I must almost apologize to gentle reader for joining in discussion of the mob that shut down Ann Coulter’s speech at the University of Ottawa this week. A lot of ink has already spread on the subject, and yet I think there is more to say.
Chiefly: when defenders of free speech cite Magna Carta, and speak of a continuous tradition of liberty going back eight centuries, they are not telling the whole truth. The history is more vexed than that.
The circumstances in which it became possible to allow open discussion of public questions, without an immediate threat of violence, were achieved much more recently; and the achievement itself is rather more tenuous than anyone can realize, who has not immersed himself in the history. In English-speaking countries, it is only in the last couple of centuries that what we might recognize as free speech has come to be honoured.
Freedom may exist in the potential of the human soul, but it is not a condition of nature.
Free speech, property rights, democracy with a broad franchise—these are aspects of a particular regime. And like any other regime, it must defend itself against those who would invade or overthrow it.
“Tolerance”—as John Locke made exquisitely clear—can only exist if we have a common understanding of what the word means, and a common will to resist the intolerant. It is a very specific cultural artifact, opposed to anything suggested by “multiculturalism.” It does not merely imply, but require, a whole order of unimpeachable civic virtues. And if it is not being taught to our children, in our universities and elsewhere, they cannot carry it forward.
François Houle, the university provost who sent the sneering and condescending e-mail to Coulter even before she spoke, warning her that she could be eligible for prosecution under Canada’s hate laws if she did not watch her mouth, has been the object of much well-earned contempt.
That e-mail was sent not only to Coulter but copied to colleagues. It is assumed the man was trying to bully Coulter, but I doubt that was his principal motive. Instead, the tone is more typical of many I’ve seen from “ersatz men,” preening themselves on their “progressive consciousness” as part of the process of self-advancement within an academic environment that has been radicalized and “feminized” (in the sense of, poisoned by leftist and feminist ideological indoctrination).
That his letter provided a signal to various leftwing thugs—encouraging them to organize a violent display to shut down the event—is fairly plain. And yet I doubt the man who wrote it was intelligent enough to grasp that this would be the effect. Instead, a little essay in career-advancement “went tragically wrong” for him. But after he is fired, I see no reason why he should be remembered.
Fatuous questions have been raised about whether the police really advised the event organizers that Coulter could not safely enter the building. Of course they did, and having done so, the event organizers—including Ezra Levant, no shrinking violet—had no choice but to call the night off. This is because in addition to Coulter’s own (obviously necessary) personal security detail, they must have insurance coverage, which they lose if they ignore police advice.
Prudential questions like this are in the background of all such calculations, and those offering comments from their laptops at home ought to be more aware of them.
Notwithstanding, it is a good question how the police should behave in such circumstances. Under our essentially British constitution, the state has a duty to vindicate the right of free speech, and an interest in preventing the success of mob action.
The number of thugs is not at issue here, except as a tactical consideration. To my experience, it takes little more than a dozen determined thugs, and a sensitive moment, to start a substantial riot. Much larger numbers milling about can be induced to join in the mêlée, once a precedent is set by theatrical acts of violence. Good police work means moving quickly to identify, isolate, and disable the members of this vanguard, before they have got properly started.
The Coulter crew were met in Calgary, Thursday night, by a sampling of exactly the same sort of thugs they encountered at Ottawa U. But there, the police did not hesitate. It wasn’t even necessary to make arrests: at the first provocation, the young thugs were simply confronted and told to leave.
Several black holes have developed in the enforcement of law in Canada—stare hard, for instance, at Caledonia, Ont.—and there have been numerous campus events involving physical intimidation about which nothing was done. Each capitulation makes the next more likely.
Free speech is very nice “in theory.” But to exist in practice, it must be enforced.
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