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September 13, 2012 3:01 PM Free Speech and Bigotry

By Ed Kilgore

Before we get too far away from the remarkable events of Tuesday and Wednesday, it’s a good idea to put aside all the after-discussion of campaign strategy and media coverage and take a closer look at what Mitt Romney was criticizing in the Cairo embassy statements (even if you brush away the issue of the lack of official authorization from the State Department) and the substance of his criticism. Slate’s William Saletan has done an excellent job of doing just that:

When you read the tweets alongside the initial statement, the message is clear. Free speech is a universal right. The Muslim-baiting movie is an abuse of that right. The embassy rejects the movie but defends free speech and condemns the invasion of its compound.
Three hours after the embassy finished these comments, the U.S. confirmed a lethal attack on its consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Within half an hour, Romney launched a political assault on the Cairo embassy’s statements: “It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” At a news conference Wednesday morning, Romney escalated his assault: “The administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions. It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values.”
Romney’s description of the embassy’s initial statement—“sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions”—was blatantly false. When the embassy issued its morning statement, no one had breached the wall. After the breach, when the embassy tweeted that its initial statement “still stands,” it added in the same breath: “As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.”
At his press conference, Romney accused Obama of “having that embassy reiterate a statement effectively apologizing for the right of free speech.” Romney claimed that the embassy had said, in his paraphrase, “We stand by our comments that suggest that there’s something wrong with the right of free speech.” This, too, was a Romney lie. The embassy had declared five times in writing that free speech was a universal right.
What made Romney’s statement and press conference disturbing, however, was his repeated use of the words sympathize and apology to conflate three issues the Cairo embassy had carefully separated: bigotry, free speech, and violence. The embassy had stipulated that expressions of bigotry, while wrong, were protected by freedom of speech and didn’t warrant retaliatory violence. Romney, by accusing the embassy of “sympathizing with those who had breached” the compound, equated moral criticism of the Mohammed movie with support for violence. In so doing, Romney embraced the illiberal Islamist mindset that led to the embassy invasion: To declare a movie offensive is to authorize its suppression.

Bingo. Defending free speech does not require avoiding criticism of protected speech, any more than “taking offense” at speech requires that it be suppressed. It’s two entirely separate issues, which is precisely the aspect of our constitutional system we are struggling to explain to people with little experience of non-state-sanctioned utterances. By any measurement, Romney in his lust to find an “apology” to attack, undermined that important element of public diplomacy in this particular region.

Now it’s important to remember that Romney leads a party with more than a few important people (with rank-and-file support) who deny that attacks on Islam are by their very nature bigoted. They may not agree with (or even know about) the particular idiocy of Innocence of Muslims, but they are perfectly happy with attacks on Islam as a religion, usually on the spurious grounds that destruction of The West or America or Christianity are a solemn and universal obligation of Muslims. In many important respects, they are in a symbiotic relationship with radical Islamists who think exactly the same of Americans, so it’s not surprising they share their views on speech.

I have no way of knowing if that was in the back of the mind for Team Mitt when they drafted his intervention Tuesday night or Wednesday—perhaps it was pure opportunism—but they do seem to lack a sensitivity to some pretty basic principles of how Americans reconcile freedom and respect.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Tony Greco on September 13, 2012 3:11 PM:

    People tend to overlook that the right to free speech doesn't obviate other people's right to criticize your speech. The First Amendment doesn't include any right to freedom from criticism.

  • Gummo on September 13, 2012 3:21 PM:

    Republicans don't "do" nuance.

    And are damned proud of it.

    Nuance is for girly-men.

  • c u n d gulag on September 13, 2012 3:22 PM:

    What the Romney campaign was doing, was crafting a criticism - any criticism - that would fit an existing and well-known meme about President Obama.

    And so, they latched onto the "Obama Apologizes All of the Time" one - for good, or ill.

