So this thing happened, yes? Some fundamentalist Christian nutjob made a video portraying the Islamic prophet Mohammed as a nasty individual, some fundamentalist Islamic nutjobs took it badly and killed some people, and a fundamentally self-absorbed and power-hungry presidential candidate may well have sunk his chances of winning the election with his oafish, ignorant, and opportunistic response.
How You’re Lied To: The Chorus
Meanwhile, the few remaining members of the right-wing media who can stand to look at themselves while defending this behavior – and the politicians that are in their pockets, like Representative John Fleming of Louisiana, and like Mitt Romney – have become blatantly obvious in the coordination of their effort to push a particular narrative. Note in this case, for instance, how often the word “feckless” is applied to Obama’s foreign policy; William Kristol used it, Charles Krauthammer has used it, Pete Feaver at Newsday has used it, John McCain has used it…and of course, once McCain used it, it became “news” and was repeated via the Associated Press wire and in other stories because it was “news.”
It originated with the Romney campaign. That word – “feckless” – was originally applied by an unnamed Romney “senior advisor” in a New York Times article (that article itself is the subject of some controversy, as it has changed substantially since first publication – including the redesignation of the “senior advisor” to “one senior strategist, who asked not to be named”).
This is how the right wing controls the political narrative – all their minions and shoe-shine boys are on the same page, all the time, reading from the same chapter and verse. This week, their goal is to make the narrative of the attacks in Libya and Egypt about the Obama administration’s “feckless” foreign policy…and it’s working, as usual, because we’re not paying enough attention and we’re not calling them out on it.
Our good friend the “define: feckless” search at Google returns this definition:
- (of a person) Lacking in efficiency or vitality.
- Unthinking and irresponsible.
Interestingly, even many right-wing commenters have basically charged that it is Romney’s highly politicized and opportunist criticism of the Obama administration that is “feckless” here. His criticism was initially based on a deliberate lie (one that is, again, being perpetuated by the likes of Krauthammer) that the Administration had “apologized” for the stupid, banal, and deliberately provocative film that led to the embassy attacks. That apology, of course, never happened. Nothing like that apology ever happened. But if all your news sources fall in the Fox-Limbaugh-Beck sphere, you probably think it did, because they keep pushing that narrative. And what will happen – Krauthammer’s already doing it – is that the “apology” narrative will slowly recede and morph into a reference to an older narrative about Obama’s “apology tour” in 2009…which also didn’t involve a single apology. Interestingly, Krauthammer was on the front lines of pimping that lie as well.
We’re working backwards here, so bear with me.
The reality that right-wing sycophants like Krauthammer and Kristol are hoping you will forget is that Romney himself, in his first response to a major international incident that involved the loss of American lives, lied to use the deaths of Americans for political gain, almost before he did anything else. His original speech did contain a generic acknowledgement of that loss of life, before segueing into a ham-handed attempt at bravado involving “defending our constitutional rights” which of course is fairly meaningless in a country that isn’t governed by our constitution. It then jumped immediately into first criticizing the Administration for “standing by” the original statement (via Twitter) from the US embassy in Cairo (issued BEFORE the attack), and then – remarkably – criticizing them for “distancing themselves” from the statement. Why remarkably? Read it again: according to Romney, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the Embassy statement was the right thing to do. Apparently the only right thing to do is to be “outraged” – “the first response of the United States must be outrage” – and that apparently entails neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the statement issued by the Embassy. (The original statement has been removed, regrettably, from the official Embassy site, but it’s reproduced about half-way down the page here.)
The original statement wasn’t an apology, either, but a condemnation of the abuse of free speech to deliberately offend religious believers.
And that’s where we get into the points raised in the title of this article.
Freedom Isn’t Free, Right?
Like most Americans, I like to think of myself as being very much in support of free expression. Indeed, I’ve been quite the crusader on that point over the years. But as I get older, I’ve also come to realize that no matter how much I may have the right to say something, commensurate with that right is the duty to acknowledge that what I say has consequences. Whether those consequences are right or wrong, justified or not, is irrelevant in this context; they exist, regardless of my own feelings about it. A responsible “agent” (in this sense, the person doing the expressing) takes these things into consideration as part of their decision to express. This is not to say that one should routinely censor one’s self for fear of offense, but that one has a moral obligation to consider the implications and consequences of what they’re saying before they say it.
I believe that the producers of this film were hoping for precisely this kind of reaction, because it tends to add validation their core position that Islam is a religion of anger and war, at least among those who don’t think carefully enough to separate a religion from the behavior of some individuals claiming adherence to that religion.
That makes their production and publication of this film an act deliberately intended to provoke violence…and from an ethical standpoint, that makes them partially responsible for the violence.
That’s not a morally defensible exercise of free speech, and to cloak it in the noble principles of freedom is, in my opinion, disingenuous.
