Free Speech, Stupid Movies, and American Values
A group of right-wingers in Southern California put together an amateurish video designed to denigrate Islam. A 14-minute trailer was posted on YouTube in June and got no notice. But when it was dubbed into Arabic and re-posted earlier this month, it enraged Muslims across the Middle East, setting off protests and violence. The results included four Americans killed at our consulate in Benghazi, including the American ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
I have not watched the video, and I probably never will. I’m content to accept the New York Times description of it, including this: “Then it cuts to cartoonish scenes depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a child of uncertain parentage, a buffoon, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child molester and a greedy, bloodthirsty thug.”
The American embassy issued a statement, intended to calm tensions, characterizing the video as an “abuse [of] the universal right of free speech.” Mitt Romney condemned that statement, which he attributed to President Obama; he said that Obama’s first reaction to the murder of four Americans was “apology for America’s values.”
First, let’s get our facts right: the American embassy in Cairo issued its statement condemning the now-famous anti-Islam video before the murder of four Americans in Benghazi, not after. Mitt Romney’s contention that President Obama’s first reaction to the killing of Americans in Libya was to condemn the video rather than to condemn the killers was a concoction. Facts may be stubborn things, but facts seem to have met their match in the Romney campaign, which has dismayingly little regard for them.
Next let’s talk about American values. Romney says that making an anti-Islamic video is “free speech,” and therefore condemning the video amounts to “apologizing for American values.”
We can presumably all agree that free speech is an American value. But the constitutional guarantee of free speech does not magically transform every exercise of free speech rights into a pearl of wisdom. The constitutional guarantee of free speech means that government cannot suppress speech; the fact that speech is free in no way means that speech is exempt from criticism, from the government or from anyone else.
One illustration should suffice to demonstrate the point. Let’s say the wing-nuts who made the anti-Islamic video in question had instead made an equally wing-nutty anti-Christian video. Let’s say that Jesus had been portrayed as “a child of uncertain parentage, a buffoon, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child molester and a greedy, bloodthirsty thug.” Would criticism of such a video provoke Romney to condemn the critic for “apologizing for American values”? Obviously not.
Of course free speech is an American value. But respect for other people’s religions is also an American value. Ridiculing other people’s religions is deeply provocative. You might expect an American Mormon to understand that intuitively, since Mormons have been subjected to some pretty harsh treatment over the last couple of centuries, on account of their being Mormons.
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Which brings me to the rioters in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Iran. When some American extremists made a stupid video ridiculing Islam, the reaction of at least some people in those countries was to schlep to the nearest American embassy (or, in the case of Iran, the Swiss embassy, since there is no U.S. embassy in Iran), and start throwing things. It is as if they think that if one American has said a thing, then all Americans agree with that thing. It is as if they have no concept of individual expression. It is as if they have no concept of free speech.
It seems to me that creating concepts of free speech, of individual expression, of a marketplace of ideas, is really important just now, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Libya, Egypt and Yemen have all overthrown dictators, but what comes next is very much in question. Salafi extremists, moderate Islamists, and pro-democratic liberals are competing for power and allegiance. The outcome is hanging very precariously in the balance.
I hope we can agree that American values favor the pro-democratic liberals to the moderate Islamists, and the moderate Islamists to the Salafis. If we can agree on that, then we can presumably agree that we must calibrate our actions, and our words, to enhance the prospects of the liberals and not to enhance the prospects of the Salafis.
There is reason to believe that extremists incited the anti-American violence in the Middle East. It is a certainty that extremists will seek to exploit it. Turning the incident into a war against Islam, rhetorical or otherwise, is exactly what not to do. Our response must be measured and deliberate, and stripped of any possible anti-Muslim inference.
Mitt Romney was so eager to condemn President Obama that he disregarded the potentially inflammatory consequences of his remarks. He gave no thought to the Americans working for democratic reform in the Middle East, whose lives his comments may have put in additional danger. He gave no thought to undermining American foreign policy by undercutting a sitting President and Commander-in-Chief. Mitt Romney was so eager to condemn President Obama that he broke a September 11 campaign truce.
Those are not American values.