    And, since this was happening in the Middle East, there was also an undercurrent of the mythical meme about his favoritism towards Muslims, and his apologies to them for American behavior.

    That's where that whole "Americal values" crap comes from.

    And now, the Republicans are trying to circle back around their candidate, to make-up for their own astonishment of a candidate coming out and criticizing the American President while US territory, in the form of the embassies, were under attack.

    I think Mitt even shocked some of the veteran Republican politicians with his behavior.

    But more importantly for him, I think he really shocked a lot of the members of the MSM - especially the ones who came of age under Bush, where criticizing the adminstration during 'a time of war,' was tantamount to treason.

    I think some of them are starting to see some of the double-standards we Liberals have been screaming about regarding the MSM's double standards towards Republicans.

    Maybe I'm too optimistic.

  • boatboy_srq on September 13, 2012 3:28 PM:

    Romney's Tourette's moment in two acronyms:

    1) IOKIYAR
    2) TABMITWH

    All's fair in politics and racism.

  • Bloix on September 13, 2012 3:35 PM:

    You're being way too analytical. Romney thinks that calling Obama a Muslim helps his chances and he saw this an opportunity to call Obama a Muslim so he did. Full stop.

  • T-Rex on September 13, 2012 3:38 PM:

    George H.W. Bush has gotten a bit of a revisionist make-over ever since his son proved to be such a disastrous leader that the old man looked good by comparison. But I've just realized how much Mitt reminds me of Bush 41. That constant theme of being ashamed of America, apologizing for America and blah blah blah was one of his favorite ways of smearing opponents while dodging difficult questions, like for example how the Reagan White House managed to leave the Marines in harm's way in Beirut. His response to Geraldine Ferraro was to accuse her of saying that the marines killed in the terror attack on the barracks "died in shame." And the next day he too doubled down on that outrageous distortion of her statements, while gloating that "I kicked a little @ss last night." Yes, there's every reason to think that Romney will be another Bush for all practical purposes, and that like Bush 43, he has the old guy's faults with none of his strengths.

  • Volunteer for Obama/Biden on September 13, 2012 4:00 PM:

    Romney set the wrong tone, interfered, used lies to dissemble, and really doesn't seem to get it that the embassy put out the message to help to quell the anger outside its doors.

    See, the man has absolutely no empathy. This illustrates it. I do not think it is in his nature!!
    What father do you know that jams his kid's face down into butter? Can you imagine getting that grease in your eyes???

    Romney also, as a student, set up a situation he found *hilarious* where a blind man, a teacher, ended up walking into a glass door...

    Romney violently cut the hair of a young man. Where was that kid's right to free speech, or to his freedom of expression?
    We can see Romney did not respect that at all. And what a lack of empathy for him not to remember or not to apologize for the incident years later. All of the witnesses to that event recall it to this day--with regretful retrospectives.

    This is a person without empathy, sensitivity or sympathy.

    And his second great sin is reflexive lying, his opportunistic desperation, and I really felt his true deception when he walked away from his press conference with a smirky a$$ smile.
    I hated seeing that. But I was also glad I saw it.
    In the business, we call it inappropriate affect. That smile, that smirk was incongruent to the situation.

    Simply said, Romney ensures that many of us will continue to be volunteering for President Obama, the true statesman in this race.
    And he, unlike Myth Romney, is presidential in tone, presentation, behavior and speech.

    We need calm composure in our leader. Romney looked like a total spaz.
    He is not ready for presidential prime time.
    This is so evident. And Romney will continue having problematic days, and it will be the narrative acccompanying this dishonest man.
    Even Peggy Noonan turned on him.

  • Blue Girl on September 13, 2012 4:19 PM:

    The thing about rights is that they come with responsibilities, and in the age of instant, global communication the entire world is that crowded theater you're not allowed to yell "Fire!" in.

