A Savage attack on free speech
The UK government’s border ban on an American shock jock reveals its utter disdain for freedom of speech and its fear of a volatile public.
Imagine this: a man is banned from entering the UK. Not because he intends to hurt someone, or because he is fleeing a crime committed some place else. No, he is prevented from ever putting a foot on British soil because of the things he says. That’s it. No other reason.
This is the situation in which the American ‘shock jock’ Michael Savage currently finds himself. More shocking, however, is that barely anyone in Britain has batted an eyelid on his behalf. That freedom of speech can be so flagrantly disregarded and merit barely a murmur of comment in response reveals just how normal we consider restrictions on free speech today.
Perhaps the indifference to Savage’s plight owes more than a bit to the nature of the protagonist, a rent-a-chauvinist dj with a not-so-nice line in liberal-baiting. Here’s a sample: ‘Only a devastating military blow against the hearts of Islamic terror coupled with an outright ban on Muslim immigration, laws making the dissemination of enemy propaganda illegal, and the uncoupling of the liberal ACLU can save the United States. I would also make the construction of mosques illegal in America and the speaking of English only in the streets of the United States the law.’
When Savage is not labelling the Koran a ‘book of hate’, he’s having a pop at the ‘gay and lesbian mafia’ for wanting to ‘homosexualise the whole country’ – an unprecedented feat of seduction by any standards. Savage by name, a bit ridiculous by nature. Abortion, Mexican immigrants, Barack Obama: there are few things the potty-mouthed dj hasn’t built a politically incorrect tirade around. No liberal causes, sentiments, or, as Savage portrays them, sacred cows, are out of bounds.
It’s probably fair to say that he’s not exactly the most progressive of guys. In fact, a lot of the stuff he spouts is undoubtedly offensive. But then again, as his ‘shock jock’ appellation suggests, he’s meant to be offensive. One thing he probably never meant to be, however, was a threat to UK national security. Yet, as the latest attempt to overturn his ban from entering the UK was defeated in the House of Lords, this, it seems, is exactly how the Home Office views him: a man who, with a few illiberal rants, might shock the British public into a gay- or Muslim-bashing frenzy.
The Savage case first came to light in May last year, when the then-home secretary Jacqui Smith announced that this polar opposite of Simon Mayo was banned from entering the UK. ‘He is someone’, she said, ‘who has fallen into the category of fomenting hatred, of such extreme views and expressing them in such a way that it is actually likely to cause inter-community tension or even violence if that person were allowed into the country’. Savage isn’t alone. Since 2005, 21 other people have also been barred from the UK on the grounds of inciting hatred and violence, including a motley crew of neo-Nazis like Erich Gliebe and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Stephen Donald Black, a few ‘hate preachers’ such as Amir Siddique, and a couple of Russian skinheads convicted of 20 racially motivated murders. Given the last two are currently serving 20-year prison sentences, one suspects that their freedom of movement might already be limited.
Last week, following the failed attempt of UK Independence Party leader Lord Pearson to have Savage’s ban overturned, security minister Lord West reiterated Jacqui Smith’s original position: ‘Mr Savage was banned for… unacceptable behaviour and making clear comments that might lead to civil violence [and] community violence.’ In other words, he was banned because he says things - really, really rude things. In fact, the things he says are so rude, and yet so magically persuasive, that Lord West wasn’t prepared to give any examples. Presumably in case the Lords and Ladies of the UK’s upper house were spurred to ‘civil and community violence’.
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One of the absurdities of this, the UK’s list of banned people, is that quite a few of those on the list, including Savage himself, had neither tried, nor intended, to enter the UK. This was because the list, compiled by Whitehall types using Google and a little help from the intelligence services, was never really a practical measure. It was, as Smith herself said at the time, a way to showcase ‘the sorts of values and sorts of standards that we have here’. ‘It’s a privilege to come to this country’, she continued: ‘There are certain behaviours that mean you forfeit that privilege.’
And, in a way, Smith was right. This list of people exemplifying ‘unacceptable behaviours’, whether a shocking dj or a maverick cleric, did represent something about contemporary Britain: it showed just how low is the esteem in which the government holds its citizens. All it takes, apparently, is for someone to say something, in this case an invective-filled rant by Savage, and hundreds of people will automatically, unthinkingly act upon it. If that is all that is necessary for a race riot or a spate of homophobic violence, then far from showing ‘the sorts of values and sorts of standards’ we hold in the UK, it reveals their absence. We are barbarians in the making, a powder keg of bigotry just waiting for the shock jock’s spark. If we’re not racist homophobes, then we’re potential victims of racist or homophobic words, wallflowers in need of the state’s protection. Either way, as censor or protector, the state cannot trust the people.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. A ban on unacceptable behaviour, on offensive speakers, is never a testament to the strength of a society’s norms and values. It is always its opposite, a sign of weakness. Indeed, how weak must the British establishment be that it fears that a few utterances from a really rude dj might cause ‘inter-community tension or even violence’. If the government really believes in the strength of the values and standards it would like Britain to hold dear, why are a few people with dissenting, sometimes offensive views deemed such a problem?
It is precisely when speech is offensive that its freedom needs to be defended. This is not to give the okay to violent attacks on Muslims, homosexuals, or any other constituency the Home Office deems is at risk. And that’s because actions – actions which, in the case of killing or beating people up, have long been illegal – are not the same as words and thought. The fact that the government and its cronies in the House of Lords are happy to elide this distinction reveals the disdain with which they view the reasoning abilities of the British public. And that, not the un-PC shtick of Savage, is really shocking.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.