Sunday, September 23, 2012

Civil Society and the Rule of Law in Libya

Some online friends and I were having a discussion on civil society and violence in Libya and elsewhere, in relation to the recent violence in the Middle East (most prominently the murdered Americans) over the "Innocence of Muslims" movie.  It got me thinking, and this is my attempt to lay my thoughts out more clearly.

We all agreed that the recent violence is not caused by Islam per se.  That is, Muslims may be offended because they are Muslims, but they are not more likely to react violently because they are Muslims.  Rather, the explanation lies in the specific situations of the countries where the violence occurred.  Good evidence for this is the lack of violent protests in America over the movie -- American Muslims may be (rightly) offended, but they aren't killing people or demanding that a movie be banned.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Stating the Obvious

I have nothing to say about Romney's assertion that 47% of the country are moochers living tax-free.  Others have dealt with the salient points better and earlier -- that it is untrue (the majority of Americans who do not pay income tax pay payroll taxes, and most of the rest are retired, and the rest are mostly the very poor or students, making less than $20,000 a year*), that is is rather rich for a man who pays 13% in taxes to call people paying 18% in (payroll) taxes freeloaders, that this is perhaps one of the dumbest things Romeny has done yet.

So I'm going to reach back a news cycle (to an event that's ongoing, if forgotten) and state the obvious: we are not at war with Islam.

This is not because Islam is  a 'religion of peace,' since it is no more peaceful than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism.**  Indeed, few religions are 'religions of peace' in any meaningful way -- off the top of my head I can think of Quakerism, various Anabaptist sects (Mennonites, the Amish), Jehovah's Witnesses and Jains.  That is  to say, these religions a) have no religious conflicts fought in their name and b) are actually pacifistic.

Nor are we not at we not at war with Islam because there are muslims that like us or at least don't hate us.  As moving as the protests held in Benghazi against the murders were, they are beside my point.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Right to Be an Asshole and Liberal Democracy

The people who attacked and killed the American ambassador in Benghazi are murderers.  Our president said that we are working with the Libyan government to bring those responsible* to justice, and I hope that we do so, and quickly.  'Pastor' Terry Jones and others like him, on the other hand, are assholes (trying deliberately provoke a religious war is, among other things, a dick move).  And unlike the murderous militias with RPGs, they have every right to be assholes, even though their assholery is of a rather purposeful nature (Jones seemed rather thankful that Americans died in order to show the world what muslims were 'really like').

The right to be an asshole -- of the hateful, offensive, or simply noxious varieties (Nazis, Fred Phelps, NAMBLA**) is a critical right that we Americans enjoy.  It is the most radical outgrowth of free speech.  But people are not born respecting free speech anymore than they are born respecting the integrity of the political process.  Free speech is something that requires a civil society truly dedicated to it, and laws and institutions that defend it.  It is rather recently that Americans could safely say things that offended others -- 200 years ago, Americans didn't recognize the right of papers to say nasty things about Adams and Hamilton. 150 years ago people rioted in similar ways when a newspaper badmouthed slavery. 80 years ago people beat up those who spoke out for labor. 50 years ago people were killing people who spoke out against segregation, and, and these examples only cover speech that has merit, not some idiot's offensive ramblings.  It has taken years of hard work, a more tolerant and less violent civil society and some people giving up their very lives in order for Fred Phelps to have the right to say the things he does.

And so it is no surprise that people in Egypt and Libya do not recognize the right to be an asshole.  Having elections is relatively easy, but it will take years of building for those nations (so recently under despots) to have the kind of civil society that can tolerate offensive speech.  Hopefully free speech will still be fashionable when that building is complete.

*who do not seem to have been an angry mob, but instead a well armed terrorist militia of some kind.

**provided that they just talk, not act out whatever vile or perverse beliefs they have