18 May 2010

Obama's Free Press

When I saw that the President had signed legislation to “promote free press around the world,” it immediately popped into my head that I should write a post connecting that action to the many others that demonstrate Mr. Obama’s overt hostility to free speech, including freedom of the press. To my surprise, I discovered that someone had already made the connection, on (of all places) the New York Times blog The Caucus.

First, the author, Peter Baker, noted the irony of the title of the legislation—the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act. The Obama administration had only last year decided (and later retracted after a public outcry) to hold the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City, thereby giving the terrorist a platform to spew his venom. (Perhaps this is what Mr. Obama considers to be free speech: funding anti-Jewish, anti-American pogroms with taxpayer money.) Mohammed is the self-proclaimed mastermind of the September 11 atrocity and claims to be Daniel Pearl’s murderer, so coddling this monster hardly seems like a proper way to honor either Mr. Pearl or freedom of the press.

Baker pointed out another irony—that media access was tightly restricted for the very same signing ceremony that was supposedly urging a free press overseas. Furthermore, the President has been unabashedly hostile to the media:

Mr. Obama lately has become something of a media critic, regularly bemoaning what he sees as divisive, shallow coverage, particularly on cable television. “Today’s 24-7 echo chamber amplifies the most inflammatory sound bites louder and faster than ever before,” he told graduating seniors at the University of Michigan this month. (How he knows, of course, is an intriguing question given that on Monday at an unrelated event, he told an audience: “I know you’ll be surprised that we don’t watch the news shows.”)

But it never hurts to stand up for free press in other countries.[Note 2.]

There are other chilling threats to free speech that could be mentioned here, including the White House snitch line, Mr. Obama’s support of “regulatory czar” Cass Sunstein and the “Fairness Doctrine,” etc., but it is surprising and refreshing to see criticism, even to the point of sarcasm, coming from the New York Times.


1. The New York Times, “U.S. to Promote Press Freedom,” 17 May 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/18/world/18press.html?scp=2&sq=daniel%20pearl&st=cse.

2. Peter Baker, “Obama Signs Bill Intended to Promote Free Press,” The Caucus, a New York Time blog, http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/17/obama-signs-bill-aimed-to-promote-free-press/.

09 May 2010

Emerson String Quartet Plays Shostakovich

The string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich are remarkable and often disturbing. I like this video of the great Emerson String Quartet playing one of my favorite passages––the third movement, allegro non troppo, of Quartet No. 3. It was composed in 1946, more than a half dozen years before Stalin's death, but I think it shares a lot in common with his post-Stalin works. (For example, compare it to the second movement of the Tenth Symphony.)

02 May 2010

Freedom of Speech

I’ve never seen the television show South Park, the creators of which are now the target of “an informal fatwa,” as Ayaan Hirsi Ali aptly called it. I have the general impression that South Park treats just about everything and everyone irreverently, and I am not much interested in that brand of humor. But it is a test of integrity to defend a principle even when it means standing up for people or actions one does not necessarily like or agree with.

Freedom of speech is one of the most important corollaries of individual rights, as inseparable from rights as are property rights (i.e. keeping what one has earned). Unlike property rights, however, which have buckled, crumbled, and fallen under withering attacks from every direction for more than a century, free speech has stood largely intact. It is the last fortification of liberty––and it has lately been under serious assault.

The curious thing about this attack is how puny and irrational it is. A mob of medieval thugs is holding all of western civilization hostage. Someday, assuming civilization wakes up and survives this crisis, mankind will look back on this period with utter bewilderment. How could a band of violent, retrograde primitivists succeed against a civilization that is vastly superior in every way: morally, scientifically, technologically, financially, and militarily?

The answer is: they cannot. It is the western institutions themselves that have dropped their arms, capitulated, and surrendered to militant Islamists. The governments of the West, the institutions whose sole proper function is to defend the rights of men, have abandoned the field––a field already strewn with murdered victims––leaving ordinary, unarmed, civilized people exposed to marauding barbarians.

It is true that the betrayal is not confined to the governments; intellectuals, movie stars, publishers, and the news media have quaked, cowered, and meekly complied with self-censorship. However, though this often constitutes cowardice on their part (and sometimes, just a natural and understandable response to fear), it is not their job or duty to stand up for free speech. It is the job of governments to defend rights, and for this reason, I hold them responsible for the current state of affairs. When Salman Rushdie was threatened with a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran in 1989, it was an act of war––a war that the West has since refused to fight or even acknowledge.

Today, because of the capitulations and failures of the Bush-Obama government and the other semi-free governments of the world, a handful of private citizens––authors, filmmakers, cartoonists, and bloggers––are utterly alone on the front line defending free speech. Still fewer of us (mostly Objectivists), defend it as a matter of fact-based, life-embracing principle. We are at once defenseless and unassailable: defenseless, because we are unarmed against murderers who wish to cut our throats; unassailable, because we are right.


I have to credit Elan Journo and his excellent blog post, "South Park and self-censorship," at Voices for Reason. I think I must have read it some days ago, and upon coming upon it again tonight, it is evident that I absorbed his basic point without remembering having done so. The last part of my post makes essentially the same point that he made; he even specifically cited Salman Rushdie as an example of the outrage. Certainly, this all follows from premises I have long held, and I think I made all the connections myself, but in any case, I thank Mr. Journo for his article and his excellent work at the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights.