Friday, 28 September 2012

Free speech, hate speech and the veil of liberal-speak

Just where would you draw the line, if any, between the right to free speech and hate speech?

Should speech - in any verbal, written or performed variant - that incites, promotes or celebrates violence be permitted?

Are there any no-go areas for incendiary or hateful criticism, including that against religions?

Such questions have been brought to the fore following production of the anti-Islam film, Innocence of Muslims, and 'responsive protests' across the Islamic world.

Yet, any useful enlightenment here lies not only in considering the 'liberal problem' of how to reconcile 'civil liberties and responsibilities', 'rights and duties', but in how to identify the loaded power narrative within these very questions.

Under the laws of many 'liberal democracies', the position is supposedly clear: there is no actual right to free speech which openly incites hateful violence. Such is the UK's defence for seeking to deport Abu Hamza al-Masri, convicted "under the provisions of various British statutes, including encouraging the murder of non-Muslims, and intent to stir up racial hatred."

There may be little public sympathy for such a media-hated figure - with even the Queen intimating her concerns to BBC 'confidante' Frank Gardner about the delay over his arrest.  

But who decides what part of public speech constitutes hate against other persons and, more crucially, what part represents actual encouragement to violence against such parties.

The selective interpretation of such was all too evident following last year's riots, with the severest possible sentences handed down to those caught on social network sites 'encouraging violence'.

Others, most notably Muslims, have been detained and heavily jailed for (rhetorically?) advocating violence against states they deem to have invaded, bombed and occupied foreign countries.

Yet, if, like Abu Hamza's extradition, these prosecutions are deemed 'in the public interest', why aren't politicians also being pursued for hate speech and inciting violence when calling for the same invasion, bombing and occupation of such countries?

This point is at the heart of a fine and thought-provoking article by Glenn Greenwald who, while declaring his unequivocal support for unfettered free speech, asks why the same punishment is not applied evenly to those promoting illegal wars and violence against foreign others.

Greenwald's case rests not just on any classic liberal defence of free speech, including, most critically, the words of those we may loathe, but on a timely warning about speech considered 'hateful', 'violent', 'offensive' or 'subversive' by the state.

In another such question, Greenwald asks us to consider the First Amendment 'rights' of Bob Beckel who, quite openly on Fox TV, called for the murder of Julian Assange. Is this free speech or hate speech? Permissible speech or criminal speech? 

Greenwald's inclination is still towards tolerance of speech we may find abhorrent, but he's also inviting us to ask why this kind of incitement is permitted while those calling for resistance to Western occupying forces are being hounded and charged. 

Again, the state's selective interpretation and prohibition is all too telling, as suggested by French reaction to proposed Islamic protests against the film:
"France is to take a zero-tolerance approach to any protests over the Mohammad cartoons, Reuters reports. Interior Minister Manuel Valls said prefects throughout the country had orders to prohibit any protest over the issue and crack down if the ban was challenged. "There will be strictly no exceptions. Demonstrations will be banned and broken up," he said." (Guardian.)
France, the land of Voltaire, 'protecting the inviolable right to free speech', we must suppose, but not the inviolable right to free protest.

Amid this 'great liberal debate', it's seemingly unspeakable to suggest that the only speech which really counts is not free speech or hate speech but power speech.

One might, of course, object: 'but what about your own freedom to say these very things here on your own blog?'

In reality, that 'freedom' rests on a much more contingent set of power observances and liberal constraints than is commonly recognised, much of which comes down to the question of how dangerous or threatening such speech is to the dominant order - in this case, I'm sure, amounting to very little.

Yet, the rise in punitive sentencing for 'errant blogging', coupled with intensified surveillance of online speech, gives a clue as to the limited and narrowing extent of that 'tolerance'.

Likewise, Tory toff Andrew Mitchell can freely swear and rant at a policeman, it seems, but not any other member of the public. Liberal chatter over a Minister's indiscretions for some, jail and a criminal record for others. 

In practice, there is no such thing as free speech.  What we have is the cultivated illusion of such, reinforced by sacred liberal notions of 'plural opinion', 'civil participation' and 'parliamentary accountability', all of it reinforced by a liberal media-speak that encourages us to cherish those 'hard-won Western liberties'; a system-serving output which depends  on the same self-cherished notions of 'free, uncensored journalism'. 

