In his speech to the UN General Assembly today, a simpering President Obama disingenuously stressed the importance of free speech while cowering to radical Islamists’ commitment to violently silencing critics’ voices. The president’s message apparently resonated with one Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago. Posner, feeling inspired, penned an utterly despicable essay slamming America for holding the First Amendment as sacred. Posner deemed free speech-loving Americans’ defense of an anti-Islam video as evidence that the U.S. overvalues freedom of expression:
The universal response in the United States to the uproar over the anti-Muslim video is that the Muslim world will just have to get used to freedom of expression. President Obama said so himself in a speech at the United Nations today, which included both a strong defense of the First Amendment and (“in the alternative,” as lawyers say) and a plea that the United States is helpless anyway when it comes to controlling information. In a world linked by YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, countless videos attacking people’s religions, produced by provocateurs, rabble-rousers, and lunatics, will spread to every corner of the world, as fast as the Internet can blast them, and beyond the power of governments to stop them. Muslims need to grow a thick skin, the thinking goes, as believers in the West have done over the centuries. Perhaps they will even learn what it means to live in a free society, and adopt something like the First Amendment in their own countries.
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.
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.
So, to Posner, freedom of speech is to blame for destructive ideologies like Communism and Nazism. Free speech kills!
Disgusted Twitterers exercised their First Amendment rights and took Posner to the woodshed:
When you’ve lost Oliver Willis …
Indeed. Sadly, this editorial was no parody. And Posner is regrettably in a position to influence the thinking of young people, the very people on whom we depend to protect the future of our country and defend the values that make it so exceptional. Men like Posner are dangerous and, while he has the right spew his anti-American garbage, by the same token, we can continue to fight back against those who seek to poison the well of our freedom. And, until our last breath, we will.