Further thoughts on Free Speech

Why are Americans (in particular) so attached to free speech, even repugnant free speech? Why is the first item in our Bill of Rights (i.e. the First Amendment to our Constitution) devoted to its protection? Our strong defense of free speech rests largely, in my view, on three beliefs held by most Americans.

The first is that it is our right and our responsibility to decide for ourselves what to read, view or listen to. We turn to ourselves and our families first and to our communities and our government second and third for most things. No one is absolutely self-reliant (even Robinson Crusoe had his man Friday), but Americans have historically been more self-reliant than most any other people. We trust our own judgment more than that of a public morality police. Though we often turn to trusted advisors in our churches or communities for guidance, we choose whose guidance we respect. No one has a stronger interest in our getting it right than we do ourselves. I don’t buy the paternalistic argument of some “do gooders” that the poor or uneducated just don’t care.

The second belief, born of centuries of experience and accumulated evidence, is that government power is always in danger of being corrupted to the service of those in power if not carefully checked and balanced. If government had the power to control what we heard, it would, sooner or later, be abused. If government is able to filter what we see and hear, it will not be able to resist filtering out information inconvenient to or critical of itself.

The third belief is that competition in ideas and information as well as in the provision of goods and services will reward the truth and drive out falsehood. This issue of discovering the truth is complicated. These days anyone can say anything and post it on the Internet. However, it doesn’t generally take long for the truth to crowed out lies (the claims that Ambassador Stevens body had been sodomized or that American Embassy Marine guards did not have live ammunition come to mind). To the extent that we trust the statements of our government it is only because we know that we (and the press) are free to contradict it if we have contrary evidence.

Our strong defense of free speech does not obligate us to defend the content of that speech. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “’both the mentality and the organization behind this movie and those perpetrating terrorist actions exploiting Islamic symbols and discourse’ were equally to be condemned.” (The Washington Post “Anti US fury widens in Muslim world” 15/9/2012). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the offending video “disgusting and reprehensible.” She was right to say so, though I found the film merely pathetic.  We defend the right of the cretins who made this film to make it and to show it where ever they can convince some company or person to do so while also defending our right to denounce it.

This brings us to the “Muslim” reaction to the film. Many Muslims around the world have complained loudly about pictures or films that denigrate Mohammed, as do many Christians when pictures or films denigrate Jesus. That is simply an exercise of free speech. But what about demonstrations at American Embassies? “The right of the people peaceably to assemble,” is merely one of the means of exercising free speech and is also protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution.

Attacking our Embassies and their officials and employees is quite another matter. Muslims are wrong to do this and their governments should not allow it. I hope that you stumbled at my broad brushed attribution of this violence to “Muslims”.  If you didn’t you should have. Muslims did not kill four Americans in Benghazi or set various American properties on fire in several countries. “It is no more accurate to condemn the Muslim world for the atrocities of a relative few than it is to indict America because one lowbrow decides to upload a lousy flick that nobody otherwise would watch or even know about.” (Kathleen Parker, “In Libya and America-imbeciles affecting foreign policy” 14/9/2012.) Individuals did these things, each with their own motives. What drew people to these demonstrations? Who are they and what are their goals? In Benghazi, the murderers may have been al-Qaeda linked. The attacks in Egypt were primarily lead by hard line Islamists groups against the somewhat more tolerant and moderate new government of the Muslim Brotherhood. (David Ignatius, “Cairo and Libya attacks point to radicals jockeying for power” The Washington Post 12/9/2012)

Not everyone in the world understands or accepts our strong commitment to free speech. Our self-interest calls for us to carefully explain to the rest of the world its value and importance for the kind of societies that respect individuals that we want to live in.

American Values and Foreign Policy

One of America’s values and traditions is standing together in the face of foreign attack or challenge. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has violated that tradition by attacking the statements of the American Embassy in Egypt’s condemnation of an anti-Muslim film made in California: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

Following news on September 11 of American casualties at an American consulate in Libya, Romney’s foreign policy advisers recommended that he speak out against the government’s apologies. He issued the following statement:

“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

The next day Romney pressed his attack further, saying that, “I think it’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values, that instead when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. An apology for America’s values is never the right course.”

Romney was apparently not aware that the American Embassy’s statement on September 11 had been issued before the tragic death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Libya. Christopher Stevens was a fraternity brother of mine from the ATO house in Berkeley, though we were not there at the same time and I have never met him. President Obama in fact condemned the killings and according to the Washington Post: “unnamed White House officials told news outlets later Tuesday night that the [Egyptian] embassy statement did not reflect U.S. government views.” That is a pity because it does reflect American values and should reflect U.S. government policy.

Since neither Romney nor Obama seem to understand what American values are in this context, I am volunteering a refresher course.

We believe passionately in free speech and tolerance of the views of others. This is far from accepting anything someone might say. It is hardly the same thing as condoning insulting or ignorant things people sometimes say. Sam Bacile’s “The Muhammad Movie” is crude and disgusting. It deserves to be condemned and the Egyptian Embassy was quite right to apologize for it. Terry Jones, the hate mongering, Koran burning, so-called Christian minister in rural Florida has been promoting the film. Real Christians should condemn him, while at the same time acknowledge his right to state his twisted views.

Our values were reflected, for example, when many Christians complained that Andres Serrano had received $15,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts (a government agency) for his photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass of urine without questioning the artists right (at his own expense) to do such things. Although the artwork was condemned by many as an affront to Christians, mobs did not storm the gallery that planned to show it nor the NEA. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is one of the few to get the balance about right: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/post/hillary-clinton-speaks-out-for-the-same-american-values-upheld-in-retracted-embassy-statement/2012/09/13/ccbf05f2-fdd6-11e1-b153-218509a954e1_blog.html

Standing together in the face of foreign attacks does not mean that we cannot or should not criticize foreign policies that we think do not service the best interests of our country.  But wise and thoughtful people know when the timing is right for such serious discussion. The present moment of grieving for our lost brothers and sisters is not a time for divisive political maneuvering. Romney’s foreign policy advisers have given him bad advise before (think Israel/Palestine. See my earlier blog: https://wcoats.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/romney-on-culture/). Romney should fire them.