A couple of weeks ago the indispensable and insufferable Ezra Levant was given a Sappho Award by a Danish organization called, in English, The Free Press Society. The Society proclaims Sappho to be the Muse of Free Speech, although in practice they seem to be employing her more as the Muse of Speech that Irritates Muslims.
Levant received his Sappho Award for publishing supposedly blasphemous cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed in the Western Standard magazine, which is now basically defunct, and then standing up to the Alberta Human Rights Commission when it tried to rake him over the coals for having done so.
The entire apparatus was mobilized against Ezra Levant. Later he found out that the commission had spent 900 days and secured the services of no less than 15 government employees to prepare the case against him.
When Ezra Levant contacted his lawyer, he was told that faced with the might of the human rights commission, most people give up, pay up and apologize.
Nobody had ever been acquitted after being accused of a human rights violation.
Ezra Levant could have chosen to cave in. He did the opposite: The human rights commission would get all the opposition he could muster.
And good for Levant, in my opinion. The man is apparently combative to the point of viciousness, prone to making political disagreements personal and setting out to discredit his opponents rather than merely defeat them in the arena of public debate. In hindsight, however, that level of bloody-mindedness may have been a prerequisite for his moderately successful, ah, jihad against Canada’s Human Rights Commissions. The struggle to say and write what we please is a noble one, and particularly important to atheists given our tendency to challenge religion. If we don’t want to leave the fight to raucous provocateurs like Levant, then we’d better be prepared to get in there ourselves. Section 13 of the Human Rights Act, traditionally the most prominent justification for assaults on free expression in Canada, was blessedly repealed, but pernicious restrictions remain in effect at the provincial level and within the criminal code.
The appointment of Sappho as Muse of Free Speech deserves a moment’s thought. Free Speech doesn’t fit in all that well with History, Comedy, Astronomy and the other traditional concerns of the Muses, but perhaps a Muse of Free Speech is currently needed as a rallying point in both Canada and Denmark, and in many other places. My real discomfort lies in the fact that I’m not sure how well Sappho fits the bill. Given that she was a poet, her role was surely to be inspired by muses, rather than to be a muse herself. Even setting that aside, her work is not especially graphic. Despite the fact that her Lesbian poems sometimes have lesbian overtones, I don’t know of any clear evidence that they were ever censored, though the copyists that preserved many ancient works certainly seem to have neglected hers. Fortunately, some lovely bits have survived, including a couple of very recently discovered ones.
If we need a Muse of Free Speech, perhaps one good prospect would be the turn-of-the-last-century English aristocrat Ottoline Morrell. By all accounts she inspired a number of literary portrayals, including one or two by D. H. Lawrence that ran into genuine problems with the censors. Do any other candidates come to mind?