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Arianna Huffington on Free Speech

by Arianna Huffington Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2001 at 8:19 AM

Since Sept. 11, we've been told again and again that our failure to act in a certain way would be the moral equivalent of allowing the terrorists to win.

HUFFINGTON: Land of the Free?

Arianna Huffington,

September 24, 2001

Since Sept. 11, we've been told again and again that our failure to act in a

certain way would be the moral equivalent of allowing the terrorists to win.

As in: "If we don't get back to work, they win;" or "If we don't go ahead and

play football this weekend, they win;" or "If this changes the way we think

about Arab-Americans, they win."

And, in a way, it's true -- few us of are going to be fighting the battle on the

ground in Afghanistan, but there are ways in which we can all do our part.

Ways that include resolutely defending values that define our country. But just

as this new military battleground is going to be complicated and risky, so, too,

is the one at home. And in the last few days, there is one front where it

appears that our enemies might be winning: the First Amendment. To the

extent that we give up our fundamental freedoms of expression and dissent,

then, yes, "they" have clearly won.

One of those battles is going on right now. It involves Bill Maher, who has

been excoriated for what he said on "Politically Incorrect" last week. But

excoriation -- a valuable form of free speech -- is not a problem. Censorship


Aren't "they" winning when three ABC affiliates, including the Washington,

D.C., station, cancel the show?

Aren't "they" winning when networks cave in to rabble-rousing, self-promoting

radio shock jocks like Dan Patrick from Houston who started this tempest in a

teapot, and who midweek called the show to suggest himself as a guest?

And aren't "they" winning when major sponsors like Federal Express and

Sears put a higher price on their corporate image than on the essential

democratic ingredient of free speech by pulling their ads? These companies

have no problems defending capitalism, but they shrink from defending the

values that make it possible.

When the country just learned with such penetrating anguish what real terror

is, how can the corporate logo polishers fear Bill Maher? Particularly when

the point he was making was such an important one.

So what, exactly, was his point?

In response to guest Dinesh D'Souza's assertion that people who are willing to

die in service to their cause, whatever else they may be, are not "cowards,"

Maher said: "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000

miles away. That's cowardly."

I was sitting next to Bill when he said this. And not only did I not object, I

wholeheartedly agreed. In fact, in the past, I've made much the same criticism

of a foreign policy that obliges our military to fight at great remove from the

theater of battle. It was a mistake when we bombed a pharmaceutical factory

in the Sudan, and it was a mistake when we killed the very Albanian refugees

we were trying to protect with our indiscriminate carpet-bombing of Kosovo.

President Bush, himself, has been making much the same point that Bill

Maher did: "It will not look like the air war above Kosovo two years ago,

where no ground troops were used and not a single American was lost in


Presumably, if Maher had made those same comments on Sept. 10, nobody

would have batted an eyelid. But by uttering the same opinion seven days

later, he put the very existence of his show at risk.

Have we all gone mad?

What becomes of a country when opinions considered perfectly legitimate --

and indeed uttered by hundreds of academics, journalists and members of

Congress -- suddenly become a crime worthy of the media death penalty?

If the attacks on innocent American lives end up making us more like our

attackers, don't they most spectacularly win? And don't the corporate

sponsors, the affiliates and ABC itself see the inconsistency in the fact that,

as a way of showing solidarity against the Taliban, they are using the Taliban's

trademark weapon -- the stifling of dissent?

Isn't freedom what we're fighting for? And isn't lack of freedom -- including

freedom of the press -- the hallmark of our enemies?

"Cowardly" was the injurious word uttered by Maher. Well, let me use it now

where it really belongs -- to describe ABC if it decides to cancel a show that

is, after all, called "Politically Incorrect."

The show in question was the first since the attack. At curtain time, the studio

was electric with anxiety. "Politically Incorrect," though it deals with serious

subjects, is, after all, a satirical program. So we all held our breath as Bill

stepped onto the tightrope.

Maher's tone-setting opening comments, which took the place of his usual

monologue, were nothing short of brilliant and -- in light of the media firestorm

that followed -- remarkably prescient.

"I do not relinquish," he said, "nor should any of you, the right to criticize, even

as we support, our government. This is still a democracy, and they're still

politicians ... Political correctness itself is something we can no longer afford.

Feelings are gonna get hurt so that actual people won't, and that will be a good

thing." At the end of the show, the audience rose in a standing ovation --

something I had never seen before.

As well as being the host of the show, Bill is my friend. And, as his friend, I

was really proud of him. Proud of how perfect a note he had struck between

rallying around the flag, showing grief and expressing dissent. How he had

shown that they are not mutually contradictory. And everything that has

happened since has only made me prouder of him -- and more disgusted at the

politically correct cowards who are trying to stifle him.

We cannot let them succeed, for, as Benjamin Franklin put it, "Whoever

would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness

of speech."

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