An Old View on Free Speech, Restated

The assassination of America’s Ambassador to Libya and the storming of the US Embassy in Cairo should remind us that blasphemy, bigotry, and insult, as deplorable as they can be, are the ultimate test of a democracy’s commitment to free speech.

Speech isn’t free at all if we declare that it must reflect the common wisdom, present a noncontroversial stance, or is subject to the political diktat of the State. No, free speech has always been first and foremost about the hard cases, those words and thoughts we despise. I recognize that, among Western peoples, this view might be uniquely American, but that doesn’t mean I hold it to be any less true.

Now, before my initial claim settles into that niche of your brain labeled “cliché,” remember that views we loathe today were often a majority opinion in the past, while those we cherish were sometimes the views of a minority that the State could and often did suppress.

Consider: Free speech is about calling people to Jesus and it is about denying the divinity of Christ. It is about the racist’s venom and it is about the oppressed minority rising in defiance of the oppressor. It is about burning the flag and calling those who burn the flag moral pygmies. It is about others hurting our feelings and us using mockery — not bombs — as our weapon of choice in response. It is, in its most banal modern formulation, the right to be a douchebag and the right to call douchebags douchebags.

There will be those, possibly including some who work at the US Embassy in Cairo, who are ashamed of this aspect of American democracy, who envy Europe’s restrictionist model and argue that the right to speak does not include the right to offend, though they would initially define “offense” to include only the most extreme cases. Yet “offense” is ultimately a subjective measure, and much like Plato’s perfect government, the guardianship of a perfectly “sensitive” government is made impossible by our human failings. What’s more, we should remember that all government power is fungible: the power to “improve” society by censoring speech we deem “hateful” is also the power to “improve” society further by eliminating views the majority simply deems “unhelpful.”

I’m not one for constructing a partisan straw man. President Obama has responded adequately, and Secretary Clinton’s response was better still. Governor Romney has arguably overplayed his political hand during the crisis. But we mustn’t draw the wrong lessons from these attacks. The problem is the violent extremists themselves, not the behavior that “provoked” the violence. To say otherwise is to treat the First Amendment, if not the whole of the US Constitution, the way an apologist for rape treats women wearing short skirts.

Google and China: in the Long Term

This is neither a blog post about Google’s motives for changing its mind about China, nor is it a post about the seeming triumph of Baidu in the world’s fastest growing economy, nor is it a post about the Chinese government’s steadfast denials of hacking or its silly propaganda offensive against Google and the US. Those posts have been written already, both by people with greater interest and greater insight than myself. Instead, I would like to explore the long-term ramifications of the Google-China affair, as well as the implications of the U.S. policy response outlined by Secretary of State Clinton.

First, while domestic IT companies will continue to thrive, both the perception and the reality of Google’s situation will have a negative effect on international IT investment in China. When “inside job” memes start spreading alongside a very public insinuation that the Chinese government aided and abetted IP theft on a vast scale, there can be no question that the end result will be a poisoned business environment for IT companies in China. While companies everywhere will always be open to cyberattack, the added danger of physical access to corporate IT infrastructure will lead many companies to rethink placing datacenters and software labs in China. More disturbing is the possibility that IT companies may come to question the loyalty of Chinese staff in an IT world replay of the Wen Ho Lee affair. (To Chinese friends:  you might want to delete that Communist Party membership you wrote about on your resume.)  Factors such as these may lead IT firms to turn to India instead of China as a hub for their low-cost Asian operations, or to Taiwan or South Korea for more expensive, bandwidth-critical investments.

A second development is that Google will harm its reputation by sending mixed messages about future plans in China. The company’s hard stance has won considerable praise from foreign observers used to watching companies muddy the ethical waters when doing business in China. (When Google said no to Zhongnanhai, one could almost hear the gasps of delight in Washington and Silicon Valley!) Thus it comes as no surprise that when Google starts whittling away at the strength of its initial statements, it leaves many of the company’s fans with a sour taste in their mouths. Google’s investors will be left scratching their heads at how Page and Brin — Google’s tech geniuses — could spearhead such a bold position only to have it talked down by Schmidt — Google’s biz guy — in the weeks that followed.  Even worse, for smaller IT companies Google’s actions beg the question, if, in the end, even Google cannot stand up to China, how on earth can we?

Moving on to the Secretary of State’s speech, the main problem with the U.S. approach is that it wants to sidestep the economic issues involved in Chinese censorship and nationalist hacking and wrap everything up in the guise of human rights. Human rights are important, no doubt, but they were not a sufficient cause for Google’s abrupt policy change regarding China nor are human rights behind, say, IP piracy intrusions at Adobe and other IT firms. Moreover, putting human rights front and center is the old familiar anti-Chinese government narrative, a narrative which, while it may please the ears of Western audiences, will ring false to many Chinese citizens who, as Baidu’s Sun Yunfeng notes, care less about political issues and more about “the most routine information in economy, culture and technology fields.”

