunges humanity into a lake of fire.
And I say the last hope for the Bill of Rights is: Don't fight 'em.
This is easier than it looks. One of the world's newer religious hits
-- Scientology -- is based on space fiction. Another worships a fat
Korean who marries hordes of strangers in football stadiums. There are
"churches" dedicated to white supremacy, black separatism and singing
the Mass in Latin. Plus, we got voodoo, Satanism, black magic and Harry
Potter. I cannot believe the IRS would hesitate for a heartbeat before
granting tax-exempt status to the Holy Temple of the Bill of Rights.
The beauty part of turning free speech into a religion is that it
removes from Constitutional guarantees the onus of balancing rights
with "responsibilities." Today, secular speakers are warned -- by world
leaders -- to button their lip, lest they antagonize zealots to do
crazy stuff in defense of the faith. Meanwhile, every president from
Bush to Ahmadinejad agrees that religion, unlike politics, is
responsibility-free. True believers can run amok at will -- and they do!
It's time for civil libertarians to join the party.
The Bill of Rights has more religious facets -- built-in -- than most
existing creeds. It already has lots of shrines, from Hyde Park Corner
to the Lincoln Memorial. Its martyrs are anyone who's ever been killed
(often by religions) for shooting off his mouth. This includes two
already established saints, Joan of Arc and Thomas More. Also eligible:
St. Socrates, St. Abe Lincoln, St. John Brown, St. Gandhi, St. Sacco
and St. Vanzetti., St. Malcolm X, St. Martin Luther King, St. Bobby
Kennedy, St. Steve Biko, St. Oscar Romero of San Salvador, St. Fritz
Gerlach (the first editor murdered by Hitler). And all those dead kids
in Tiananmen Square. We can even claim Jesus and St. Peter --
crucified, after all, because they talked too much and rankled the
More religious heroes include the merely jailed, tortured, censored,
shunned (or trashed by Karl Rove) for excess candor. Galileo and
DaVinci. Robert Bork and Anita Hill. Orwell and Salinger. James Joyce
and Sylvia Beach. Eugene V. Debs, Edward R. Murrow, Jimmy Carter, Trent
Lott, Howard Dean, John McCain and Hillary Clinton. Alexander
Solzhenitsyn and Leon Trotsky. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Lenny
Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin. Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt.
Muhammad Ali and Muhammad Mossadegh. Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes
to Washington," Henry Fonda in "The Grapes of Wrath," Al Pacino in "And
Justice For All" — and the Dixie Chicks! The list is endless.
Where would we worship? We could try town halls and storefronts, or
just use soapboxes strewn hither and yon. But I'd lean toward bars --
taverns, lounges, roadhouses, pubs and dives -- where free speech is
rarely hindered and often (indulgently) ignored, but always protected
fiercely by the guy behind the bar. Suddenly, you'd see signs like "The
Elbow Room (and) First Chapel of the Bill of Rights," or "The Dew Drop
Inn (and) Basilica of St. Thomas More." Every bartender would be
ordained in the Temple of the Bill. Also eligible for priesthood would
be editors -- print editors. Web editors and TV talking heads would be
eligible only after passing a literacy test. Dan Rather, however, would
be an Honorary Bishop. Cronkite would be the first Pope.
As for holy days of obligation, well, we'd reinstate Lincoln's
Birthday. We'd celebrate December 15, and the Fourth of July, and... OK, anybody know when was I.F. Stone born?
David Benjamin is a Paris-based novelist and journalist. His latest
book is The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked.