Via the Standard, a fine idea that I would take more seriously if he had mentioned it before the movie was condemned by the Cairo embassy, blamed for the Benghazi attack by Susan Rice, apologized for by the State Department via TV ads in Pakistan, and then discussed at length by The One himself in his UN speech today. Scrambling to denounce the film the way the administration did made it that much more lucrative a pretext for Islamists to exploit; the U.S. government can’t ban the film, but attack an embassy or two and by golly they’ll fall all over themselves to reassure you that it’s a wicked, awful, evil piece of expression. Matt Welch is one of the many free-speech fans who’s had enough:
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.
Are we sure about that? Over at Slate, law prof(!) Eric Posner weighs the old liberal cardinal virtue of free speech against the new liberal cardinal virtue of multiculturalism. Guess which is heavier:
But there is another possible response. This is that Americans need to learn that the rest of the world—and not just Muslims—see no sense in the First Amendment. Even other Western nations take a more circumspect position on freedom of expression than we do, realizing that often free speech must yield to other values and the need for order. Our own history suggests that they might have a point…
Meanwhile, some liberals began to have second thoughts. They supported enactment of hate-crime laws that raised criminal penalties for people who commit crimes against minorities because of racist or other invidious motives. They agreed that hate speech directed at women in the workplace could be the basis of sexual harassment claims against employers as well. However, the old First Amendment victories in the Supreme Court continued to play an important role in progressive mythology. For the left, the amendment today is like a dear old uncle who enacted heroic deeds in his youth but on occasion says embarrassing things about taboo subjects in his decline.
We have to remember that our First Amendment values are not universal; they emerged contingently from our own political history, a set of cobbled-together compromises among political and ideological factions responding to localized events. As often happens, what starts out as a grudging political settlement has become, when challenged from abroad, a dogmatic principle to be imposed universally. Suddenly, the disparagement of other people and their beliefs is not an unfortunate fact but a positive good. It contributes to the “marketplace of ideas,” as though we would seriously admit that Nazis or terrorist fanatics might turn out to be right after all. Salman Rushdie recently claimed that bad ideas, “like vampires … die in the sunlight” rather than persist in a glamorized underground existence. But bad ideas never die: They are zombies, not vampires. Bad ideas like fascism, Communism, and white supremacy have roamed the countryside of many an open society.
The positive good isn’t the disparagement of other people’s beliefs, it’s the freedom to “disparage,” a.k.a. criticize, those beliefs without fear of being locked up by the sensitivity police. Savor the irony of this guy hinting that we should go ahead and criminalize some especially dangerous retrograde ideas while he and a few select others on the left are busy reviving the idea of blasphemy laws to appease violent Islamist fanatics. I’m not sure how closely fascist regimes in the Middle East follow left/right debates in America, but if they do, they have every incentive to burn more buildings and kill more ambassadors in the name of avenging insults to the faith. There’s a small but apparently growing movement on one side of the aisle here that’s ready to hear them out and rebalance free-speech principles against, in Posner’s creepy phrase, “the need for order.”