While the speech was more a statement of principles than a policy outline, there were a few moments in which Clinton’s statements played into Beijing’s hands. Consider the passage where Secretary Clinton announces U.S. government assistance to develop “circumvention tools”:

We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship. We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages, and with the training they need to access the internet safely. The United States has been assisting in these efforts for some time, with a focus on implementing these programs as efficiently and effectively as possible. Both the American people and nations that censor the internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom.

We want to put these tools in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics, to build global support for President Obama’s goal of a world without nuclear weapons, to encourage sustainable economic development that lifts the people at the bottom up.

As an unstated policy of the United States, this approach would be precisely right — the U.S. should be working to strengthen democratic movements in authoritarian countries. On the other hand, as a stated policy, the United States is giving ammunition to regimes in Beijing (and elsewhere) to label dissidents as pawns of Washington, to stigmatize them as the agents of foreign powers. Although Westerners may find charges such as “information imperialism” laughable, we should not ignore Beijing’s rate of success at making common Chinese distrust any critics deemed to have too many friends in foreign capitals. Furthermore, Washington runs the danger of not only stigmatizing individuals but also technology. If proxy services are explicitly linked to U.S. policies, the Chinese government is all but certain to double their efforts to thwart all software designed to leap over the Great Firewall, and because Beijing exports information control technology to other authoritarian regimes, there’s a danger of the closed Internets everywhere being quickly “immunized” against the tools designed to crack them open.

Lastly, we should always remember that although China itself is not democratic, there are democratic forces at work in the country, and those forces have been increasingly successful at forcing changes in government policy.  Netizens, dissidents, and the Chinese consumer each wield their own forms of democratic power, but Chinese democracy is prickly and resents paternalistic Western interference.  Consequently, Chinese can be vociferous in their criticism of the government so long as that criticism is seen to be genuinely “Chinese” in origin. The best thing that Google can do in the long term is to let the Chinese people, not Washington, say “Don’t Be Evil” to Zhongnanhai.  Despite Baidu’s homefield advantage, Chinese companies are service leaders, not technology leaders.  Google is the number one technology leader, and Chinese consumers can appreciate that fact.  At the same time, the best thing that the West can do in the years ahead is to treat information control technologies like we would nuclear weapons: fight to control the spread of the technology; work to reduce its application, especially in democracies; but ultimately hope that governments can mature to the point where such technologies are seen as archaic and unnecessary.

To Resurrect a Blog

To resurrect a blog, you need:

  1. A nice proxy service* and willingness to run a blog that’s blocked in China** most of the time.
  2. A swanky new layout, courtesy of the WordPress monochrome theme.
  3. An enthusiasm to get back into essay writing.  One can only say much in 140 characters.

In other news, I haven’t used WordPress in ages. I’m mucho impressed with the current interface.  Brilliant use of coding, and so damn good looking.

* Between PaperBus and winning six free months of Freedur, I hope I won’t suffer for lack of a proxy.

** It used to be the case that expats in China avoided having a blocked BSP like the plague, but perhaps having all of Twitter and Facebook shut out by the Great Firewall changed our perceptions.  After all, if not having a VPN is no longer an option in China, then using blocked services becomes more attractive to writers and readers alike.

Against Multicultural Illiberalism

While I’m not really fond of “Muslims on the march” in Europe stories, Christopher Caldwell’s reporting on the subject has always been among the best. His latest article in the Financial Times (h/t Ross Douthat) looks at the ongoing clash between tolerance and liberty in the Netherlands.

Caldwell in brief: Geert Wilders, the right-wing Dutch political gadfly, has proposed making a short film condemning the Koran. The Dutch political establishment, mindful of the violent potential of Islamic extremists, has gone into full panic mode in response to Wilders, bracing for terrorist attacks and even going so far as to encourage Wilders to leave the country. Even as they prepare for the Islamic reaction to Wilders’ hypothetical film, they call on him not to make the film in the first place, revealing the ever-widening gap between liberal ideals and multicultural realities.

As Caldwell observes,

Was Mr Wilders asserting a right to free speech? Or was he dressing up a gratuitous religious insult in constitutional language? He was doing both, of course. In their eagerness to keep Mr Wilders from airing his argument, the Dutch authorities helped make it for him. They were unable to admit that widespread worries about violence stem from a problem (extremism in the Muslim world) and not just from an approach to a problem (Mr Wilders’s brusqueness). At a speech in Madrid, Maxime Verhagen, the foreign minister, said: “It is difficult to anticipate the content of the film, but freedom of expression doesn’t mean the right to offend.” It doesn’t? Well, if it doesn’t, then freedom of expression is not much of a right.

