Free Speech, the Old South African Flag, and Defending Scoundrels

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In a rarity for the South African media landscape, a debate was recently held on whether or not the old South African flag should be banned, moderated by, of all people, Eusebius McKaiser on his eponymous Radio 702/Cape Talk show. The two figures arguing for and against the banning were Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Sello Hatang and AfriForum’s Deputy CEO Ernst Roets, respectively, who will be on opposing sides in an Equality Court case on the matter to be heard at the end of April. All too predictably, the virulently anti-white racist McKaiser, who promotes black victimhood and condemns “white supremacy” on a virtually daily basis, while expressing open support for race-based social engineering and state censorship, is eager to see the flag banned and adopted typically specious argumentation to support his position. Roets presented some compelling arguments against banning this contested symbol, but far too many crucial ones went either completely unmentioned, or were insufficiently explored. To remedy these elisions, this essay will attempt to present a few arguments for why the former flag should remain in the realm of the legal.

As ever with issues pertaining to attempted government censorship, the fundamental principle of free speech necessarily comes immediately to the fore. Free expression, as has often been noted, is a critically essential value to any democratic society, one around which virtually all other values revolve. Conversely, whenever the state attempts to curtail freedom of expression, individual liberty is concomitantly compromised. That this was only mentioned in passing in the radio debate is highly surprising, but had this principle been more forcefully defended by Roets, one suspects old Eusebius the pseudo-intellectual pseudo-liberal, but bona fide racist, would have found himself in some measure of trouble.

In a brief necessary aside, it might not be immediately obvious why the use of a flag appertains to free speech, but the American example provides some important clarification. There has been for years now controversy over whether burning the Stars and Stripes is covered by the Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech. After legal battles that went to the Supreme Court on repeated occasions, the case of United States v. Eichman in 1990 ruled that burning the American flag qualified as protected free speech under the United States Constitution. This issue may be jurisprudentially settled, but among the American public it remains a hot-button culture war battleground.

For instance, Donald Trump tweeted in late 2016, after winning the presidential election, that “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag,” adding that if anyone were to do so they should either lose their citizenship or spend a year in jail. One should perhaps not expect anything less from this neo-fascist goon who loves appealing to the worst instincts among his loathesomely cretinous far-right “base” of authoritarian cultists, though adopting a similar posture hardly puts someone in the best company.

Moving to the character of the state intent on outlawing a symbol it deems anathema, the problems with the proposed banning come into even clearer focus. The ANC government has over the last three years moved aggressively to stamp out and punish “racist” speech, aided and abetted by a cravenly complicit politically correct media complex, with some of its greatest “hits” including the bankrupting of real estate agent Penny Sparrow for calling a group of unruly black beachgoers “monkeys,” and, most notoriously, jailing Vicky Momberg for a racist tirade in which she repeatedly called a black policeman the k-word, in the process creating a new legal category of “convicted racist.”

Strangely, however, the ANC has been far more lenient with black people who have made even more obscenely racist utterances, including government employee Velapi Khumalo who wrote on Facebook that he wanted blacks to do to whites what Hitler did to the Jews, and a Major in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) who last year said that an 80-year-old white man who had been brutally assaulted should have also had his eyes and tongue “poked out” (sic). Then there is the perpetually incendiary Julius Malema, leader of the EFF, the third largest party in the National Assembly, who has publicly expressed a wish to “cut the throat of whiteness” and imputed that a genocide of the white minority could be on the cards in the future. He remains unconvicted and free to spew his disgustingly hateful bile, as he did most recently in Newcastle when he told a cheering crowd that he envisions a society where whites are impoverished and work for blacks.

The ANC is not just inconsistent in applying its opprobrium for allegedly racist speech, but is itself an openly racist party that repeatedly demonises whites, often under the guise of the “white monopoly capital” lie, and continues to implement avowedly racist policies, affirmative action being the most obvious example.

As a counter to some of these objections, those supporting a ban on the former flag will point to the offence it generates among the majority non-white population, associated as it purportedly is with racial discrimination and white domination. Setting aside the fact that the flag pre-dates the Apartheid era by some two decades, a key principle for defending free speech is precisely in those instances when a view, or as in this case a symbol, is deeply unpopular and offensive. To say that one respects free speech except with regards to offensive opinions, is not to respect free speech at all. An argument from offence can never be permitted to stand as sufficient justification to undermine the fundamental right to free expression, as then the scope for permissible views would be drastically, if not virtually endlessly, narrowed.

A helpful contribution to this discussion is provided by the self-described “libertarian Marxist,” Brendan O’Neill, who in an interview with David Rubin discussed the attempt by certain left-wing groups in the United States to remove Confederate statues in the Deep South. O’Neill completely rejects this attempt to eradicate monuments because, invoking the American essayist HL Mencken, in the battle against censorious authoritarians, regardless of their ideological stripe, he comes to the defence of scoundrels.

O’Neill does not in any way support the ideology or belief system associated with white ethno-nationalism, or supremacy, in the same way that this writer does not support many of the unsavoury ideas associated with the old South African flag, but he defends the right to express heinous views in the same way that those who wish to display the old flag, for whatever reason, should be permitted to do so. This is a point often obfuscated by the purveyors of doctrinaire political correctness in such debates where a standpoint of permissibility for even the worst kinds of views, rooted in an unapologetic defence of free speech, is equated with an endorsement of such views.

The line attributed to Voltaire, but which he likely never uttered, still best articulates the position that free speech advocates should utilise in defending the speech rights of those holding unpopular and/or offensive views – “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Failure to understand this rather straightforward point is liable to render someone completely nonplussed in any discussion of this sort.

It may at first blush appear odd to choose the proposed ban of the old South African flag as a test case for free speech. As the brief reference to the American flag should have made clear, the use or abuse of such symbols are deeply consequential in any debate on free speech. Within the South African context, there are larger issues at play, some of which have been articulated in the foregoing passages. These include the need to protect as expansive a definition of free speech as possible and the related resistance to any attempts by the state to abridge speech in any of its manifestations.

That the state attempting to arrogate even more speech-regulating power to itself is one as inveterately racist and authoritarian as that currently dominated by the ANC should evoke even greater resistance against yet another blatant expansion of its ability to regulate the lives of citizens. After the government’s highly selective record since 2016 in choosing which individuals to prosecute for purported racism, there can be little doubt that, if past is prologue and reliably repeated behaviour is indicative of someone’s true nature, by raising the issue of banning the old South African flag, the ANC is clearly trying to find yet another way to vilify whites and to deflect attention outward from the numerous crises besetting this incompetent, corrupt, and abjectly criminal organisation.

The last issue of significant consequence in this regard is that free speech’s true significance lies in the protection afforded to unpopular views. On that reading any reference to offensiveness, even if shared by the overwhelming majority of the country, simply does not provide sufficient justification for banning a flag, or any symbol, regardless of how hateful it is widely deemed to be. There is, lastly, even a pragmatic reason to defend scoundrels, because in the future the same mechanism and mindset used against unpopular ideas today could well be turned on those who are now so gleefully cheering on censorship.

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