Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Voltaire goes to prison (and others should be next)


First there is this from The History Channel website:

Writer Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, is imprisoned in the Bastille on this day in 1717.

The outspoken writer was born to middle-class parents, attended college in Paris, and began to study law. However, he quit law to become a playwright and made a name for himself with classical tragedies. Critics embraced his epic poem, La Henriade, but its satirical attack on politics and religion infuriated the government, and Voltaire was arrested in 1717. He spent nearly a year in the Bastille.

Voltaire’s time in prison failed to dry up his satirical pen. In 1726, he was forced to flee to England. He returned several years later and continued to write plays. In 1734, his Lettres Philosophiques criticized established religions and political institutions, and he was forced to flee again. He retreated to the region of Champagne, where he lived with his mistress and patroness, Madame du Chatelet. In 1750, he moved to Berlin on the invitation of Frederick II of Prussia and later settled in Switzerland, where he wrote his best-known work, Candide. He died in Paris in 1778, having returned to supervise the production of one of his plays.

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And there is this personal postscript:

I'm sure there is more to the story than is hinted at in this brief article (i.e., the reasons for Voltaire's imprisonment), and I will be taking some time to further research the incident, but taking the story at face value for the moment, I am not surprised that writers in the past could be (should be?) imprisoned for running afoul of  governments.

However, I begin to wonder if such an event -- the imprisonment of writers (including journalists and others) because of their offense(s) against government/society -- would either be possible or desirable in our 21st century world. There is an easy knee-jerk answer many people might throw out there, especially since we in the United States have a "freedom of speech" obsession, but I think the really useful and accurate answers are more nuanced and complicated. After all, for one example, in this era of WikiLeaks, "fake-news," public utterances, and other indiscretions, some people including writers, so-called print and media "journalists," editors of Internet sites," politicians, public figures, and others can (and do) cause serious damage to government/society.

Note: I am very sensitive to this issue, especially since a portion of my U.S. Navy career involved the protection of highly classified materials, equipment, and information. If I had failed to perform my duties or if I had run afoul of government rules and regulations, I could not have claimed immunity from prosecution because of accident, ignorance, good intentions, patriotism, or "freedom of speech" concepts, and I would have been imprisoned for a long time.

So, I ask you to think about this issue, and I invite you to respond to this provocative question: Do we now have any writers (or others) who ought to be imprisoned?



26 comments:

  1. You raise such an important, and, yes, nuanced, subject, Tim. On the one hand, freedom of expression is an important right. If we start to imprison or punish people for publishing things, this sets an extremely dangerous precedent.

    That said, though, I agree that there are such things as highly classified pieces of information that are classified with good reason. And there are such things as slander and libel. All of this to say that there are some things that should not be published. What's the dividing line? I wouldn't want to be responsible for establishing that. But there is one.

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    1. Margot, I fear that some good words and thoughts are in jeopardy, but dangerous words and thoughts are being celebrated. I could offer specific examples, but any observers of current events will find their own examples.

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  2. Tim,

    Do you see any difference between outright lies and unpopular opinions?

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    1. Yes, Fred, I see a distinction. One can have opinions about anything. Facts, of course, can change. Lies are something else again. Fiction writers,,for example, often lie in order to tell the truth; journalists should never lie but they do; and, of course, politicians are in a different world of their own regarding opinions, facts, and lies. My posting leads me to wonder what governments should or should not do about opinions, facts, lies, etc. It is a slippery slope, isn't it?

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    2. Fred, here is Frank's take on Voltaire.
      https://booksinq.blogspot.com/2017/05/writer-in-trouble.html#comment-form

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    3. Tim,

      Was Voltaire right? Was there incest? Is there a difference between libel or a lie and voicing an unpleasant fact?

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    4. Don't know, Fred. I'll look into it.

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    5. "Was Voltaire right?" Consider this:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippe_II,_Duke_of_Orl%C3%A9ans

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  3. "Slippery slope" hits the nail on the head... I couldn't begin to venture an opinion on this subject-not knowing much about it... Voltaire was certainly a fascinating fellow: it's remarkable he was able to carry on in such a repressive regime... His "Devils Dictionary" is lots of fun...

