Free Speech and Bigotry

Before we get too far away from the remarkable events of Tuesday and Wednesday, it’s a good idea to put aside all the after-discussion of campaign strategy and media coverage and take a closer look at what Mitt Romney was criticizing in the Cairo embassy statements (even if you brush away the issue of the lack of official authorization from the State Department) and the substance of his criticism. Slate‘s William Saletan has done an excellent job of doing just that:

When you read the tweets alongside the initial statement, the message is clear. Free speech is a universal right. The Muslim-baiting movie is an abuse of that right. The embassy rejects the movie but defends free speech and condemns the invasion of its compound.

Three hours after the embassy finished these comments, the U.S. confirmed a lethal attack on its consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Within half an hour, Romney launched a political assault on the Cairo embassy’s statements: “It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” At a news conference Wednesday morning, Romney escalated his assault: “The administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions. It’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans and to defend our values.”

Romney’s description of the embassy’s initial statement—“sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt, instead of condemning their actions”—was blatantly false. When the embassy issued its morning statement, no one had breached the wall. After the breach, when the embassy tweeted that its initial statement “still stands,” it added in the same breath: “As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.”

At his press conference, Romney accused Obama of “having that embassy reiterate a statement effectively apologizing for the right of free speech.” Romney claimed that the embassy had said, in his paraphrase, “We stand by our comments that suggest that there’s something wrong with the right of free speech.” This, too, was a Romney lie. The embassy had declared five times in writing that free speech was a universal right.

What made Romney’s statement and press conference disturbing, however, was his repeated use of the words sympathize and apology to conflate three issues the Cairo embassy had carefully separated: bigotry, free speech, and violence. The embassy had stipulated that expressions of bigotry, while wrong, were protected by freedom of speech and didn’t warrant retaliatory violence. Romney, by accusing the embassy of “sympathizing with those who had breached” the compound, equated moral criticism of the Mohammed movie with support for violence. In so doing, Romney embraced the illiberal Islamist mindset that led to the embassy invasion: To declare a movie offensive is to authorize its suppression.

Bingo. Defending free speech does not require avoiding criticism of protected speech, any more than “taking offense” at speech requires that it be suppressed. It’s two entirely separate issues, which is precisely the aspect of our constitutional system we are struggling to explain to people with little experience of non-state-sanctioned utterances. By any measurement, Romney in his lust to find an “apology” to attack, undermined that important element of public diplomacy in this particular region.

Now it’s important to remember that Romney leads a party with more than a few important people (with rank-and-file support) who deny that attacks on Islam are by their very nature bigoted. They may not agree with (or even know about) the particular idiocy of Innocence of Muslims, but they are perfectly happy with attacks on Islam as a religion, usually on the spurious grounds that destruction of The West or America or Christianity are a solemn and universal obligation of Muslims. In many important respects, they are in a symbiotic relationship with radical Islamists who think exactly the same of Americans, so it’s not surprising they share their views on speech.

I have no way of knowing if that was in the back of the mind for Team Mitt when they drafted his intervention Tuesday night or Wednesday–perhaps it was pure opportunism–but they do seem to lack a sensitivity to some pretty basic principles of how Americans reconcile freedom and respect.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.