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On Freedom and the Right to Worship, Geert Wilders Gets Abraham Lincoln Backwards

At an anti-Muslim protest in New York City yesterday, Dutch politician Geert Wilders exercised the right of everybody in the United States — be they citizen or foreigner — to peaceably assemble and to speak freely. Wilders used his First Amendment rights of assembly and speech to argue for the revocation of American Muslims’ First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion:

President Lincoln, he said, and let me quote: “those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”… We will draw a line here today on this sacred ground. We must not give a free hand to those who want to subjugate us.

Either ignorantly or willfully, Wilders misinterprets Abraham Lincoln with his partial quotation. Read Lincoln’s words in context:

The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. And yet they are denied, and evaded, with no small show of success. One dashingly calls them “glittering generalities”; another bluntly calls them “self evident lies”; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to “superior races.”

These expressions, differing in form, are identical in object and effect—the supplanting the principles of free government, and restoring those of classification, caste, and legitimacy. They would delight a convocation of crowned heads, plotting against the people. They are the van-guard—the miners, and sappers—of returning despotism. We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us.

This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves.

Abraham Lincoln’s point was NOT that freedoms should be taken away from people who try to take away the freedom to others. Such an interpretation would lead inevitably to the end of all freedom as the people who righteously took away others’ freedom would have their freedom taken away by someone else, who would then have to surrender their freedom, and so on and so forth. Look to any long-simmering violent clash and you’ll find groups who declare that freedom is for themselves, not that other non-deserving group.

Abraham Lincoln was saying exactly the opposite: that freedom must be for everyone without distinction of race or rank or caste or creed. For Lincoln, the movement to be repulsed is the movement of people who would, for sake of their own self-interest, deny the freedoms of others. “He who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave.” And she who would have religious freedom, must consent to stop censoring other religions.

Geert Wilders is visiting America to insist that some Americans take away other Americans’ rights. He’s within his rights to say that. But when he off-quotes Lincoln to place himself in the pantheon of American patriots, he’s just plain wrong.

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