If I wanted to open a dialogue about the divinity of Jesus, how would Christians feel if I opened that dialogue by saying that Jesus was a homosexual woman-beater who sexually molested children? Or let’s stick to something that most believers can agree on but that can be phrased to offend – how would they feel if I said Jesus was a guy who hung out with whores, kissed men, had little respect for government, less respect for money, and wouldn’t want a damned thing to do with a substantial, if not majority, percentage of hateful, ignorant jerks who run around hurting people in his name today?
Am I going to “win any converts” taking that approach? Probably not. I might get a nice round of applause from those who share that point of view, but I don’t see a great number of Christians reacting well to that. In fact, some of them might even want to do violence to me.
So…do I want to lead people to what I think is a more refined and reasoned way of thinking, or do I just want to piss them off so I can be a martyr for my own ideology? It can be useful to provoke anger as a means of shaking people up, but when the point is simply to provoke anger for the sake of saying “I told you so,” then you start losing ground with me.
Killing For Jesus (or Allah)
The other side of this argument also has some validity – you don’t run around proclaiming yourself to adhere to a religion of peace, and then killing anyone who says something about your religion that you don’t like. I don’t care who your “god” is – if your god needs you to run around killing people, your god sucks. (That’s a good example of the distinction I’m trying to make here, by the way – I know that’s going to offend someone, but offending someone isn’t the point; the point is to emphasize the irrational thought process behind this behavior, underscoring it with an assertive statement.)
I want to be clear that I do not in any way support the idea that it is justified to kill someone for offending your religious beliefs, nor do I believe that the possibility you will should ever prevent someone from speaking freely. But I also don’t like the idea of hiding behind the principle of free expression as an excuse to provoke people to violence – especially when you’re just as bad as they are, and just as willing to engage in the very same behavior that you’re claiming to stand against.
The good part about this? Rational actors on all sides have taken – for once – a very public, strong, and clear stand in favor of rationality. In the same way that the US Embassy condemned the deliberate provocation of violence, the people of Libya and Egypt have made many public statements apologizing for the violence and expressing their rejection of such behavior as being out of line with their religious beliefs.
These are the people who will come together and lead the world into a more peaceful paradigm. In order to do so, we must – regardless of our beliefs – be consistent. Yes, in your religion it is a sin to make a picture of Mohammed, but I’m not a member of your religion and I’m not obligated to obey its edicts. Yes, in your religion it is a sin to consume caffeine or bacon or alcohol, but I’m not a member of your religion and I’m not obligated to obey its edicts. Your all-powerful God – whichever one it happens to be – does not need you to force me to do so. If your God does need you to do this, your God is not all-powerful
I think many, if not most, religious adherents understand this. Some don’t. Religion is, by its nature, dogmatic and authoritarian, and unfortunately that means it’s going to appeal to people who have those types of personalities.
The thing is, most of the world’s religions acknowledge that forcing people to act according to their rules is not an effective way to win converts…and that includes Islam.
Back to Mitt The Feckless
So then there’s ol’ Mitt the Twit. Romney’s statement and behavior in the wake of this situation is ridiculous – it would be almost comedic if the consequences and the level of power this man has attained weren’t so grave. If you think people in the middle east are anti-American now, how much more so will they be when we once again have a president whose first response to any situation is “be outraged,” “be angry,” “wage war?” That is exactly not the type of “leadership” this country, or any country, needs.
That’s not just a matter of election-year politics. I implore the reader to remember that Mitt’s responses and behavior are exactly the same attitude that we condemn other leaders for. It is precisely the kind of thinking Romney expressed that pulled the trigger in Libya a couple of days ago. It’s precisely that kind of thinking that led to the deaths of several people after that Danish newspaper published several caricatures of Mohammed a few years ago.
It’s precisely the kind of behavior Mitt Romney and many others like him seek to sanctimoniously condemn when people who “aren’t like us” engage in it…and that – that hypocrisy, that double-standard, that “do as I say not what I do, or else” mentality – is one of the key roots to anti-American sentiment around the world.
They don’t “hate us for our freedom,” folks – they hate us for our hypocrisy, and by allowing a bumbling half-wit like Mitt Romney to take a position of power in this country, we will quickly see a return to the kind of hostility that led directly to the attack on the USS Cole, the first and second WTC attacks, the taking of American hostages in Lebanon in 1980.
If we are going to demand that other nations and cultures “live and let live,” then we must be willing to hold to that principle ourselves. More than anything else, the great fecklessness of the Romney campaign’s response to this situation is that it sends a clear signal that they have no intention of holding to that principle.
Yes, people died for stupid reasons and that’s tragic. Yes, those responsible should be held responsible. Yes, we should defend ourselves. But “defending ourselves” does not mean a thousand-to-one kill ratio, it doesn’t mean abandoning diplomacy every time some nutjob acts like a nutjob, and it doesn’t mean using military power to force other nations to bow and scrape before us.
Hopefully the day will come when that self-evident truth is just as self-evident to all the religious and political leaders of the world as it is to me.