The current debate about the Islamic world's reaction to the video "Innocence of Muslims" is rich in irony. Seemingly unawares, religious leaders and politicians alike are exposing their hypocritical tendencies; a sideshow that distracts us from the very real threats to free speech that both groups ignore. It would be laughable if it wasn't so serious - both for human life and for the viability of our Constitutional Republic.
When news first came that Muslims were rioting in response to their discovery of the amateur video, the usual suspects came quickly to the video's defense. Rabid anti-islamic preacher Terry Jones voiced support and defended the production's right to exercise free speech. Plenty of politicians climbed on board as well, and not all of them were far right-wingers. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while condemning the content of the video, nonetheless staunchly defended its right to be promulgated, as did President Obama. Even though past events have shown us that overt acts such as disseminating this video or advertising a Koran burning, will lead ineluctably to riots and multiple deaths, no one seems willing to consider whether this is at all like yelling fire in a crowded movie theater.
The politicos wear their adherence to first amendment principles on their sleeves just like they do the American flags on their lapels, but only when defending American speech that violates the tenets of others. If free speech at home is exercised to criticize the government or its powerful political parties, it is penned into "free speech zones," typically constructed with Jersey barricades and chain link fence and located miles from the event that is being criticized. If someone makes it into an event and exercises free speech, they are arrested, charged, brought to trial and fined or jailed, as Lawrence Reichard of Bangor, Maine, learned when he stood up at a Tony Blair speech this year and called Blair a criminal and a liar. Creative Occupy activists in Los Angeles, in response to their ever-decreasing ability to gather and express their views, recently got roughed up and arrested for writing political speech on the sidewalks with chalk.
Of course, the free-speech zealots defending the anti-Muslim video are the same types who have howled with indignation and demanded government action to censor Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," a photograph of a plastic Jesus on a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist's urine, when it has periodically come to America on exhibition. In fact, the photograph is making its latest appearance right now at a gallery in New York, and, true to form, a Republican lawmaker is calling for the Obama administration to prevent the gallery from showing the work.
Most, if not every, American agrees that free speech is vitally important to our commonweal and an integral part of our Constitutional character. As our leaders become ever more reckless, venal and corrupt, maintaining free speech in America is more important than ever. But just because it is of utmost importance to us, does that mean that it is intrinsically a concept that trumps all others? What if a society valued something else more than free speech, say the concept that everyone has a right to revere their own religion without it being attacked or blasphemed by others? Or, more broadly, what if the notion of respect for others was higher on their list of priorities than free speech for all? Where do we get the authority to tell other peoples that this is not as important as freedom of speech? This smacks of the same racist, empire-apologist rationales that were trotted out to justify the torture, slaughter and decimation of the native population of the Philippines after the U.S. seized control of the nation during the Spanish American War, or the genocide of Native Americans or the devastating "collateral damage" that followed our "liberation" of Iraq.
We have bullied and bludgeoned our way over any "other" who has stood between us and our "manifest destiny" as we have established American might globally. The imbalance of power between industrialized America and any of its pre-industrial native foes have allowed us to emerge triumphant -- in terms of power and territory -- each time we have expanded our empire. But in the age of the internet, power comes in more than one flavor and it takes more than tanks and aircraft carriers to dominate the world.
Since Vietnam, America has been dealt numerous defeats by asymmetrical warfare that proved adaptable and effective at curtailing our power. In every instance, we were busy convincing ourselves that we were fighting for some noble cause or another that was far superior to any traditions or beliefs that motivated our opponents. Until we stop assuming that our principles are superior, we will continue to blunder through these same mistakes again and again. We're living in a glass house, and all the neighbors are gathering stones.
We had better figure out how to create societal norms that honor cultures other than our own. The Internet is crowded, just like a filled movie theater is. Until we learn how to temper our speech out of respect for others, we can expect a steady stream of violence and a continual downgrading of international understanding and increased suspicions and animosity between ourselves and the rest of the world. If we want to put some energy into asserting our free speech rights, let's start by focusing on our rights to criticize our own leaders or mores without being marginalized or arrested for the effort.
Dan DeWalt writes from Newfane. He is also a contributor to www.thiscantbehappening.net.