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 “clichĂ©,” 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.

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Bush’s Best Foreign Policy

President Bush is on an African farewell tour of sorts and the enthusiasm — whether genuine or state-sponsored — is reportedly quite prominent. Reuters correspondent Barry Moody writes,

Back home, Bush is suffering some of the lowest approval ratings in his seven-year tenure and has been buffeted by criticism of his handling of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ailing economy.

Not surprisingly he is enjoying the different reception in Africa.

Beaming repeatedly during a press conference with [Tanzanian President and current African Union head Jakaya] Kikwete, he made a point of referring to his welcome on the streets, which he described as “very moving”.

Moody’s piece does note that Muslim Africans are less than enthusiastic about the president’s trip and have even staged protests, which leads me to ask what factors are left out when explaining the praise for Bush’s accomplishments in Africa. And, in fairness to the president, they are real, noteworthy accomplishments:

Bush has spent more money on aid to Africa than his predecessor, Bill Clinton, and is popular for his personal programs to fight AIDS and malaria and to help hospitals and schools.

Bush has stressed new-style partnerships with Africa based on trade and investment and not purely on aid handouts.

His Millennium Challenge Corp. rewards countries that continue to satisfy criteria for democratic governance, anti-corruption and free-market economic policies.

Bush signed the largest such deal, for $698 million, with Kikwete on Sunday.

Because of the U.S. anti-malaria program, 5 percent of patients tested positive for the disease on the offshore islands of Zanzibar in 2007 compared to 40 percent three years earlier, the Tanzanian leader said.

Bush’s legacy in Africa would be saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of mothers and children who would otherwise have died from malaria or AIDS and enabling millions of people to get an education, he said.

So, what other factor may increase Bush’s popularity in sub-Saharan Africa?

Islam.

Or rather, Bush may be unwittingly popular thanks to the perception that America under Bush is an “anti-Muslim” power. Let’s set aside the president’s “religion of peace” rhetoric or the fact that the US, wisely or unwisely, has supported Muslims in various conflicts around the world. Despite all efforts by the administration to contrary, the language of Islamic fundamentalists has colored the thinking of many in the developing world, and just as Muslim radicals on one side assail Bush, Africa’s Christians, animists, and moderate Muslims like Kikwete on the other side praise him. In fact, these two factions represent a “cold” civil war present throughout much of African society today.

Islam in AfricaThough it often goes unmentioned in the Western press, sub-Saharan Africa is undergoing a Huntingtonian struggle between the Christian and Westernized elites who represent the status quo, and the Muslim and Arabized masses that swell as Islam moves ever southward. While we do hear about the conflicts in Sudan and Nigeria, we hear less about conflicts stemming from Muslim demographic and cultural shifts in other African countries. Even in a comparatively stable multiethnic country like Tanzania, there remains a fear of fundamentalism and the real possibility of terrorist activity. (In case one forgets.) In countries where the Muslim population is a growing minority, such as Sierra Leone or the Ivory Coast, tensions are even higher.

Seen in the light of this cultural conflict, Bush’s Africa policy serves a dual purpose: promoting development and fighting fundamentalism. For example, American aid which provides for improved government services has the added benefit of undercutting fundamentalist organizations that use charity to attract the poor. Similarly, an effective mix of modern approaches to combat HIV/AIDS can rebut the fundamentalists who tout that only sharia is the answer to Africa’s AIDS crisis. Lastly, improved trade between the US and Africa can deny fundamentalism the impoverished soil it needs to grow and thrive, a point a certain would-be president ought to consider while he rails against the evils of free trade.

In conclusion, aid for Africa is, by far, Bush’s best foreign policy initiative, and the only one his successor has a moral imperative to continue and improve upon, even if the next president isn’t seen as a foe of fundamentalism.

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.