"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Infamous ‘Anti-Islamic’ Video And Free Speech

I have always been a defender of free speech and cringe every time someone posits a ‘good’ excuse for limiting it.  In these days of Political Correctness free speech has been under assault like never before.  More attention is being paid to protecting the so-called ‘rights’ of those offended by free speech than in protecting the speaker. 

The recent ‘anti-Islamic’ video is a case in point.  Despite the fact that volumes of scurrilous anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic material is on the Internet; and the fact that even the most faithful dismiss it immediately as a product of twisted, fringe, and imbalanced people, calls for the suppression of this particular video are increasing simply because the reactions to it have been politically damaging.

This is wrong.  Since the video, taken in the context of its equally offensive cyber-mates, is no worse than most; and since we do not drag the mates into court, then why are we collapsing so pusillanimously?  In other words, we have defended free speech in all other similar cases; but we are considering cracking down on it now simply because the reaction it caused was politically destabilizing. However, it is the reaction that is contemptible, not the video.

Free speech is one of the foundational principles of our Republic and was not so enshrined because the Founding Fathers had only the speaker in mind, but because society as a whole would benefit from it.  If free speech were curtailed in any way, concentration of power would surely result.  Such concentration would eventually cause civil unrest and instability, consequences far worse than any potentially offending speech.

Free speech is an important democratic principle not only because it acts as a countervailing force against the arrogation of power, but because it promotes a more honest, transparent, and accountable society.  Political cartoons are good examples of this principle, for in a few brush strokes the artist is able to pillory obtuseness, pomposity, and outrageous positions whether political, social, or religious.  The caricatures are often cruel and unforgiving, but the reader and the person pilloried both  get the point. 

The Danish cartoons may have cut close to the bone, given the incendiary nature of religion today, but were clearly satirical and on-point.  Religion is a legitimate target especially when it becomes political, and it always does.  In the United States Christian churches have become embroiled in electoral politics.  Jewish history and religion are inextricably linked to events in the modern-day Middle East.  Representatives of these religions will of course cry foul when attacked, but they will get over it, and maybe get the point.

Is there a line across which free speech is not acceptable?  I cannot see one, especially if one considers the larger context in which speech is uttered.  That is, while any one particular speech might be unnecessarily brutal and devised more to damage than to enlighten, when it is taken as part of a range of expression whose targets come and go with time, its content and intent will fade, will be subsumed and lost within the larger mainstream of ideas.

Of course there are limitations on free speech all the time, many of which are legitimate in intent, but illegitimate in application. Protecting national security is in the country’s interest, but it is too often used to muzzle dissent.  Corporate confidentiality agreements have a legitimate purpose in protecting innovative ideas which are in their infancy, but are often used as paranoiac threats to insulate corporations from their critics. Fortunately there are now ‘whistle-blower’ laws which protect employees if they choose to expose illegal or unsavory doings on the part of their employers.

The anti-Islamic video affair has taken a new and nasty turn, for the producer has been taken into custody not for the video but for violating parole, one of the conditions of which was not to use the Internet except under official supervision.  The video producer had been convicted of bank fraud, and obviously the parole restriction was to keep him from dirty financial tricks while he was out of prison.  Officials are now using the production of this video as a flimsy excuse to haul him into court.  This is an obvious political stunt designed to give the Administration a way of showing the Muslim world that we mean business.

It is nothing of the kind.  If exploited as I expect, it will send exactly the wrong message to the world – our adherence to the principles of free speech, and by extension the free flow of information is weakening.  According to BBC online (9.28.12)

The Obama administration has requested Google, the company that owns YouTube, to remove the clip. The technology firm refused, saying the film did not violate its rules.

Good for Google, but shame on Obama for even trying to get the company to pull the video.  By doing so, it admitted its retreat from the principle of free speech.

While I understand the Administration’s desire to make this issue go away, it does no one any service by capitulating to temporal political demands.  Not only that, it has not come out and defended the principle to its attackers.  I have heard no eloquent arguments about why free speech is essential to democracy, why its suppression is antithetical to popular movements, and why religion itself is strengthened by free and diverse expression. I don’t believe the ‘Arab Street’ will listen, but that does not absolve Obama from responsibility.

Not only have I not heard a strong defense of free speech, I have seen the Administration duck and run under the cover of other political explanations for the problems in Egypt and Libya.  While it is undoubtedly true that these revolts have been engineered for political reasons and that thousands of gullible people have been manipulated by power-hungry leaders, there is no reason to totally ignore or forget the issue of free speech.  Moreover, it is exactly the time to raise it.  Again and again.

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