Indeed.

Of course, Europe is not unique in its shrinking away from its liberal roots. America has, for the better part of two decades, experienced the same trend, and rather than upholding a single conservative or liberal standard for discourse, in which we should all be equally respected or equally offended, we have instead established one set of rules for the groups we deem majorities (whites, Europeans, Christians, men), and a different set of rules for groups we deem minorities (blacks, Asians, Muslims, women). Accordingly, a black political activist who rails against whites and preaches anti-Semitism and even encourages his followers to perform acts of violence can be nonetheless embraced by the mainstream political establishment, whereas a white politician who issues an apologetic for a segregationist politician will quickly find himself ostracized by party and country. Similarly, an artist may take a symbol of Christianity and desecrate it in the name of “art” and find support among the cosmopolitan set, but if another artist dares to do the same to a symbol of Islam, he or she will be denied outlets for their free expression.

While this is traditionally called political correctness or identity politics, it has deeper roots in postmodern, Marxist-flavored cant that sees a constant struggle throughout society between the oppressor (the majority) and the oppressed (one or more minorities). For someone who adheres to this philosophy, there is a moral duty to protect minorities from criticism while criticizing the majority. (On a now-defunct blog I called this the left’s obsession with always defending David against Goliath, even in cases where David is the more insidious party.) Though it comes from the left, this multicultural illiberalism, to coin a phrase, is obviously a break from the classical liberalism of a Voltaire or Berlin, which does not discriminate between but rather defends all different kinds of speech, and it is even at odds with the deontological liberalism of Rawls, which would compel us to a single standard of discourse rather than subscribing to the “cafeteria politics” of postmodernism.

What’s more, multicultural illiberalism is a strange mirror of continental conservatism, which after all defended privileged classes (royalists, Germans, Catholics) while condemning out groups (liberals, Jews, Protestants). For instance, take the positions of someone like Joseph de Maistre, reverse where his sympathies lie and you might wind up with a person who sounds a lot like one of Wilders’ critics. But multicultural illiberals have a flaw that authoritarian conservatives do not: whereas a man of the far right will see a natural unity between all groups he supports, the multicultural illiberal is forced into inherently contradictory positions that arise when when one of his “historically oppressed groups” oppresses another “historically oppressed group.” Who, pray tell, should he support?

Islam, naturally, brings many of these contradictions to the forefront. For instance, for decades on, the far left* has been mostly silent about the treatment of gays and women in the Muslim world, either ignoring the problem or choosing to defend Islam at the expense of the other minorities. An anecdote from my college years here: when a woman from a fundamentalist religious party in Turkey came to speak at Florida State, the campus left championed her, condemning Turkey for denying her “rights as a woman and a Muslim” by not allowing her to wear her headscarf in parliament. They did so while ignoring her party’s platform, which encouraged the imposition of sharia law in Turkey, which would, in turn, deny the rights of other women by forcing them to wear headscarves in public. And so it seems that while the multicultural illiberal feels all minorities should be defended, they also believe some minorities should be more defended than others.

Returning to the case of Mr. Wilders, I must confess that I find mocking Islam for mocking’s sake distasteful, much as I find racist jokes or promoting cultural stereotypes distasteful. Yet I was brought up believing in the right to offend and agreeing with the reasonable limits we impose upon offended parties in a free and pluralistic society. A racial or cultural demagogue has the right to spew hatred and we may respond in kind, but we cannot be excused if we resort to violence, nor should the racist be told that his speech should be limited because some groups may have a violent reaction to it, especially since this, as Caldwell notes, tends to underscore the provocateur’s main points. That being said, the politics of Geert Wilders and other self-styled enemies of Islam have an ugly and xenophobic edge, and though the defenders of liberal ideals may be tempted to join hands with Wilders and his fellows against radical Islam and its multicultural apologists, they should not be surprised if their hands become dirty in the process.

* Note that I exclude left-libertarians and mainstream liberals and all those to the left-of-center who do not dampen their enthusiasm for liberty with cultural relativism.

Mass Media Effect

I’m coming late to this one, and what’s worse, I’m going to begin with a cliche.

An old saying goes, conservatives worry about sex in the media, while liberals worry about violence. Recent blogging on the game Mass Effect serves to underscore this point.

