Today President Obama gave a speech to the United Nations in which he discussed the murder of Chris Stephens, the nature of America's defense of free speech, and the possibilities for the ongoing relationship between the United States and the nations of the Middle East.
One line from the speech is drawing a lot of attention:
The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.
It's a bad line. When someone quoted it, I hoped it was misquoted. It's not. It is, however, quoted without context. In context, it's one of a few bad lines in a speech that is actually a very good defense of freedom of speech. The speech deserves to be read as a whole.
President Obama started the speech the right way:
Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, fellow delegates, ladies and gentleman: I would like to begin today by telling you about an American named Chris Stevens.
Starting with a discussion of Chris Stephens was a good way to approach this, because the murder of Chris Stephens, contrasted with the things he accomplished, demonstrates that appeasing or negotiating with or capitulating to the angry mob is pointless.
President Obama transitioned from Stephens, and the violence in Libya, to the results of the so-called Arab Spring in general. That discussion included numerous specific references to freedom of expression:
And yet the turmoil of recent weeks reminds us that the path to democracy does not end with the casting of a ballot. Nelson Mandela once said: “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” True democracy demands that citizens cannot be thrown in jail because of what they believe, and businesses can be opened without paying a bribe. It depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear; on the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people.
This is exactly right — and it's a reference to the fundamental problem of regime-toppling and nation-building. Notions like the rule of law do not magically appear overnight; they are historical and cultural. A nation does not automatically obtain the rule of law or any of its elements (like, in some countries, freedom of expression) just by toppling a dictator.
In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening; in every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask how much they are willing to tolerate freedom for others.
Here, I suspect, critics will suggest that Obama is subtly criticizing people who say nasty things about Muslims, but I think it has to be read in the context of the next few paragraphs.
That is what we saw play out the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well – for as the city outside these walls makes clear, we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and religion. We are home to Muslims who worship across our country. We not only respect the freedom of religion – we have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe. We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them.
Here's where we start getting into things that will make some critics of President Obama very angry. Right now there's a prominent argument floating around that there's something wrong, and censorious, about the government criticizing speech. I agree only to a point.
Government criticism of speech should be monitored closely and condemned when it amounts to a threat of censorship. For instance, in my opinion, it was an implied threat — or uncomfortably close to one — when the Obama Administration contacted YouTube and asked them to review the "Innocence of Muslims" video to see if it violated their terms and conditions. Government criticism of speech should be condemned when it passes speech into censorious action. If, as some have suggested, the Obama Administration intervened and caused the U.S. Probation Office to investigate anti-Muslim filmmaker Nakloua Basseley Nakoula (I'm skeptical, but open to evidence), there should be widespread condemnation and Congressional hearings. Finally, government criticism of speech should be condemned when it amounts to capitulation to censors or distortion of free speech values. I've argued that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo engaged in such an error.
But government criticism is not inherently censorious. Rather, the government's ability to condemn speech is a safety valve that reduces the political pressure and personal impulse to censor it. As we often say here, criticism is not censorship, and the argument that criticism is censorship distorts the notion of free speech.
Here, taken out of context, President Obama's criticism of the "Innocence of Muslims" video could be seen as endorsing censorship. Read in context, it is not, because he tempers it with a full defense of freedom of expression:
I know there are some who ask why we don’t just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws: our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech. Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. Moreover, as President of our country, and Commander-in-Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so. Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views – even views that we disagree with.
We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our Founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views, and practice their own faith, may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can become a tool to silence critics, or oppress minorities. We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech – the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.
I know that not all countries in this body share this understanding of the protection of free speech. Yet in 2012, at a time when anyone with a cell phone can spread offensive views around the world with the click of a button, the notion that we can control the flow of information is obsolete. The question, then, is how we respond. And on this we must agree: there is no speech that justifies mindless violence.
There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There is no video that justifies an attack on an Embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.
