Ruminations, May 4, 2014
Freedom of speech
*** Freedom of speech is a right protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment states:
“Congress shall make no law …abridging the freedom of speech…”
It’s simple and straightforward and Congress has not acted to restrict speech. But people have.
Brendan Eich. In 2008, Brendan Eich donated $1,000 to support California ballot initiative Proposition 8, which defined marriage as restricted to a man and a woman. Although a majority of California voters supported the proposition (the courts later struck it down), last month Eich was forced to resign his position as Chief Executive Officer of Mozilla because he chose to exercise his freedom of speech. California’s campaign-finance-disclosure laws made Eich’s opinion public knowledge and Mozilla’s board of directors, while denying that they forced Eich out, forced Eich out.
Cliven Bundy. Rancher Cliven Bundy has had a legal dispute with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM claims that Bundy owes them approximately $1 million (including interest) for grazing his cattle on public lands. BLM’s position has been upheld in courts. When the BLM decided to round up Bundy’s cattle from federal land, Bundy supporters gathered ostensibly to protest the action, and the BLM subsequently negotiated a truce.
Bundy then gave the media a rambling discourse in which he questioned whether or not blacks would be better off under slavery than they are under their present circumstances. For this he was lambasted as a racist and many who had supported his position vis-à-vis the BLM abandoned him.
What does his position vis-à-vis the BLM have to do with his position on race relations and slavery? Nothing. They are two distinct items and yet, because Bundy chose to exercise his right to free speech, many of his supporters – especially national politicians – have abandoned him. Now certainly politicians have a right to their own free speech and a right to change their minds but if they were supporting Bundy on principle why would that change?
Donald Sterling. While many in this country – and, indeed, the world – have thought that the National Security Agency (NSA) was overreaching with their surveillance of private citizens, Donald Sterling was caught exercising his right to free speech in his own home to a trusted individual.
Sterling, as you probably know by now, went on a racist rant to his mistress in his own home while she surreptitiously recorded the rant and then released it to the media.
In 2005, Sterling settled a case for $5 million that alleged he discriminated against Koreans. In 2009, he was fined $2.7 million for discriminating against blacks, Hispanics and families with children.
In spite of Sterling’s discriminatory actions, the media and the National Basketball Association (NBA) did nothing. But, when Sterling chose to exercise his right to free speech – in a private conversation in his own home – the NBA took action. It barred Sterling from the league for life, imposed a $2.5 million fine and recommended that Sterling sell his team. Why did the NBA take action? There is no evidence that Sterling treated or paid his players in any discriminatory manner but the NBA took action because of what he said.
Conclusion. Freedom of speech is most important when you disagree with the speech. And, there is no law against stupidity. Ergo, there is no law against stupid speech.
Granted, the NBA is a private organization. Mozilla is a private organization. Politicians and the media – and the American people -- have the right to support or not support whomsoever they wish. But, when a large number of people band together to suppress freedom of speech, it is functioning as the government. And that’s when we need to worry.
The U.S. vs. Russia (oh yes, and Ukraine)
What to do, what to do. President Obama would like to appear to be strong in dealing with Russia over Ukraine but at the same time, would like to do it without expending much effort. And he’s got no shortage of advice – although even the advice doesn’t appear to be too helpful.
Anne Applebaum, historian and Eastern Europe expert, calls the sanctions that the U.S. and Europe have inflicted upon Russia as making us feel quite satisfied, made the international markets jumpy and, at the same time, “beside the point. … [Because] Russia is now run by people who don’t care anymore about international markets, or at least not as much as they care about territorial expansion.” We’re a little late to take strong action and even Romney’s campaign warnings about Russia as a geo-political enemy were late (but certainly more timely than Obama’s concern). Gazprom, Russia’s oil company (for practical purposes, state run) poses an economic and political threat enhanced by its hiring of European politicians like former German chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder. As a counter, the U.S. could expedite the Keystone pipeline, fracking and create more liquid gas terminals to export liquid natural gas to our allies. It may not help Ukraine in the short term but it could strengthen the West in the future. (For more by Applebaum, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/anne-applebaum-finding-the-energy....)