Belief in these 'self-evident truths' are zealously upheld by liberal journalists and editors who, rather than conservatives or ultra-rightists, perform the vital task of policing and marginalising serious dissident output.

Such is the experience of Media Lens which has been maligned and smeared mainly by liberal writers, such as George Monbiot and, more lately, David Aaronovitch in his gross misrepresentation of ML over the US embassy killings.

In openly defending Media Lens against Aaronovitch and others, one can only anticipate the same 'in-house' liberal hostility towards Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian's new critical columnist, and the extent to which the Guardian itself might allow Greenwald continued 'free rein' to say things it deems 'too close to home'.

Whatever incentives, financial or reputational, the Guardian has for retaining notables like Greenwald and Seumas Milne, its unspoken intention is to keep such voices confined to the realms of safe, 'alternative' speech.

This process of liberal-policing and guarding of selective media context keeps us attuned to how the issue of free speech, religious protest and Western 'intervention' should be interpreted. 

Thus, the 'protest attack' on the US embassy in Benghazi was filtered as a specific reaction to the anti-Islam film rather than any pre-planned or/and wider action against US presence in the region.   

As the latest Media Lens alert notes:
Like most other media, the BBC instantly concluded that the 'protest' and killings were expressions of religious rather than political anger. As late as September 22, the BBC reported: 'The attack on the US consulate was triggered by an amateur video made in the US which mocks Islam.'

In similar vein, Julian Borger wrote an article in the Guardian under the title: 'How anti-Islamic movie sparked lethal assault on US consulate in Libya.' Kim Sengupta commented in the Independent:

'The US ambassador to Libya and three members of his staff were killed in an attack by an armed mob which stormed the country's consulate in Benghazi in a furious protest over an American film mocking the Prophet Mohammed.' 
Ignoring considerable evidence to the contrary, most media also gave prime-time to US condemnations of the attack and Washington's own interpretations of the violence, as in a key BBC news piece on Obama's speech at the UN denouncing extremism around the world and distancing the US from the film's insensitive slurs against Muslims.

Lacking any balancing comment on Obama's claims or America's own violent extremism around the globe, the piece openly approved the preferred US context that this and other such attacks across the region were the product of an irresponsible amateur movie rather than wider, hateful reaction to US/Nato policy in 'liberated' states like Libya.

So, what we're encouraged to see as an earnest liberal discussion on free speech is really a diversionary indulgence of power speech and endorsement of what people like Obama claim to be 'freedom-preserving' values.

The whole 'free-speech-hate-speech debate', thus, takes us on a convenient detour, as we, in turn, seek to weigh these 'ideals and responsibilities', try to bridge the 'ideological dilemmas', take 'noble positions' of support.

Thus, it's not surprising that those who 'rush to the liberal barricade' see only the 'liberal imperative' of free speech. Such was the perceived need to defend Rushdie.

What most liberals couldn't, and still don't, recognise was/is the power speech working the ideology from behind, urging us towards the 'civilizing side' of Western 'reason'.

This appeal has also been extended outwards to the 'liberal foreigner', with a similarly responsive genuflection to power, the likes of which endeared the now Sir Salman himself to a rewarding establishment - as well as 'interventionist' warmongers like Blair and Sarkozy.

Following Innocence of Muslims, the responsive message can, as before, be seen in the media headliner 'Muslim rage', a crass generalisation of 'menacing Islam', tainting 1.8 billion Muslims alike, intimating the 'urgent need' to contain this 'viral threat' by 'choosing the liberal side'.

But even where doubts exist over whether we should 'reaffirm our liberal duties' or contemplate some more balanced respect for others' religious beliefs, it's the actual agenda-setting liberal narrative itself which is so vital here, either in pushing us towards specific boxes of support or sitting on uncertain fences.

Thus, most media discussion of the film promotes either pole positions on 'liberal rights versus incitement of Islam' or, at least, the view that it's a 'difficult liberal dilemma'. Such is the dominant discourse, using the cloak of liberal media-speak to prompt, guide and influence how a general public should receive and contextualise such questions. Very rarely will that include exploration of how liberal speech itself helps to limit and temper radical speech all in the service of power speech.

'Free speech' is also something the 'civilized liberal' may 'graciously' accord the 'non-deserving' other, all the while reminding its audience that there can be no moral equivalence in their respective utterances.   