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    1. Mudpuddle, he lived an interesting life in interesting times!

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    2. "Devil's Dictionary" by Voltaire? I have heard of one by Ambrose Bierce.

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    3. Tim: I think I got the name wrong... But it's just like Bierces with the satiric definitions and all...

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  4. Tim,

    Should a person who holds an unpopular opinion be treated the same way as someone who lies?

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    1. Fred, I guess opinions cannot be limited, and maybe lies should be, but who decides upon the limitations and sanctions? Difficulties abound. I have been appalled by recent muzzling of conservative voices on campuses and elsewhere. But maybe that is a different issue.

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    2. Tim,

      That's the problem with limiting opinions. Who should be the judge? I too am appalled by any sort of censorship of opinions--be they liberal or conservative.

      I think the courts are the best way to deal with lies, not suppression beforehand, regardless of how unpleasant the lies are. Trump has a perfect right to demonstrate his stupidity, and that's one of the benefits of freedom of speech. Now we know what he really is.

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    3. Fred, your opinions about President Trump ironically illustrate the issues. In any case, whether or not courts can/should deal with lies depends upon the laws, and there we run into problems when we have laws for or against truths or lies. If the wrong people are given the power to make laws and adjudicate "crimes" in courts, then things fall apart, the center will not hold, and the beast slouches along unimpeded. (Hat tip to Yeats!)

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    4. Tim,

      That's why we have a government of checks and balances. But, no human devised system is perfect, so we have the problem today where the legislature is unwilling (Republicans) to put a check on Trump.

      Perhaps the voters will make their voices heard in the upcoming election.

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    5. Fred, voters, like political leaders, can make mistakes; thus, democracy has its flaws, but most flaws are survivable whereas death, I surmise, is not.

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    6. Tim,

      No argument there. That's why I'm against the death penalty.

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    7. Fred, I'll leave the death penalty discussion for another time. However, I will say that I am very much opposed to capital punishment. I live in a strange neck of the woods wherein many people are rabidly opposed to abortion and rabidly in favor of capital punishment; I am the opposite of those people. I'm off now to research capital punishment issues.

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    8. OMG! I misrepresented myself! I agree with those folks about abortion but opposed them on capital punishment. In other words, I'm against the death of other human beings. Yikes! What a mistake I made in my previous statement! I hope I've cleared up that issue. Now I will let it drop while I move on to other matters.

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    9. Tim,

      I understand. The death penalty and abortion are two very complex and highly emotional issues. I try to avoid discussions on either, beyond stating my opinion and leaving it at that.

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  5. I'm against the suppression of free speech, but I also contend that suppression is already being violated when mainstream media shows only one side of an issue, which it largely does, and as you also mentioned conservative voices are censured and censored on college campuses.

    Not only conservative speakers but also conservative teachers. Why are over 80% of teachers at universities liberal?

    And how are they teaching? Are the encouraging the free expression of ideas or are they threatening their students with a bad grade if they don't write papers or form conclusions that conform to left wing ideology?

    Having a niece and a son in college right now I happen to know the answer to that.

    It's ironic to me that some people decry Trump as this great oppressor when it was Hilary that was calling people names such as "deplorables" "haters" and "phobes" because they disagree with her beliefs.

    She was the one promising to change the constitution to restrict religious freedom under the guise of outlawing "hate speech".

    In Canada preachers can go to jail for saying the wrong thing from their pulpit.

    I guess it's all in the words you choose to describe censorship. If you're making a "value judgement" in order to prevent "bad people" from speaking then it's OK, because you're preventing a "hate crime". It's all in the rhetoric as George Orwell pointed out.

    Well, I've been antagonistic but I wrote it because, frankly, I'm afraid to write what I just said because it's so unpopular. See? Our culture encourages us to censor ourselves for fear of back lash.

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  6. Sharon, thanks for your response. I didn't know that about Canada. I'll respond more later. Gotta run now for the evening.

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  7. For what it is worth, my home country, the Philippines, has a very high rate of murder of journalists

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    1. Is that still a problem there, Mel?

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