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Timothy Garton-Ash: The spirit of liberty? (Carl-Johan Sveningsson CC BY 2.0)

There is no nobler cause than the freedom of the press; but the more absolute that freedom is, the more ignoble may be the motives of those who avail themselves of it. It is a misunderstanding of the concept of liberty to suppose that the only people worthy of it are those who use it for unselfish purposes. The right to write and publish with impunity, like any other freedom, also entails the right to abuse that freedom. Otherwise it is not a right, but a privilege that may be arbitrarily withdrawn. A free press means not only the right to inform, to educate and to entertain, but to offend, to pry and to titillate, or it means nothing at all.

The unedifying nature of much of what a genuinely free press publishes is a problem for high-minded liberal bien pensants, who are inclined to see the protestations of the press in its own defence as rank hypocrisy. One of the most influential and distinguished representatives of this camp is Timothy Garton Ash. (Full disclosure: he is one of my oldest friends.) Besides being a prominent academic at Oxford and Stanford, Garton Ash is a regular contributor to the Guardian and the New York Review of Books, having made his name as a reporter in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War. Elsewhere in this issue, David Herman pays tribute to the disciples of Isaiah Berlin, including Garton Ash; and in a substantial new book, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (Atlantic, £20), Garton Ash sets out what might be called his Ten Commandments, citing Berlin as one of his “spirits of liberty”.

The book is comprehensive, informative and inoffensive. That is the problem. A book that sets out to defend free speech in the 21st century must be frank about where the threats to it are coming from, even if that causes offence. Garton Ash does admit that “for Western societies, Muslim violent intimidation has been in a class of its own.” However, this cardinal fact is lost in hundreds of pages devoted to other aspects of the subject: all interesting and important, no doubt, but beside the point. Though he describes himself as “an atheist and liberal secularist”, he also concedes that in the past he has argued “that Muslim reformers were more likely to sway more Muslims towards accepting the basic terms of coexistence in a liberal society and secular state than were ex-Muslims”.

This bland statement glosses over what a decade ago was a highly controversial matter. In a review essay for the New York Review of Books in 2006, Garton Ash expressed admiration for the “moderation” of Tariq Ramadan, an academic closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, while slighting the ex-Muslim writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali as “a brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist”. He added: “It is no disrespect to Ms. Ali to suggest that if she had been short, squat, and squinting, her story and views might not be so closely attended to.” Not content with equating her courageous witness with her fundamentalist oppressors, Garton Ash belittled her as a woman by suggesting that her looks were more important than her intellect. This was at a time when Hirsi Ali was being hounded out of Europe by Islamist death threats and official cowardice. In his new book, Garton Ash does not acknowledge his own part in one of the most shameful episodes in the recent history of free speech. I am at a loss to explain my friend’s silence. All he had to do was to admit his error. To err is human. Only popes are infallible.

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