Mass Effect is an adult-market science-fiction role-playing game created by Bioware, a company famous for making some of the finest role-playing games to ever appear on the PC and X-Box platforms. Because the game has a 17+ M (mature) rating, the creators have the flexibility to include graphic violence, some profanity, and a little bit of sex. These mature elements add to the realism of the story but they’re not what the game is actually about. I’ve played through the game once and intend to play through it again, not for the sake of titillation but for the enjoyment of watching my character grow and develop.

Now, I stressed “a little bit of sex” for a reason. In Mass Effect, like most Bioware games, the player is given the option to pursue a romance with one of the game characters, and in an almost cliched fashion, that character will give you a chance to consummate the romance before the final battle. (This is one of the few weaknesses in Bioware’s storytelling.) Since Mass Effect boasts excellent graphics and animation, the non-interactive 30-second love scene* is more realistic than most games that came before it, but it’s tame compared to movies or even network TV.

Yet, as I noted at the onset of this piece, conservatives stereotypically get their dander up at depictions of sex in the media. Since the right has pretty much given up on fighting the good fight against sex in movies and TV, the topic of sex in games — which might be played by kids! — is still an open battleground. And for the last couple of weeks, Mass Effect has been a casualty of this (little) culture war.

The incident is also a good example of how Internet memes can filter over into mainstream media in a very short time. It all started when Kevin McCullough wrote and blogged about Mass Effect online, spreading rumors that the game was an alien sex simulator. In turn, talk radio hosts began bashing the game, only to be followed up by negative news coverage on Fox. The curious thing is that after each escalation of the criticism, many of the critics, including McCullough, backed down and admitted the game wasn’t nearly as racy as they thought. Yet that didn’t stop the momentum of Mass Effect criticism — it just kept rolling and rolling through the media with a life of its own. However, after the Fox segment, it will probably die down unless an opportunist politician picks up on it.

Note that if Mass Effect does fall into the political crosshairs again, it might be for the violence rather the sex. As I said in the beginning, liberals tend to criticize violence in the media, and videogames are no exception. Several prominent Democratic Congressmen led a crusade against violent videogames in the late 1990s, with the end result being the more stringent rating system in the industry today. More recently, the left-liberal Internet blog Think Progress went after the US Army for including the violent but phenomenal game Gears of War in a videogame tournament, labeling it a “chainsaw massacre video game” (it makes the phrase “alien sex simulator” seem quaint, doesn’t it?).

So could Mass Effect be attacked by the usual suspects for being violent or antisocial? When Mass Effect was coming to market it was dubbed “Jack Bauer in space” by the gaming media, and like the fictional hero of television’s “24,” the protagonist of “Mass Effect” is a government agent whose world is painted in shades of gray. While the game simulates no torture — the element of “24” that seems to trouble liberals the most — the player, if he or she so chooses,** is able to lie, threaten, steal, murder, and do other nefarious acts while pursuing the game’s villain. He or she can even — horror of horrors — run over space monkeys with an APC. (Just wait until PETA hears about this!)

Then again, the possibility of left-wing criticism of the game is all hypothetical. Right now, it’s just the right wing who is speaking out against Mass Effect and, in so doing, reminding me that the people who make it hardest to be a conservative are often the conservatives themselves.

* This in a game that lasts about 40 hours if the players explore everything. That means that sex is approximately 1/4800th of the game experience. Compare that to Ang Lee’s critically acclaimed Lust, Caution, which is 10% sex, and Mass Effect seems like a ripoff. Perverts should stop playing games and go to the video store.

** It’s sad but to be expected that critics of Mass Effect report that the game is a “role-playing game” without actually knowing what “role-playing” means.

Great Firewall, Bad Legislation

With the election cycle upon us, it’s not surprising that American politicians have taken to criticizing China more directly on issues such as Burma, the trade deficit, environmental protection, and Internet censorship. The last issue has drawn extra attention of late, perhaps because human rights advocates in the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and populist anti-corporate voices have joined together to lash out at US companies for helping China to build the Great Firewall, China’s Internet censorship regime.

This week, Rebecca MacKinnon chronicled the latest legislation unveiled in the House, the Global Online Freedom Act of 2007 (henceforth GOFA). The GOFA would penalize American firms who “play along” with the Chinese censorship regime and require such things as keeping user information databases outside of China. MacKinnon wryly notes that a similar effort got nowhere last year, but I believe China is more high-profile than ever in voters’ minds, so the bill might actually see some floor action.

