November 14, 2015
I think there are many subjects that are taboo for most people for more or less the same reason. They do not dare to express their dissent because they will be publicly insulted, shouted down, anathematized, demonized, banned from speaking or writing in many places, identified solely by their one opinion, and so forth. This is not the same as being sent to the gulag, of course, and I don”t want to exaggerate; but when enough subjects become taboo”and I could name many”one feels no longer free. On the contrary, one is always walking on eggshells because there are so many fragile people around: fragile, that is, with regard to taking offense, but extremely aggressive with regard to attacking those who offend them.
That is why, when someone like Mr. Berlusconi comes along and advises the people of the town of Aquila who were made homeless by an earthquake to regard their homelessness as a kind of camping holiday, we laugh with a kind of guilty relief, though it was an exceptionally heartless thing to say, because we who are not monomaniacs have been reduced for so long to the expression of anodyne truisms that can offend no one.
There have always been monomaniacs, of course, but harmless ones who did not seek the public arena and practiced their obsession in private without bothering anyone. They were even useful, inasmuch as they often added to scholarship and knowledge. I admire those who can devote themselves to, for example, the taxonomy of beetles. They do no harm and add to knowledge; they display a constancy of purpose that I know could never be mine.
But nowadays, monomaniacs do not confine themselves to the taxonomy of beetles and the like; many of them are ideological in nature. After the demise of the Soviet Union, which destroyed faith in or the attraction of Marxism despite the fact that many Marxists had long disclaimed the Soviet Union as “truly” Marxist (I remember a book published in Italian by a psychoanalyst that was written to help Italian communists get over the loss of their love object), I thought there would be a decrease in ideological modes of thinking, but I was wrong. Instead there was merely a balkanization of it, with everyone selecting his particular small ideology to be fanatical about and to give meaning to his life. And this turned out to be more effective in limiting debate than the mere Marxists had ever been in the West.
In other words, the downfall of the Soviet Union was a disaster for freedom of expression in the Western world. Not only did it deprive the West of a powerful example of unfreedom self-evidently not to be imitated, but it freed the enemies of freedom in Western societies to kill freedom by a thousand cuts rather than by a single blow.