Barack Obama???s speech to the U.N. General Assembly began with a fine tribute to slain Ambassador Chris Stevens, which is worth reading in full. The New York Times has a transcript.
But then the President segued into the circumstances surrounding Stevens??? murder, and things grew??? problematic. Obama is still deeply invested in the mythology of a liberating ???Arab Spring??? spreading from a self-immolating Tunisian street vendor, leading to a captivating transformation by ???the forces of change.??? He seems almost completely, willfully oblivious to the tawdry reality of political takeovers by Islamist forces, or the future those forces have in mind for their people.
Once again, the childlike fantasy equation of ???elections = democracy = freedom??? was worked out before a global audience. Too much of the Western political elite still seems incapable of dealing with the idea that certain populations might freely elect oppressive regimes hostile to the civilized world???s interests. It???s not that all such populations are inevitably fated to do so; we seem to be institutionally reluctant to concede that they might do so, and have already cast a few such votes, in rather important places.
Obama offered some rhetorical concessions to the difficulty of managing ???true democracy??? and ???real freedom??? beyond simply casting a few votes. ???Those in power have to resist the temptation to crack down on dissent,??? he explained??? right before allowing that it???s understandable they should do so, at least in the matter of offenses to locally popular religious sensibilities.
Listening to Obama speak on these topics often makes me wonder if he really understands what ???dissent??? means. He???s big on the idea of permissible, carefully controlled ???dissent,??? operating within strict parameters. His domestic policy is based on the idea that wise government officials can set the parameters of dissent, based on their perception of general public consensus. You???re not allowed to disagree with ObamaCare???s requirements to provide birth control and abortion drugs, no matter what your religious conscience says. If you attempt to dissent from ObamaCare in full, you???ll pay a special ???tax penalty,??? which has grown to devour over 6 million people. In the early days of Obama???s health care ???reform,??? his Administration was big on the idea that even verbal disagreement was fundamentally illegitimate, and needed to be controlled by government agencies.
You???re not allowed to dissent from central economic planning ??? in fact, you must surrender an ever-increasing share of your money, your economic liberty, to support the dictates of Washington. You cannot dissent from the radical environmentalist agenda that has gone a long way toward crippling the American energy industry, transferring billions into absurd ???green energy??? projects. You cannot escape from any of this, because power has been steadily transferred from state governments you can move away from, to omnipresent Washington. To Obama, the concept of ???dissent??? is largely limited to infrequent votes in which the public may choose new engineers for the gigantic government machine that controls their lives. Once the votes have been tallied, obedience is required.
Which gets us back to the big issue of the day, and the part of Obama???s U.N. speech that will dominate the headlines: ???The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.???
Obama went on to stipulate that ???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.???
He denounced oppressive dictatorships in Iran and Syria, which is well enough, but he???s missing the central truth of the crisis at hand: an effort, not entirely controlled by specific dictatorial governments, to demand concessions from Western notions of free speech and religious tolerance. Obama is ready to offer them.
He spent more time discussing the evils of The Video than castigating any particular example of violent oppression from the Muslim world. In fact, he mentioned that Ambassador Stevens was ???killed??? in Benghazi without discussing those who killed him at all, let alone labeling them as terrorists. But here???s what he said about The Video:
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.
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.
Well, okay, so Obama will defend the right of people to express their views??? but if their view is that Mohammed is not a sacred prophet, and was in fact a rather unpleasant chap during his life, the future must not belong to them?
I hate to be the one to broach such a delicate topic with a man so clearly confused by the American concepts of free speech, dissent, and religious tolerance, but Obama needs to understand that Islamic law does not merely frown upon particularly loud and insulting criticisms of Mohammed, and it doesn???t recommend believers refute ???insults??? through the vigorous exercise of their own free speech. No one is burning down U.S. embassies to protest unflattering depictions of Jesus Christ or Holocaust denial.
Putting all of this on the same plane of equivalency is offensive. That ???crude and disgusting video??? does not occupy the same solar system of outrage as violent mobs, let alone organized terror attacks on American embassy officials. Every religion must, to some degree, grapple with the issue of ???tolerating??? those of different faiths, but in the modern world, only one of them routinely expresses its intolerance through large-scale violence. We should not be making the smallest concession of free speech rights to ignore this issue and placate the mobs. We have nothing to apologize for. And we most certainly do not need the American president reduced to serving as a film critic, or opening a discussion with mob leaders over where they might agree to draw the boundaries of free expression.
The postmodern academic view of ???insensitivity??? and ???intolerance??? treats them as matters to be resolved through the exercise of political power, in which politically favored groups get to decide what constitutes an unforgivable offense. Barack Obama???s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was an enthusiastic member of the audience for a play that lampoons the Mormon faith. Is she therefore forbidden from owning a piece of the future? How about those who mock Scientology, including the creators of a current film that offers a thinly-veiled and unflattering dramatization of its founder???s life? ???Comedian??? Bill Maher made a movie called ???Religulous??? that insulted various religious faiths, including Islam. Does that mean the future doesn???t belong to him, and if so, will Obama???s Super PAC finally return the million bucks he gave them?
But you don???t even have to ask questions about the smaller or more exotic faith traditions, because no one in the United States government, most definitely including Barack Obama, is going to deploy the kind of power they???ve used against the ???Innocence of Muslims??? video to shut down offenses to any branch of Christianity or Judaism. The U.S. government still subsidizes such offenses. There is no way Obama???s notion of proscribing religious offenses could possibly be applied fairly and evenly, and any attempt to do so would quickly make a universally undeniable farce of the First Amendment.
Free speech would quickly become impossible, as every group jockeyed for the political influence and compulsive force necessary to shape it to their liking. We would end up with a Ministry of Acceptable Discourse, deciding which religious traditions are ???serious??? enough to be protected from mockery, or even aggressive criticism. We???d have European-style speech codes, which are fundamentally incompatible with American constitutional law, and don???t seem to be paying many dividends anyway.
And that wouldn???t be new. That???s pretty much what has been happening to free speech and dissent in this country for decades. Nothing about that degeneration of American values is improved by having our chief executive negotiate the limits of free speech before the United Nations, with negotiating ???partners??? who have little interest in compromise, and have been given no reason by Obama to develop any. He didn???t need to do anything except repeat America???s unshakeable commitment to free speech and true religious tolerance. He said much less than that, using far more words.