All the pity, then, that the focus of Reps. Smith, Lantos, and others in the Human Rights Caucus is misdirected. Even if the GOFA becomes law, the chances of it putting a dent in the Great Firewall are slim to none. It would, in theory, cripple the Chinese market operations of Cisco, Microsoft, Google and similar corporations, but it wouldn’t mean the end of the Great Firewall. In a way that mirrors the contributions of foreign manufacturers to Chinese industry, the expertise of many Western tech companies have certainly accelerated the development of Internet censorship in China, yet just as Chinese firms like Haier have emerged from joint venture arrangements to stand on their own, Chinese Internet censorship would continue to thrive without, say, the latest Cisco routers.

This doesn’t mean, however, that US firms like Yahoo should be free from criticism for their cooperation with Chinese authorities. On the contrary, they deserve to be publicly excoriated for every little kowtow they make towards the Powers That Be. (This goes double for companies that talk big about defending free expression in the US but do just the opposite in China. I’m looking at you, Google.) But we should nonetheless realize that punishing American firms for doing business in China will do little to enhance the freedom and opportunities of Chinese Internet users.

The alternative tactic of China critics is to make normative claims against China itself, to switch from saying “Cisco is evil for helping to build the Great Firewall” to saying “China is evil for having the Great Firewall in the first place.” Yet anyone who has studied modern China at all will immediately recognize that such criticisms fall on deaf ears, both in the halls of government in Beijing and, more unfortunately, on the streets and in the Internet cafes. Not only does the government bristle at what it deems “outside interference” in Chinese society, even the most cosmopolitan-minded Chinese may turn nationalistic when foreigners are seen lecturing to the Chinese government.

All of the above begs the question, what could the West in general and the US in particular do to weaken the Great Firewall? The answer may lie in seeing Chinese Internet censorship not as a moral issue but as an economic one. Let’s consider the following proposal.

In general, Westerners react to Chinese Internet censorship the way they react to book burnings: the government in question is deplored and the right to write and publish defended. Yet this analogy is weak on a number of fronts, not the least of which is that websites and especially web services represent a bundle of economic interests that are different than books. Moreover, while China is party to no conventions which call for political liberalization, the country has joined a number of agreements and organizations that call for economic liberalization, chief among them the World Trade Organization. And when considering the adverse economic effects from arbitrarily shutting out Western portals, search engines, and BSPs from the Chinese market, can we not call the Great Firewall a trade barrier?

I admit that I’m not the first to see Chinese Internet censorship as a form of crypto-protectionism. Much like a regime of infant industry protection, when Western web services are blocked, it forces Chinese users to turn to the Chinese competition. For instance, China’s recent blocking of Feedburner led the Chinese blogosphere to start using the Chinese provider Feedsky. When the blocks are lifted, the Chinese users are unlikely to return to the Western services unless, like Microsoft’s Hotmail, which has been blocked off and on, the service is significantly embedded into another service Chinese users depend on, such as Windows Live Messenger.

We can predict several of the ways the Chinese government would respond to such a challenge. First, they’d claim the right to protect Chinese citizens from indecent online content, and point to European censorship of Nazi ideology as a similarly justifiable form of censorship. Yet such a claim would invite intense scrutiny of what the Chinese government deems indecent. For example, is it reasonable to claim that Flickr or Youtube must be blocked to protect children from pornography when Chinese boys can use government-approved Baidu to look at Taiwanese actress Shu Qi’s famous parts? (Link NSFW, obviously.) Admittedly, hypocritical application of the law might at first seem a weak foundation for a WTO challenge, that didn’t stop Antigua from winning a WTO case against the US on similar grounds.

Secondly, they’d claim that any web provider can play ball in China if they follow the Chinese rules, so there’s no discrimination against foreign companies who cooperate. That said, while large companies have been asked to agree to censorship to continue doing business online in China, for the most part, China rarely publicizes its censorship requests or confirms the extent of its censorship. As some have noted, the entire enterprise of Chinese Internet censorship is murky and subjectively applied. Indeed, many services, such as Wikipedia, are just blocked outright, with no warning, while some sites continue to be accessible despite having materials long declared verboten in China. This lack of openness and evenhandedness means that the Great Firewall, in its current form, would be incompatible with the nondiscrimination and transparency requirements of the WTO.

In the end, moving the Chinese censorship debate from the halls of Congress to the fora of the World Trade Organization would not guarantee an end to the Great Firewall, but it would force the Chinese government to come clean about the extent and nature of its online censorship, which is in itself a victory. Furthermore, it provides an economic disincentive to other WTO member-countries currently thinking of building their own Great Firewalls. While an economy of China’s size could easily endure theoretical WTO sanctions, smaller developing countries would be hit hard and forced to weigh the costs and benefits of censorship. Finally, if successful, it would encourage Western political leaders to think creatively about how to encourage Chinese liberalization rather than to resort to the old moralizing discourse.