  • Ken on September 13, 2012 4:25 PM:

    What I am disappointed in is that the lack of belief in delusional beings such as allah, Zeus, yahwah, Odin and the other products of diseased minds creations to justify fear, bugotry and hate were not included.

    Just because an individual decides to believe in elves, angels, orcs, john galt, saints etc does not give them any superiority over those clear headed enough to live in the real worls rather then a delusional one.

    If the statement was to truely represent our secular nation it shoud have included a line such as "or those who do not deceive themselves with fantasies" ( ok that may be a bit much but the point is that Us and world citizens who do not seek shelter in delusional
    creations must have equal rights.

  • Volunteer for Obama/Biden on September 13, 2012 4:25 PM:

    I also wanted to add that it revealed BAD KARMA-- well deserved-- when Mitt Romney was stammering, sputtering, klutsy, forgetting his lines--- and displaying obvious word-finding difficulties during his *shameful* opportunistic press conference.

    Not only karmatic, but it added to his clownishness.

  • SecularAnimist on September 13, 2012 4:45 PM:

    I'll tell you what the Romney team had in mind when they wrote the script for Romney to recite.

    What they had in mind was spoon-feeding the bullshit bumper sticker slogans "OBAMA SYMPATHIZES WITH TERRORISTS" and "OBAMA APOLOGIZES FOR AMERICA'S FREEDOMS" to legions of brainwashed, brain-damaged Fox News Ditto-Heads who have no grasp of reality or ability to think, let alone the cognitive skills of William Saletan, and who will now be shrieking those slogans at the top of their lungs on blogs and social media sites everywhere.

    That's the essence of the Romney/Ryan campaign. It is literally all they've got.

  • Ted Frier on September 13, 2012 4:50 PM:

    This is the same mindset that had Christian fundamentalits taking to the streets to stand for two hours to buy a chicken sandwich in order to show solidarity for the president of Chick-fil-A and his anti-gay bigotry. Conservatives said the Chick-fil-A president should not be "punished" -- ie "criticized" or boycotted -- merely for "holding a personal opinion" that many people found offensive. To many conservatives, criticism was its own form of censorship. Thus were conservatives claiming a liberal right (free speech) in order to achieve an authoritarian aim (the propagation of an idea achieved through a monopoly of free speech gained by not having the worry of criticism or counter-argument).

  • emjayay on September 13, 2012 5:11 PM:

    Since some recent presidential election when the TV coverage used blue for states that went Demo and red for states that went Rep, we've been stuck with that color coding. Bluegirl, did you mean "Redgirl"?

    Us blue people are on the side of freedom of expression, as discussed in the first amendment. Republicans have traditionally thought the ACLU is a bunch of Communists. The red party is the one who is dedicated to making sure everyone acts just like they do and that no one disturbs the status quo.

    It's only in very rare and obvious cases that we limit freedom of speech, like ACTUALLY yelling "fire!" in an ACTUAL movie theatre. That probably gets defined as disturbing the peace and/or creating a clear and present danger to others or something like that.

    In Germany, I believe they have rules about promoting Nazism. Not the same thing, but I think we can all understand.

    In this country, the KKK is constitutionally protected to have a parade. Phelp's nut-case family "church" gets to wave signs about gays going to hell or whatever at gay parades. In that case, we get to hold up signs making fun of them, take hilarious pictures of it, and post them on the internet. It's all been clarified in the courts including the Supreme Court many times, including quite recently.

    If some rabble rousers make a no-budget movie that no one will actually see in order to try to rouse some rabble somewhere, they can.

    Right now our federal government officials (didn't catch the name of the guy I just heard on NPR)are attempting to explain US/Western freedoms to people who have no experience with the idea.

    Bluegirl, please pay attention.

  • Neil B on September 13, 2012 5:23 PM:

    What's really bad to me is, Mitt said, (true?):
    "I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."

