From the Publisher / Arnold G. York

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Free speech and not-so-free speech

The definition seems to change depending on who you’re talking to and what country you’re in. During the recent rioting in Egypt over the film on YouTube, the media interviewed some people in the streets of Cairo. One guy, who looked to be in his thirties, spoke excellent English and was quite articulate. He said the United States should arrest the filmmakers and punish them for the film. But it was also very clear that he believed the Egyptian revolution was about his right to question his own government and speak freely and not be arrested for what he said. When the interviewer sort of suggested that maybe the filmmaker had the same right, it was totally apparent that the Egyptian didn’t believe it. He obviously thought his right of free speech not only included his right to speak freely but also his right not to have to hear or see anything he considered to be offensive, sort of a freedom from unwanted speech, which he expected the government to enforce. It sort of left me shaking my head.

That’s not terribly unique to just the Arab countries. We may laugh at the Egyptian as being ignorant of what free speech really means, but at the same time we would be very offended if someone used the “N” word or made anti-Semitic or sexist remarks. Lots of campuses have rules about what they call “offensive speech,” sort of like if you intend to go to UC Berkeley the First Amendment is suspended in the name of community harmony until you graduate. That’s not just Berkeley. The same applies if you go to Baylor, a Baptist university in Texas, or BYU, a Mormon university in Utah, and most other universities. The upshot is that we all believe in free speech, at least in theory, but we all get very good at nuancing our language to keep the peace. Of course, the real experts at nuancing language are our politicians.

They have a terribly difficult job to do. They have to endear themselves to their base, even if their base makes contradictory demands; reach out to the independent or uncommitted, and at the same time not say things that make the opposition so angry they’re all going to show up at the polls.

In this election cycle it’s been difficult for the Democrats, but damn near impossible for the Republicans.

Poor Romney has got a base that wants raw meat thrown to the lions, particularly Democratic raw meat to the Republican lions. Romney knows even though that may be very emotionally satisfying to some Republicans, and cause them to write big checks, it’s still just not good politics. So they try and find softer language, as came out in the recent tapes of his speech at a Republican fundraiser. You don’t say that Obama is a failed, socialist, terrorist sympathizer without any spine; instead, you say sadly and wistfully—well, he tried but he just isn’t up to the job—with it’s not overly subtle message of both incompetence with just a soupcon of condescension and racism.

I’m sure by now you have read about or heard the tape of the little talk he gave to some $50,000-a-plate supporters at a Florida fundraiser a few months ago. What struck me is not that he believes that 47% of the population is essentially freeloaders, because he’s said that in various ways before when talking about entitlements. What struck me was how relaxed and articulate he was. For once he was talking about something he truly believed, in his own language, to his peers, who were all an obviously wealthy and very Republican audience. Romney was explaining his strategy, telling them the facts of political life. What works and what doesn’t work. It was a bit cynical but plain spoken. If I agreed with him, I probably would have been impressed. But I suspect that most Americans won’t see this as a government of the affluent, by the affluent, and for the affluent and that Romney’s quest will ultimately perish from the earth.

Publishers note:

Since there is a presidential election going on and some friends have suggested that I might be just a wee bit partisan, I want to extend an offer to you Republicans, or Independents or declined-to-state types to do some guest columns. The only rules are a maximum length of 750 words and no dirty words.