Saturday, October 23, 2010

Free Speech?

The Economist weighs in on the firing of Juan Williams from NPR through the prism presented by liberal rage at the Citizens United decision.

(For the record, I'm totally for the Citizens United decision. Just wanted to get that out of the way.).

I haven't really been following the whole Juan Williams thing because I don't really care that much about it. I don't know that Williams really said anything that was egregiously offensive so much as honest. He said that he felt nervous when he saw people in traditional Islamic garb on planes. It's silly, in fact very silly if you look at it from a statistical standpoint (how many Muslim terrorists attempt to take over planes dressed as stereotypical Muslim terrorists?). However, I don't know that saying that you're nervous about something is necessarily bigoted.

I live in a really rough neighborhood. When I come across groups of young black men that I don't know, I sometimes feel nervous. If I know them (which is most of the neighborhood), than typically, I feel welcomed. At the same time, if I come across a group of white frat boys, I tend to also feel nervous. Inasmuch as I never know any of them, the nervousness tends to be more severe.

I'm straying a bit off topic here. The point is that people make generalizations, always. You're a bigot if you operate under the assumption that what might be a valid generalization for a group should be an assumed characteristic of an individual.

Anyways, back to Williams.

So he said something nasty about Muslims in a public forum. His employers who have an understandable interest in courting Muslim dollars (as well as the dollars of everyone else that listens to NPR), decided that it presented them in a bad light and fired him.

And that's fine. Williams is free to say whatever he wants, just as him employers are free to look for new personnel. No problem. This is a pretty boring story so far. You should go look at this instead.

Greatest comic fight ever.

But viewed through the lens of liberal rage over Citizens United (and I assume the article is meant to be tongue, firmly in cheek), is firing Williams enough?

Something like this line of thinking lies behind much of the outrage over the Citizens United decision. However, it seems to me that this conception of liberal democracy has much broader, and more unsettling, implications. Which brings us back to Mr Pareene's jesting tweet. If relative equality of political voice is imperilled by relatively paltry $2,500 contributions from individuals to candidates for office (the limit these days is $2,400), then what are we to make of the multi-decade national ubiquity of Juan Williams and his power-pundit ilk. Of course, Mr Williams is small potatoes when compared to Jon Stewart, Glenn Beck, or the editorial board of the New York Times.

Either inequality of voice is a problem, or it isn't. If it is, shouldn't Rush Limbaugh face term limits? If it is, why should individuals be allowed to own whole media conglomerates with vast reach and enormous influence? Many proponents of egalitarian democracy support eliminating private money in politics and replacing it with taxpayer money. It seems to me no less sensible to eliminate the private ownership of newspapers and television stations. How is relative equality of influence and the protections of a healthy democracy even possible in a world in which a tiny aristocracy of capitalists and commentators dominate the fountainheads of mass opinion? Mustn't the freedom of speech be rather radically circumscribed if we are to realise the ideals of a liberal society?

The point is that you can't distinguish between the capital behind newspapers and the capital behind oil companies or for that matter, behind the capital I used to buy the stamp for that letter to the editor. All MUST be allowed vigorous first amendment protections.

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