    The Embassy did say they sympathized with those who felt hurt by the movie, not those who reacted by attacking the Embassy etc. Furthermore, the sympathy statement came out before the true attacks, in an attempt to sooth the public there (of course some listeners were relieved, but dedicated attackers couldn't care less.) The Embassy staff (not really Obama directly anyway, as if his Administration micro-manages Embassies, do they?) was trying to save their own lives and property.

    What Romney said was quite disgusting, perhaps then more than people realize. I think this was the true, jump-the-shark moment of Romney's campaign. Now he has only the stupid, the politically deranged, and the cynical supperich for support.

    PS: this weird stimulative movie looks so suspicious anyway, the actors got dubbed, it looks like a set up or false flag. Thoughts?

  • les on September 13, 2012 5:24 PM:

    I have no way of knowing if that was in the back of the mind for Team Mitt when they drafted his intervention
    Use of the term "mind" assumes facts not in evidence.
  • jjm on September 13, 2012 5:53 PM:

    I happen to think Mitt was simply enraged by anyone's criticizing an anti-Muslim piece of propaganda. His own Christian fanaticism is beginning to show.

  • RepublicanPointOfView on September 13, 2012 6:06 PM:

    Mitt Romney understands the American principles of freedom and respect. It is the socialist, muslim usuper who does not understand.

    Mitt understands that it is a widely held set of American principles that if you want respect and freedom, get off your asses and go earn multiple millions of dollars. Otherwise, STFU you freeloading moochers.

  • kolobian on September 13, 2012 6:22 PM:

    Heh, did you know, jjm, that Mormonism isn't really "Christianity" anyway.

    facts bopiongs, sure!

  • Mitch on September 13, 2012 6:23 PM:

    @Blue Girl,

    You rock in general, but I have to strongly disagree with your insinuation.

    Posting a video that insults Islam (or Christianity or Hinduism or Atheism or Pastafarianism) is NOT the same thing as shouting "Fire!" in a movie theater.

    Shouting "Fire!" in a theater is a physical threat to all of those who are within said theater, and when threatened (in this case by the lie that there is a fire in an enclosed space) people will react and overreact. Posting an offensive video threatens no one. It hurts zealot's feelings. It makes theocrats mad. But it DOES NOT threaten bodily harm to them and their loved ones that require immediate action to avoid.

    Also, shouting "Fire" may end in accidental injury or death but it doesn't generally end in wanton destruction of property, assault or murder. Comparing the two is apples and frogs. Not even oranges. They aren't in the same Kingdom, let alone Phylum, Class or Order.

    Being "offended" by insulting words does not justify violence and murder. And having to watch what we say or to do avoid offending religious zealots can and will lead inexorably to theocracy.

    And I say, to hell with that.

    The creators of the video and the scum who spread it have every right to do so. Just as we have every right to insult them for their impressive level of ignorance.

    But the video did not cause the violence.

    The violence is caused by the minority of psychotic theocrats of the Muslim world who feel the need to retaliate against their emotional offense by causing physical pain and destruction. There is no excuse whatsoever for their barbaric behavior, and they alone are responsible for their own actions.

    And it is the responsibility of the good, kind and honest people of the Muslim world to make such behavior socially unacceptable. Just as the good, kind and honest people of the Christian world ended the Inquisition and Witch Trials.

    Putting limits on the right to Free Expression just to avoid pissing off some Bronze Age barbarians guarantees that those barbarians and others like them will rise in power and influence. It would be rewarding their hideous behavior and it would encourage them to commit even more violence the next time that they are offended.

  • SadOldVet on September 13, 2012 6:44 PM:

    @Mitch - damn right...

    Jesus, the missing years

    While the history of Jesus from the age of 12 to 30 is not widely known, I present it now for your full understanding of Christianity.

    At age 13, Jesus became aware of his own sexuality. After experimenting with masturbation and homosexuality for 3 years, Jesus came to a full understanding during his 16th year. It was at that age that Jesus raped the first of many virgin girls.

