GUEST COMMENTARY: Defend freedom of expression, including bigotry

2011-05-18T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Defend freedom of expression, including bigotryBy Arthur I. Cyr nwitimes.com
May 18, 2011 12:00 am  • 

The U.S. Supreme Court made news, though not history, on March 2. In an 8-1 decision, the court determined a renegade Baptist "church" can picket military funerals, despite the added suffering imposed on bereaved parents and other mourners.

Meanwhile, in France a famous fashion designer has been fired from his job and is being prosecuted by authorities for vicious anti-Semitic, pro-Hitler remarks he made in a cafe that were recorded on video.

The so-called "church" and the fashion Nazi clearly crave publicity, and I will name neither.

The Supreme Court has underscored First Amendment protection of freedom of speech, which distinguishes our country from many others and guarantees fundamental strength. Some governments in Europe are expanding censorship, an unfortunate popular trend currently.

Several decades ago, the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, where I worked, attracted intense organized pressure to cancel an event featuring a Palestine Liberation Organization official. We did not do so. Council Chairman John D. Gray, head of Hart, Schaffner & Marx, and our board were supportive.

Over time, efforts to suppress speakers came from government representatives of Canada, Japan and elsewhere, opponents of Catholic and Protestant reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and others.

When a telephoned bomb threat disrupted a lecture by U.S. Rep. Paul Findley, a critic of Israel, we continued the presentation in a stairwell. When followers of radical Lyndon LaRouche tried to break up a meeting, they were escorted from the premises. We never, ever gave in to bullying.

Winston Churchill evolved over the years into a genius at collecting all sorts of information, and also people. One of the most pivotal of the latter proved to be Frederick Lindemann, a brilliant Oxford scholar in physics and philosophy. Despite Professor Lindemann's impressive intellectual success, he remained a social outcast. No doubt anti-Semitism was one factor in 1930s Britain.

Lindemann's primary problem, however, was himself. Lindemann was a relentless know-it-all and generally obnoxious. Churchill's granddaughter Celia Sandys politely described him as "anti-social." Even Churchill's endlessly patient, tolerant wife, Clementine, resisted having the Oxford don as a weekend house guest, but Winston insisted. He clearly regarded his friend as not only good company, but also possessed of special talent.

When Churchill returned to government as head of the Admiralty at the start of World War II in Europe, he immediately recruited Lindemann, who was given freedom in selecting his staff and generally in choosing his projects. The scholar, who was particularly talented at statistical analysis, had one mission: to undermine the conventional wisdom and established naval plans of the government.

Churchill became prime minister with the fall of France, and Lindemann's role expanded to general strategic oversight, but his basic task in the midst of the enormously complex war remained continuous. He was to undercut whatever was proposed by the admirals and generals, the civil servants and politicians, and the members of government -- including the prime minister.

Churchill assumed that Lindemann would enjoy his role and also expected him to excel, and he did.

That war could easily have turned out differently. Imagination, resulting in the ability to do the unexpected, was a crucial ingredient of the Allies' success. Reliability of information was another. Lindemann was vital in driving these dimensions.

Meanwhile, the Third Reich pursued a self-reinforcing spiral of ever more brutal intolerance and conformity.

Defend freedom of expression, including bigotry. The legacy of Churchill and Lindemann demands no less.

Arthur I. Cyr is the Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of "After the Cold War." He can be reached at acyr@carthage.edu. The opinions are the writer's.

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