Reflection on Free Speech

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The recent  riots in Libya, Cairo, and around the Arab world over the ridiculous movie trailer portraying Islam in a poor light caused me to reflect upon the central question of when can the government comment on speech.  Can, as did the President and the Secretary of State, comment on the content of such a video?  At first I found Mrs. Clinton’s comments a responsible adult reaction to a bigoted rant that had obvious negative impacts on US interests in the Islamic world.

My number one skill in international business was I was always the most polite American at the table.  I was the guy sent overseas to maintain good relations with foreign subsidiaries, partners, or the government.  My initial reaction is Mrs. Clinton was reacting as I would in a board room.

But, I was uncomfortable with that initial conclusion and as I read more and more commentary across the political spectrum, I formed a different opinion.  It is wrong for any federal or state official in their official capacity to condemn the exercise of free speech.  If you can deplore the exercise of speech over loathsome ideas, it is a small step to deplore speech that is disagreeable to you for other reasons.

One of the interesting ways to look at the Secretary of State’s condemnations is to think about the motives behind it.  Her official condemnation was motivated to assure the Arab and Islamic world that the United States was not hostile or disrespectful to Islam.

So much about the government’s attempt to suppress speech via the Patriot Act, security classifications, prosecution of journalists to obtain sources, is about hiding embarrassing things about the government’s actions or policies.  And that is precisely what is at stake here.

Politicians of both parties repeat as mantra that all Islam does not hate the United States and that if we can just engage this silent majority all will be well.  There is of course absolutely no evidence for that.  Radical groups that will always hate us exploited this trailer.  If the trailer had not existed, they would still hate us.

We hear echoes of this now in the drum beat for war in Syria.  If we do not intervene with weapons for the Syrian resistance, then the Syrian resistance will go over to the extremists.  There is no evidence in Afghanistan or Iraq or indeed much of the rest of the world that when we give weapons, treasure, most importantly blood that we can influence public opinion or movements inside countries.  Our effectiveness is when one country invades another, not in intervening in civil wars.

The Cold War ended because we pursued our national interests and because the people of the Eastern Bloc turned to democracy and capitalism.

The Taliban remains alive.  We have replaced a repugnant Sunni Iraqi dictator with a merely distasteful Shiite dictator and we are not winning any opinion polls in Iraq.  We have sent billions to Egypt and supported the Libyans to receive riots and a dead ambassador.

The comments of the Secretary of State mask the central failings of a bipartisan belief that if we condemn a trailer or send weapons or troops to a country, we will turn our standing around in the Islamic world.  As long as that world chooses to turn theocratic and mediaeval, they will never respect us.  And condemning a movie or sending weapons is just a political mask for not understanding our pressing national interests.

And that mask is the cost of suppressing speech, directly or indirectly.   The future is in Asia, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa and it is developing without us.  If war breaks out in the South China Sea or the Philippine Sea and we are unprepared we will not remember this trailer. But we should, because it is a metaphor for our over involvement in the backwater that is the Middle East.

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