Consider, thus, the loaded liberal commentaries of Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman and correspondent Matt Frei at the UN in New York, where Ahmadinejad, the West's "matinee villain", so we're told, is ridiculed at every possible turn in delivering his "belligerent speech", while Cameron is accorded gravitas and praise for his "strong speech", most notably in his denunciation of Assad.

Speech for all, even the 'menacing Ahmadinejad', may still be claimed as 'free', but there's a world of difference in how it's reported and how equally we're encouraged to absorb it.  

Julian Assange's persecution and predicament is being narrated as a similar liberal-styled question of whether the right to disclose classified information is more important than his desire to avoid questioning and extradition.  Again, we see here the vital role of liberal journalists/editors in setting the debate around these 'difficult choices' rather than speaking up in unqualified support of someone now declared an "enemy of the state" by a seething, revenge-seeking US.

And while Obama and Cameron, both principal directors of war and murder in foreign lands, were free to speak in person at the UN, Assange's own speech to the Assembly had to be delivered from the confines of a foreign embassy.

These are the true indicators of how powerful forces and an attendant media control and present the issue of 'free speech' and how 'hate speech' is selectively attributed to official enemies like Ahmadinejad rather than favoured leaders like Netanyahu

Some speech is more equal, more favourably covered, more easily-spoken than others. That's something worth remembering next time we're asked to ponder or take 'free-speech or hate-speech' sides over 'issues' like this film.

The real question we should be addressing is how to see, expose and challenge the violent intentions, hateful promotions and divisive propaganda lurking behind power speech.  

Otherwise, here's to a world of more harmonious dialogue. All we have to do is keep talking.  


Sunday, 16 September 2012

Femme brutale

From the Independent, a quite sickening little piece of hasbara branding, indulging the 'dark mystique' of Israel's 'all-alluring' female Mossad agents. 

Perhaps some of those 'glam' operatives will have started their moral abandonment and trigger-training here, with joysticks, murdering farmers and children along the wire fences of Gaza.


Thursday, 13 September 2012

Libyan embassy killings

Official reaction to the brutal murders of US Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three associates has been predictably selective: 'we condemn such mindless violence.'

The possibility that mindful US violence might be a key determinant of such killings can never be likewise admitted.

It's the darkest of ironies, though not an unforeseen consequence of western 'intervention': a key American official killed in 'liberated' Libya where US/Nato actions to oust Gaddafi has only encouraged more militia rule, elevated jihadist militancy and intensified Arab hatred of Washington.

Cue indignant responses from Hillary Clinton and other western voices now condemning Libyans for turning on America after its leading role in supporting the insurgents. Coming on the anniversary of 9/11, much of the western media has followed in feeding the shallow narrative of 'thankless Arabs'.

Such is the continuing Orientalist view of 'liberal assistance' which still prevails in both policy 'understandings' and media coverage of Middle Eastern societies and Islamic sensibilities, an expedient myopia which can only issue standard denunciations of the embassy killings and a prudent distancing from those who made the 'film' (the word 'puerile' doesn't remotely begin to describe its content and production) which apparently sparked the attacks in Benghazi, Cairo and elsewhere.

Of course, the alleged filmmaker, US-based 'Sam Bacile', and his promoters, financial and ideological, knew exactly what kind of incendiary effect it would have. Such calculation, pandering to right-wing, conservative hatred of anything Muslim, in no way excuses the violence of those storming the embassy and the murder of its staff. Yet, 'Bacile' and his associates bear a heavy responsibility for propagating such an ignorant, hateful message, maliciously setting out to distort and slander Islam as a religion.

Initiated and backed, allegedly, by fervent anti-Islamists with assorted Zionist and Coptic Christian agendas, it also, I'm sure, deeply offends many Jews and Christians who, whatever their political feelings, recognise and accept Islam in a spirit of tolerance, just as most Muslims respect Judaism and Christianity.

