Thursday, April 4, 2013

Free Speech and Stating the Obvious

It’s very difficult for outsiders to grasp what’s going on in a foreign country, even when it’s in the headlines a lot. I saw this when I lived in Moscow. Every day I’d read something in the UK or US press and be appalled at the trite, superficial and generally awful level of analysis of Russia on offer.

Now that I live in the US, I feel the same way about this country. Since American newspapers are pompous and dull, I don’t read them- I much prefer the scurrilous British journalistic style. But there is so much ill-informed nonsense about America in the British press that I often wonder why I bother. For instance I don’t think I’ve ever read one article articulating just how long-winded and boring Obama is when he gives a speech.

If you don’t live here then what you’ll probably remember of Obama’s speeches are a few vaguely inspiring and yet curiously forgettable orations he gave prior to his election, and the address full of touchy feely blather and assorted historical inaccuracies he delivered in Cairo in 2009.

But Obama has given many, many more speeches than that. In fact, for the first two years of his presidency he just wouldn’t stop havering (as we say in Scotland.) Clearly he’d read all that Great Orator hype in the papers and had succumbed to his own myth. Thus in early 2009 he started appearing on TV to talk to us. A lot.

This was very annoying. There I’d be, settling down to watch Hell’s Kitchen and all of a sudden Obama appears and starts rambling on as if America was Cuba and he was Fidel. After an hour or so he’d disappear and then the godforsaken “analysis” would begin.

I probably watched two or three of these addresses, and then stopped. What was the point? Obama is an utterly conventional thinker, there is nothing he says that you can’t find in an NYT op ed, and everything else was puffery for his policies. Not only that, but whenever he did displace Two and a Half Men from the listings to pitch healthcare reform, support for the policy often declined.

The president reached the nadir of rhetorical awfulness when, during a televised address at West Point Military Academy, he informed the Taliban that the US was going to leave Afghanistan anyway, and that if they just waited a couple of years they could have it back. Even the usual media sycophants admitted that he seemed small, isolated and uncomfortable on the stage (although many still argued that the president’s new strategy of “Let’s get out of this dump!” was astounding tactical awesomeness.)

After that I gave up cable and stopped watching network TV and so rarely had to bother with Obama’s waffle. I understand that he does still like to appear on TV and address the people however. For instance, last week he appeared on Pakistani TV to assure the citizens of that unhappy country that his government had nothing to do with the Youtube clip that nobody needs to watch if they don’t want to and yet which many people in the Muslim world are very, very angry about.

It was, as usual, an ineffective performance: the next day the rioting went into overdrive, more people died and a member of the Pakistani government offered $100, 000 to whoever murdered the man who made the clip –a US citizen, by the way. 

Undeterred, Obama decided to make another speech, this time at the UN, which for those of you who haven’t heard of it is a club popular with tyrants, Jew-haters, gay bashers and lefty Europeans.

Oh no, I thought, here we go again. Because after two weeks of rioting and violence, what I really wanted was for a Western leader to argue forcefully for free speech; to point out that it is unjust to exclude one interpretation of the world from criticism while permitting all others to be subject to scrutiny (and abuse); or that given that over 80% of the world does not practice Islam it’s absurd to think that the rest of us should be subject to its taboos; or indeed that were it not for the joy of heresy we would still believe that the earth is 6000 years old and that it is the center of the universe. And so on.

Yes, it’s bad manners to insult somebody’s faith, but it should not be a criminal offence and heaven knows it’s nothing to murder people over. We are not living in the Middle Ages, thank God.    

There’s no way he’s going to say all those things I thought. And he didn’t, or at least not exactly. But buried inside all the platitudes there was nonetheless a strong defense of the First Amendment; he did not apologize for America’s freedom of speech, he more or less told the world to deal with it. How refreshing, to hear an obvious truth spoken aloud! And so for once, I am listening; but as for those who most need to hear Obama’s message- well, I suspect that’s another matter entirely.