    Around the age of 21, Jesus realized that his rage against women was because of the myth of his virgin mother who he was fixated upon. Jesus realized, in his early 20's, that he had the power to turn water into wine and turned from being a child rapist to a more nuanced approach of turning water into wine, getting virgin young women drunk, and then having his way with them.

    In his upper 20s, Jesus decided that he missed the 'good old days' and spent most of his 28th and 29th years engaged in both homosexual activities and raping preteen virgin girls.

    As he approached his 30th birthday, the family of Jesus turned to the Jewish rabbis to perform an 'intervention' on him. Jesus was abducted, strapped to a bed for 30 days, and forced to go cold turkey on his addiction of wine.

    It was during this 'cold turkey' period that Jesus developed his messianic complex, grew a beard, started wearing sandals and acting like a hippy. We know from the Bible that Jesus spent the next 3 years sharing his messianic complex with the world.

  • Librul friends, don't fret on September 13, 2012 7:15 PM:

    Republican Peggy Noonan said Mitt Romney looked like Richard Nixon when he was grimacing in that press conference.
    Great negative visual. Plus this is an elaboration on her original dissing themes on Mitt.
    I loved it that she called it a vague ad hoc statement, and asked what is your thinking when you think of the world.
    Mitt is likely to lose and should, Joe Scarborough has said.
    The stock market was ecstatic today, even grumpy old Maria was smilin'-- and the economy is improving.
    I think things are turning, so have libruls--don't fret as much on Romney turning the tide on orwellian apologies

  • Neil B on September 13, 2012 7:22 PM:

    LFDF - yeah, overall picture, but we'd better get that vote out. No time to be complacent!

    And I "approved" this message!

  • Blue Girl on September 13, 2012 7:42 PM:

    Okay, I could have probably worded that better, so let me try it again. The film in question was made with the express intent of inciting violence. It doesn't excuse the Islamic zealots who were more than happy to play along and dump gasoline on the fire, but it's still a fact that it's a crime to incite violence, and that was what I was getting at. I can say I don't like someone -- I do it all the time, as you well know. But it would be crossing a line if I were to call for someone I disagree with or just don't like to be maimed or murdered. My right to free speech carries that responsibility. That's what I was getting at. Or trying to, anyway.

  • PA friend on September 13, 2012 8:37 PM:

    Blue Girl--I understood what you meant. I was thinking earlier while listening to NPR that some fundamentalist crackpot probably put out that video just to harass people worshipping Mohammed, and that while we do have free speech, that was purposeful inflammatory free speech and look what happened, so you were alluding to consequences, and consequences and subsequent fallout were just what transpired.

  • emjayay on September 13, 2012 10:25 PM:

    Bluegirl, as Mitch and I tried to explain, you are still wrong. When Terrance McNally wrote a play portraying Jesus as gay, people protested. Other people bought tickets. Welcome to the post-Enlightenment age.

  • trex on September 13, 2012 11:14 PM:


    No, Blue Girl is not "wrong." Her statement that "rights come with responsibilities" is absolutely correct and supported by established law, history, and ethics, and it doesn't diminish free speech whatsoever to suggest that this is the case. 

    If you believe otherwise, contemplate the endless scenarios in which free speech used irresponsibly would likely cause harm to innocents. There is nothing unique about the Muslim world in this case, nothing they need to "learn." I assure you I could post a video to the web tomorrow which, in certain parts of this country, would have irate parents taking grade school staff hostage at gunpoint over false charges of pedophilia or Islamic brainwashing or some other trumped up idea. I could post a series of fake videos and easily start a race war in some cities because I thought it would help my political aspirations, or just because I wanted to watch the world burn and enjoy watching children die in fires. 

    Wars have started over less. 