Zbigniew Brzezinski, in an interview in the Wall Street Journal, the former national security adviser said that he believes the U.S. can coerce Russia to allow Ukraine to “pursue its objective to become more European." We can do this by telling the Russians that they risk a “confrontation.” Brzezinski would make the threat stronger by promising Ukraine more weaponry that is suitable for urban warfare and helping them to rebuild their armies. This seems to be an intermediate- or long-term solution. In the short term, Brzezinski urges Obama to continue the path of increasing sanctions. (For the complete interview, see http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB1000142405270230416360457953194035....)
George Friedman, political scientist, author and founder of Stratfor private intelligence corporation, has a more cynical view. He says, sanctions’ “purpose is to induce behavioral changes in a target state by causing economic pain. To work, sanctions must therefore cause pain. But they must not be so severe that they convince the target state that war is more desirable than capitulating to the demands of the sanctioning nation[s].”
In 1941 for example, the United States, Great Britain and the Dutch East Indies responded to Japan’s invasion of Indo-China with sanctions that were so effective that Japan thought that it had no alternative (other than allowing the U.S. to dictate its foreign policy) than to go to war. “Sanctions work better against countries that lack retaliatory options,” like Iran and the Central African Republic. But Russia has a strong military capability and the ability to cut energy exports as well as seizing Western assets in Russia. In addition, with the eighth largest economy in the world, Russian economic issues are intertwined with American, European and Asian. And anything that could threaten U.S. interests would be looked at askance by our other trading partners.
In short, Friedman says, “The U.S. sanctions strategy is therefore not designed to change Russian policies; it is designed to make it look like the United States is trying to change Russian policy. And it is aimed at those in Congress who have made this a major issue and at those parts of the State Department that want to orient U.S. national security policy around the issue of human rights. Both can be told that something is being done -- and both can pretend that something is being done -- when in fact nothing can be done. In a world clamoring for action, prudent leaders sometimes prefer the appearance of doing something to actually doing something.” (For a more complete analysis by Friedman, see http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/us-opts-ineffective-sanctions-russia?utm_....)
Conclusion. There seems to be no shortage of advice but little of it is actionable for the short term – and most politicians do not think long term.
Kerry and apartheid
Last Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry told a closed Trilateral Commission meeting in Washington that if Israel doesn’t conclude an agreement with the Palestinians soon Israel could become “an apartheid state.”
Whoa. “An apartheid state” is a loaded phrase. It’s a phrase that Israel’s enemies often use to describe Israel. And anyone, especially one engaged in diplomacy, would be very careful about its use. Was Kerry just a little too casual in using the “A” word? He’d like us to think so. But was he really?
Let’s look at the context. He made the statement to the Trilateral Commission, a forty-year-old group of leaders and opinion-makers from North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. Membership is about 400 and some of the current members are Paul Volcker, David Gergen, Madeleine Albright, David Brooks, Mitch Daniels, Martin Feldstein, Austan Goolsbee, Jamie Gorelick, Richard N. Haass, Jane Harman, Jon Huntsman, Henry Kissinger, David Ignatius, Thomas (Mac) McLarty, John Negroponte, Meghan O’Sullivan, David Rockefeller, Gerald Seib, Olympia Snowe, Lawrence Summers and Strobe Talbott. This is not your everyday sittin’ ’round the barber shop crowd. If you were to be speaking to such an august group as the Trilateral Commission, you’d be darn sure that each and every word you used was finely vetted for maximum effect. Kerry has been around long enough to be aware that his remarks would not only have an effect on his audience but would make their way back to Israel.
Even Kerry admitted his remarks were precisely what he meant when he “walked them back” for home consumption the next day by saying, “I have been around long enough to also know the power of words to create a misimpression, even when unintentional.” “…create a misimpression, even when unintentional?” Isn’t that kind of a double negative meaning the same as “create an impression, even when intentional?”
It would appear that the Administration is putting Israel on notice that unless Israel conforms to America’s agenda, then America may join Israel’s enemies – at least in terms of intentional impressions.
Quote without comment
Then President George W. Bush, talking to Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, as quoted in Peter Baker’s 2013 book, Days of Fire; Bush and Cheney in the White House: “[Putin is] not well informed. It’s like arguing with an eighth grader with his facts wrong.”