17 November 2016
It is forbidden to forbid thought, except for the thought of forbidding a thought.
Every year, it seems Russia and its friends in the United Nations general assembly, whose votes are non-binding, try to embarrass the U.S. by trotting out a resolution recommending a ban on Nazi or neo-Nazi expression. The embarrassment presumably is unwitting, since the U.S. is unapologetic about voting against the resolution every time. Those who think the worst of Donald Trump might expect his UN ambassador to vote this way, but it's been an annual event already under Barack Obama. The usual excuse is our American belief in freedom of speech, but in recent years, it seems, our opposition has been all about Ukraine. That country is one of only two that joined the U.S. in opposing the resolution this year. The idea behind this is that Ukraine today celebrates nationalist leaders of the past who inevitably were anti-Russian. When we get to World War II, this inevitably means that some Ukrainians idolize Nazi collaborators, if not outright Nazis. Russians are rather sensitive on this issue, and to listen to them sometimes you'd think that anyone who didn't like Russians was some sort of Nazi. From the Ukrainophilic perspective in the U.S., the anti-Nazi resolution now looks like an excuse to suppress or at least discredit Ukrainian nationalism, but Americans have never really needed the Ukrainian excuse to oppose the idea of criminalizing Nazism. You would think that of all the thoughts ever thought, those of Adolf Hitler are thoughts that don't need to be debated every generation, yet I'm sure someone will tell you that banning Nazi expression outright would only lend Hitler's thought the dreaded allure of the forbidden. Someone else might tell you that banning Nazism might seem like a no-brainer, but would only start us on some slippery slope to more widespread and indiscriminate censorship. You can probably play out all the arguments in your own heads. In this country a guilty idea is like an endangered species; no matter how dubious its value, many here can't bear to see any idea die, and definitely don't want to see any killed. That attitude may handicap us at home in some ways, and it definitely makes us look bad to the rest of the world. But wouldn't it be amusing if that great boor Trump, given his presumed indifference to Ukraine and its beef with Russia, instructed his ambassador to vote with the great majority on this question the next time it came around? Sure, it might be funny, but it would probably also further convince a lot of people here of his contempt for the First Amendment. That would be funny, too, in a grim sort of way.