    Further, just to provide some context, in Islamic jurisprudence insulting the Prophet or the Koran is illegal - not just "bad" or "hurtful" but illegal - and punishable by death. Just as blasphemy and heresy were punishable in Christian culture for 1700 years or so. It is literally consider the worst thing one could do. That might not jibe with your sensibilities but that's not the liberal position, the liberal position is to respect the values of other cultures. Now, Islamic law doesn't countenance this kind of mob violence, but it is one of those things that has a kind of cultural tolerance to it because of the perceived severity of the crime involved. We are a nation whose history is stained by wrongful vigilante violence that doesn't differ from this behavior one iota. People have been manipulated by criminals and hucksters and politicians to burn down their neighbors' farms and villages time and again in just the same way this event unfolded. It is a tale as old as time itself. And the makers of this video counted on that.

    That doesn't make the actions of the mobs correct whatsoever, but certainly the video was the proximate cause, and without the video - no mobs. There would be a moral difference to unpack if a video quite unintentionally and without malice a forethought caused a riot. This video, however, was made intentionally to provoke violence and unrest,

    So no, Blue Girl isn't wrong. Frankly, to suggest that freedom of speech is an absolute right regardless of potential and easily identifiable harmful consequences is monstrous, and not a moral position that passes the test of either formalism or utilitarianism. 

  • Keith M Ellis on September 14, 2012 1:57 AM:

    It's pretty common for people to be aware of the "shouting 'fire' in a theater" exception to 1st Amendment free-speech, and those folk will argue, as Mich and others do above, that only speech which will creates a "physical threat" is exempted. (Well, and they're probably aware of the obscenity, libel/slander, and copyrighted exceptions, too — all of which substantially limit expression and thus the notion that the US is some near-absolutist freedom-of-expression polity is very mistaken even with regard to what is well-known. That said, people commonly seem to believe that free-speech applies to any speech in any forum, so, well, what are you gonna do?)

    However, the fact is that SCOTUS also includes a "fighting words" exception to the 1st, as well. In 1942's Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire decision, the court included in its exceptions "the insulting or 'fighting words' those that by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality." Specifically, this concerned a street preacher who called a law officer a "racketeer" and a "fascist" when he was taken into custody and was charged not with, say, slander, but specifically for calling the marshall an offensive name under a law specifically against name-calling, offensive speech in a public place. This was what the court upheld. That is to say, not that it was factually false, and not that the words would knowingly and directly cause physical harm (such a "'fire' in a theater"), but that they were "fighting words". Offensive enough to be, in themselves, damaging to peace, regardless of truth.

    Since this decision, the court has continually narrowed this exception because, obviously, it can be seen as a blanket claim against almost any speech, given that someone present finds it sufficiently offensive. But then, this is also true of obscenity.

    The truth is that even the US, with its unusually expansive notion of protected public speech, there's a great deal of speech which isn't actually protected under the 1st, including a lot of stuff that people commonly assume surely must be. Whether that how things should be, I don't know. Maybe the US should be more, or less, absolutist about speech.

    But what is true is that even within the US there is precedent for seeing this film, in a certain environment, as not being protected speech. If you walk up to a Muslim outside a US mosque and say some of the things that are said in this film, you could be arrested for it and you could find that it's not protected speech. But probably not — post-Chaplinsky, it's been one, long progression of increasingly tightened standards about fighting words. Nevertheless, the exception still exists and the qualitative distinction that some commenters above are assuming isn't operative.

  • Sherry Huiner on September 14, 2012 8:02 AM:

    @ Boatboy,

    What does TABMITWH mean? I googled it and the only references are back to the comment section of WaMo. Thanks for responding. I truly HATE being left out!
    --Sherry

    Oh, and screw craptcha

  • Werewolf on September 14, 2012 9:06 AM:

    @Sherry Hulner:
    TABMITWH=There's A Black Man In The White House.

  • Rugosa on September 14, 2012 10:32 AM:

    —perhaps it was pure opportunism—

    Ed, you crack me up sometimes.