While it may fashionable to believe America's civil liberties have been sacrificed in the name of dubious national security claims, a careful reading of recent history suggests the opposite is true, Victor Davis Hanson told a gathering of fellow conservatives last week.
Hanson, a nationally syndicated columnist, author and senior fellow with the Hoover Institution, addressed colleagues and supporters gathered together at the Kennedy Center last Thursday for the 2008 Bradley Prizes. He was among four new recipients.
Preachers, authors and filmmakers continue to ply their trade in an unfettered fashion, even as the embrace provocative, incendiary and often tasteless material, Hanson observed in his remarks.
The threat to freedom of expression in contemporary times comes not from government censorship, but instead stems from "the tyranny of good intentions" coupled together with an unwillingness to exercise moral judgment, he argued.
In response to those in the media and elsewhere who incessantly warn against renegade government officials restricting speech rights Hanson implored listeners to stop and "think for a minute."
"Is a western religious figure more in danger in this time of war of losing the right of free expression by publicly invoking God to damn the U.S. to his audience, or in simply and calmly referencing the historical relationship between Islam and Christianity such as Pope Benedict's quotation of a 14th Century Byzantine letter to the leaders of the Ottoman Empire?" he asked.
To further prove his point about exaggerated claims of an assault on civil liberties Hanson also referenced Gabriel Range's "Death of a President," a feature length film envisioning the assassination of President Bush, and "Checkpoint" a novel by Nicholson Baker, which involves two characters who contemplate the assassination of Bush.
"I raise these contrasts not to suggest that we should censor poor taste in a free society but simply to remind us again that the latest enemy of freedom of expression is not government statute... it is the tyranny of good intentions," he explained.
Throughout modern society there is a certain reticence to describe reality in unapologetic terms as a consequence of the moral relativism that now holds sway, Hanson observed.
Other recipients touch on the need for economic and cultural renewal.
Gary Becker, a professor of economics and sociology at the University of Chicago, called for a school voucher program that would open the way to greater competition in the nation's K-12 system. School choice would help to improve the quality for education for young people who are being "shortchanged" by the current system, he argued.
Unfortunately, it takes time for the right ideas to win out but "despair is never an option" Alan Charles Kors, a noted author and scholar told audience members. Over 60 years ago in the midst of a one sided public debate about the merits of "various collectivisms" one voice broke through the wilderness, Kors reminded listeners.
Friedrich Von Hayek's "Road to Serfdom" started a new discussion and "planted the seeds" for greater individual liberty that ultimately won out over time Kors pointed out. Today, even as the "intellectual class" seeks to "discredit and cheapen" the very institutions that make its own freedom possible, history suggests reality will win out against "moral self delusion," over time he said.
Kors is the co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the co-author of "The Shadow University."
The final recipient of the evening interweaved biblical references into his remarks to drive home the importance of faith-based initiatives that fill gap between individuals and government.
Robert Woodson is a former civil rights activist and founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Although conservatives correctly point to the policy failures connected with the "War on Poverty," they need to move beyond simply calling for budget cuts and more free enterprise, Woodson suggested.
Instead, there should be a greater emphasis and attention devoted to "social entrepreneurs" who serve as witnesses to young people living in "toxic environments," he said.
The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation Prizes were established to celebrate and recognize the achievements and contributsion of individuals who help to strengthen democratic capitalism and foster the principles of limited government.