All of that is correct and well stated. He hits the important points: that tolerance of this speech is a core value for us, that it is enshrined in our Constitution, that everyone has to put up with speech they don't like, that the best remedy for ugly speech is more speech, and that censorship is pointless, that offense is never a justification for violence. That provides context to his condemnation of the video.
However, I do believe that it is the obligation of all leaders, in all countries, to speak out forcefully against violence and extremism. It is time to marginalize those who – even when not resorting to violence – use hatred of America, or the West, or Israel as a central principle of politics. For that only gives cover, and sometimes makes excuses, for those who resort to violence.
That brand of politics – one that pits East against West; South against North; Muslim against Christian, Hindu, and Jew – cannot deliver the promise of freedom. To the youth, it offers only false hope. Burning an American flag will do nothing to educate a child. Smashing apart a restaurant will not fill an empty stomach. Attacking an Embassy won’t create a single job. That brand of politics only makes it harder to achieve what we must do together: educating our children and creating the opportunities they deserve; protecting human rights, and extending democracy’s promise.
This segment provides further context. Note that he is attributing violence to political manipulation, not to ugly videos, and is calling out people who encourage it.
Let us remember that Muslims have suffered the most at the hands of extremism. On the same day our civilians were killed in Benghazi, a Turkish police officer was murdered in Istanbul only days before his wedding; more than ten Yemenis were killed in a car bomb in Sana’a; and several Afghan children were mourned by their parents just days after they were killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul.
The impulse towards intolerance and violence may initially be focused on the West, but over time it cannot be contained. The same impulses toward extremism are used to justify war between Sunnis and Shia, between tribes and clans. It leads not to strength and prosperity but to chaos. In less than two years, we have seen largely peaceful protests bring more change to Muslim-majority countries than a decade of violence. Extremists understand this. And because they have nothing to offer to improve the lives of people, violence is their only way to stay relevant. They do not build, they only destroy.
This segment provides further important context. In it, Obama rejects the West vs. East narrative of extremist violence, pointing out that the extremists are primarily victimizing their own people. This undermines any suggestion that their actions are truly about mere offense.
The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt – it must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted “Muslims, Christians, we are one.” The future must not belong to those who bully women – it must be shaped by girls who go to school, and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons. The future must not belong to those corrupt few who steal a country’s resources – it must be won by the students and entrepreneurs; workers and business owners who seek a broader prosperity for all people. Those are the men and women that America stands with; theirs is the vision we will support.
The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims. It is time to heed the words of Gandhi: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” Together, we must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them. That is what America embodies, and that is the vision we will support.
Here's the section with the quote I didn't like. But the context is important. It shows that the "future does not belong" is a repeated rhetorical device. It shows that the criticism of "those who slander the prophet of Islam" is part of a criticism of many groups.
But even in context I don't like the sentence. Referring to criticism of a prophet as "slander" buys into the narrative of the censors. "Slander" implies a wrong with a remedy. In American law, for very good reasons, you can't slander the dead. Policing insult to the dead encourages censorship of ideas, not protection of individuals. We should avoid encouraging the view of this debate encapsulated in the word "slander." But the word, and the sentence, are in a context, and that context includes a full and specific defense of speech and articulation of why we won't punish such speech.
I also don't like the phrase "intolerance is a form of violence." It's vague and fuzzy-headed. Intolerance is thought and expression; violence is action. Equating the two sounds like a justification for using the power of the state to punish speech and even thought. It's a very poor choice of words and detracts from the message of the speech. But it still exists in the context of the speech, which overall strongly and specifically supports the American view of freedom of expression.
So: it's a speech with a few badly chosen lines that detract somewhat from a strong defense of liberty.
I think that the Obama Administration can be criticized for its handling of this crisis, for its dishonest or incompetent messaging about the significance of the video, for its thuggish call to YouTube, and for more. That won't influence my vote; I wasn't going to vote for Obama anyway.
But I think the speech merits evaluation as a whole. I think that, even in this silly season, it deserves evaluation for more than what campaign narrative it can serve. Warts aside, it says forcefully some things that ought to be said.
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