But the furore around the film also serves as a smokescreen to the bigger crime of Western interference in Libya and the violence which the US openly celebrates:
"Indeed, it’s a horrific irony that Hillary Clinton’s infamous gloating about Gaddafi’s execution – “We came, we saw, he died” – has now come full circle, with Stevens paying for such despicable arrogance with his life..." 
A useful diversionary tack by Clinton, Obama and an enabling media has been to read the murders not as a reaction to the actual film but as another premeditated 9/11 attack. Again, whether true or not, this still serves the purpose of narrowing such actions to the work of isolated extremists, the mirror contrivance of America as a resilient, trusted force for peace and security. In stark reflection, across the region and beyond, the precise opposite image is the case.

Yet, America's 'benevolent' intentions and losses remain more worthy of note than any foreign other. Such is the ingrained culture of American exceptionalism. While correctly laying the principal blame for the embassy murders on those who did the actual killing, Glenn Greenwald states that:
"It is hard not to notice, and be disturbed by, the vastly different reactions whenever innocent Americans are killed, as opposed to when Americans are doing the killing of innocents. All the rage and denunciations of these murders in Benghazi are fully justified, but one wishes that even a fraction of that rage would be expressed when the US kills innocent men, women and children in the Muslim world, as it frequently does. Typically, though, those deaths are ignored, or at best justified with amoral bureaucratic phrases ("collateral damage") or self-justifying cliches ("war is hell"), which Americans have been trained to recite."
Like Greenwald, Craig Murray makes the same valid point that while the killing of ambassador Stevens has been met with US outrage and the promise of bringing those responsible to book, the daily killing of other, anonymous victims of US and Israeli state-directed violence across the Middle East, notably Palestine, merits no such response.

And so the spectre of 'violence as solution' continues, unremittingly peddled by the US and its allies, an 'option' also still rationalised as a 'difficult necessity' by many errant liberals.

Nato's bombing of Libya has brought no respite from the killing and insecurity in that now increasingly volatile state. Beyond the publicity of this crass and offensive film, this is the real context of the embassy killings.

Might the lesson of such useless bloodshed now become more apparent in the case of Syria?

The UN's chief observer has just released a timely warning against US/Nato, Saudi and Turkish support for the Syrian rebels, insisting that the funding/arming of the Free Syrian Army and jihadist militias is only helping to intensify the violence, limiting any prospect of a diplomatic-led peace.

In a crucial blow to Netanyahu's lobbying for a US-assisted strike on Iran, a major Pentagon-sourced report by General Martin Dempsey, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also warns of the catastrophic implications of such actions.

Yet, even while such rational calculus and policy wariness prevail, crippling sanctions and economic war against Iran still proceeds, financial and political support for Israeli aggression continues, the arming of FSA and jihadi forces increases and other US/Nato violence-based destabilisation of the region deepens.

Depressingly, one can only expect more of the same backlash violence.


Joe Klein on Israel, Iran and 'real countries'

Have a listen here to leading Time journalist Joe Klein's welcome denunciation of Netanyahu, accompanied by some sober truths on the 'threat' from Iran, which he defends as a "real country" rather than the oft-depicted crazed state. 

Then consider Klein's take on what doesn't constitute a "real country"; namely, those, like Pakistan, which, he says, present a much more irrational, extremist and uncivilized threat to the world.

To the liberal ear, it's a fair comparison, drawing us back from the hawkish propaganda against Tehran that's fuelling the case for war.

Yet, consider. Never in Klein's liberalised worldview could America itself ever be included in that unworthy category of 'not a real country', despite its foremost role in such fearmongering, mass killing and uncivilized behaviour around the globe - not to mention the rampant poverty and social misery it has inflicted on its own people.

Nor are you likely to hear Klein and his fellow liberal commentariat dissect the key role that Washington has played in enabling volatility and violence in 'non-real' countries like Pakistan and Libya.

In a further racist denigration of such 'backward' states, Klein offers the added suggestion that Iranians shouldn't be bombed because they're like 'Californiaised us', living in high-rise apartments rather than tents.

Note also, at the conclusion of the interview, how Klein tempers his criticisms on who is the greater danger on the world stage, the Iranian Supreme Leader or Netanyahu.

The answer, even by his own preceding logic, should be obvious. Yet, like his default defence of Obama, an outright warmonger, Klein reverts back to safe critical territory.

How, after all, could 'our' leaders, for all their faults and manoevrings, ever really be worse than such "fascist" others?

A classic example of how, even in their open criticism of figures like Netanyahu and rational warnings on Iran, liberal notables still help service the core ideals of 'good America' while intimating ongoing support for Israel.