Today, President Barack Obama delivered four pretty good paragraphs to the United Nations about the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and the underlying principles of free speech and tolerance-of-minority-viewpoints it reflects. In the as-prepared transcript of the speech, the good material in question can be found starting with the sentence "I know there are some who ask why we don't just ban such a video," and concluding with the accurate kicker, "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."
I would be inclined to quote more, if it weren't for the Obama administration's own sorry record of video apologetics and premature blame these past two weeks, and for the fact that the president's welcome-if-overdue remarks today were bracketed by some assertions that can best be described as heinous. First, the noxious preamble:
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.
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.
Then, the worse postscript:
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.
As with every empty political speech or newspaper editorial, focus here on the authoritarian if blustery word must. In order:
in every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask how much they are willing to tolerate freedom for others.
Let's see, I love freedom for myself (and others); am I somehow compelled to ask myself how much freedom I can tolerate from my fellow residents of the United States? Hell no, I'm not. We have a mostly free system that can and should be much freer, but there is no requirement to have this conversation, thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
It deteriorates rapidly from there:
I believe [the video's] message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.
So many things wrong in so few words. Why this video, and not Theo Van Gogh's Submission, or Lars Vilks' animation of Mohammed wanting to go to a gay bar, the "Super Best Friends" episode of South Park, or Funny or Die's "How to Pick a Pocket"? Is it the degree of the insult, the craptasticness of the production values, the size of the release, or the vociferousness of the outrage expressed?
Given the track record of our past two administrations, I think we know the answer to that question, which suggests another thing terrible about this sentence: As Eugene Volokh recently pointed out, "Behavior that gets rewarded, gets repeated." If all it takes to earn a White House call for global condemnation of a single piece of expression is some violent protests outside a dozen or two diplomatic missions, then the perpetually aggrieved know exactly what to do the next time they pluck out some bit of cultural detritus to be offended by.
It is not any politician's job, and certainly not any American politician's job, to instruct the entire world on which films to criticize.
And speaking of that favorite State Department word, rejected–isn't that a word to describe what you do to something that gets in your face, or body? In medicine, the body "rejects" organs or other dissonant substances that have been introduced within it. In basketball, not every blocked shot is a "rejection," mostly those that come when the offensive player is driving aggressively toward the vicinity of the hoop. Innocence of Muslims didn't get all up in someone's grill, it lay forlorn and neglected on YouTube until some people (pro and con) decided to get excited by it. Even then, it is a remarkably easy piece of culture to avoid coming into contact with. "Rejected" implies a cultural potency that "Sam Becile" (or as I prefer, "C'est imbecile") could never dream of.
The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.
Not your call, dude. Also, not my "prophet."
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.
Even though you can see what the president's getting at in terms of equivalent outrage, he's still way off base here. It is not our job to condemn blasphemy of any kind, period. As individuals we might criticize a few bits here and there, but we mostly ignore the vast ocean of what various people may consider "hateful" or "offensive" speech, and rightly so.
There was much else to criticize in Obama's speech today, most notably a deeply incoherent depiction of America's role in the world. But it's certainly worth noting that a president who thought he was making a profound defense of American freedom of speech has continued his administration's two-week assault on the very notion.