One thing I truly love about America is the First Amendment- you know, the one about Congress making no law ‘…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’ and all that.
Just think about it: a group of revolutionaries had just seized control of a British colony, and one of the first things they did was grant everybody the right to abuse them. It’s astonishing: probably the first time in human history people in power willingly granted the lower orders free license to say whatever they wanted.
Indeed, it’s so radical that I don’t think any government has gone as far since. When I was a boy in the UK I assumed we had freedom of speech, even though we don’t have a written constitution. In fact there were blasphemy laws and bans on ‘nasty’ videos imposed by a cabal of invisible censors. The last Labour government was an egregious offender against free speech, and even tabled legislation against gay jokes. Now it might be ignorant and offensive to tell gay jokes, but you’re never going to persuade me it should be a crime.
Labour also passed a very vague law prohibiting ‘incitement to religious hatred.’ Why should it be a crime to hate an explanation of the universe? I don’t know, unless you mean it is illegal to hate the people who believe in it. Regardless, the law has had a chilling effect on freedom of speech: last year, two British hoteliers were put on trial for telling Muslim guests that Mohammed was a warlord. That may be bad manners, but it shouldn’t be a crime.
In America it’s not so easy to muddy the free speech waters. We saw that recently when Pastor Terry Jones burnt a copy of Koran, which- thanks to the First Amendment- is entirely legal. Now Jones has very bad manners indeed, and on top of that he is an imbecile. But his provocation has sparked off an avalanche of yet greater imbecility, much of it inspired by confusion over free speech.
1) When Jones first announced his intentions last summer the US media spun it into a huge scandal- even though he has about 30 followers in his church and a cursory glance at Youtube will reveal many Korans spiraling down u-bends.
2) The various leaders of Muslim countries who- not having free speech at home - asked President Obama to stop the Koran burning, apparently unaware that Islam’s taboos are not universal.
3) Obama, who pleaded with Jones not to burn the book thus elevating a fool’s posturing to the presidential level.
Of course, Jones backed down. And then a few months later changed his mind. And this unleashed another round of stupidity, not to mention plain evil.
The evil is obvious: you find it in the mob of angry Afghans who murdered 20 people as an act of vengeance, and in President Karzai of Afghanistan who demagogued the issue to distract his long-suffering electorate from his corruption and failure.
The stupidity came from the commentators who blamed Jones for the murders, which is like blaming Ozzy Osbourne for the suicide of kids who listen to his records, or a girl in a bikini for getting raped, or JD Salinger for John Lennon’s murder, or indeed America for 9/11- after all, did not Osama bin Laden complain about the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia as an intolerable insult to Islam?
Stupid as it is, many talking heads uttered this line, effectively inviting a foreign mob to rewrite the Bill of Rights for them.
Of course, burning a book is not the same as killing somebody. Only the killer is guilty of murder, as we are all responsible for our actions. It’s always possible I suppose that those who blame Jones are racists who believe Afghans are mindless savages, compelled to kill whenever a foreigner insults their prophet. In which case, please, say it out loud. The First Amendment protects even the most offensive beliefs.
Even worse than the commentators however were two members of the US Senate, a Republican and Democrat, both inheritors of the men who framed the most amazing free speech laws in world. Harry Reid, a useless zombie mysteriously gifted a very senior position in the Democrat Party mumbled something about holding congressional hearings. Then an oily, Republican used condom salesman named Lindsey Graham publicly regretted that America had free speech, since ‘we are in a war.’
They were demagoguing, like Karzai. I don’t really think they believe that a mob in a foreign land can dictate restrictions on the rights of people living in the US. I hope not anyway. If they are serious then I just might become a US citizen myself- so I can vote against them. Now I know they are in different parties and neither man represents my district. But America is a land of grand dreams. I’d find a way.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.