What is free speech?
There's more to free speech than whether the government engages in censorship. Campaigning in 1984, Ronald Reagan remarked,
I think that the current leadership of the Democratic Party, the leadership that we saw last week in San Francisco — I think their instructions for getting to the convention were: Go west to San Francisco, and then turn left. They've gone so far left that they've left the mainstream.
Walter Mondale, beyond the pale? Oh please. It's crucial that contenders in liberal democracies respect the role of a loyal opposition. [My emphasis] So it's worse than worrisome that popular commentators cash in by trampling on that respect. Anne Coulter flouts that norm when she writes,
Liberals promote the right of Islamic fanatics for the same reason they promote the rights of adulterers, pornographers, abortionists, criminals, and Communists. They instinctively root for anarchy against civilization. The inevitable logic of the liberal position is to be for treason.
And Michael Moore flouts that norm when he writes in an open letter to the president,
As Bill Maher said last week, how bad do you have to suck to lose a popularity contest with Saddam Hussein? The whole world is against you, Mr. Bush. Count your fellow Americans among them.
Does free speech mean that Reagan, Coulter, and Moore have the right to talk this way? Absolutely, if that means it would be outrageous for the government to try to sanction them. But they are still damaging liberal democracy, making a mockery of government by discussion. Their language isn't sharply focused criticism of anything in particular. It's mere invective, designed to banish the opponent from public discussion. The more shrill, the more polarized, the more contemptuous the public debate, the less we can listen to and learn from each other. Yes, politics is a continuation of war by other means. And yes, it's always easy to claim that the other guys started it. And yes, the line between hard-hitting argument and hitting below the belt is sometimes hazy. But if you permit yourself a secret — or public — snicker when "your" side gets off a good sharp nasty salvo of contempt, or if you fasten on the "other" side's nastiest rhetoric and refuse to hear what else they're saying, you're part of the problem, too. The cleavage that matters here is not left/right. It's the one between those of us intent on keeping political debate constructive and those engaged in hurling mud. On this issue — not how radical our views are, but how stridently we support them — I'm inclined to quip: extremism in the pursuit of moderation is no vice.