Monday, June 15, 2009

Goethe and Freedom of Speech (2)

My last post concerned Goethe's implicit recognition that freedom of speech, insofar as it concerns the right of citizens to "participate in the discussion by which the people govern themselves through the formation of public opinion" (as James Weinstein puts it in his introduction to the recently published Extreme Speech and Democracy), is a feature of modern liberal states. I say "implicit," because Goethe was not directly addressing the issue of freedom of speech but rather writing about the absence of drama in "Persian poetry": despots don't want dialogue. In the process, he was pointing out a substantial difference between the Middle East and the West, particularly as the institutions of the West were then developing in the direction of greater civil liberties.

The "Noten und Abhandlungen" to West-East Divan, in which these remarks on despots appear, impressively document Goethe's wide reading and thoughtfully cultivated conclusions. I am surprised they have not yet been translated into English. They have given me much to think about recently, as I work my way through this long reflection on "Eastern" cultures. But the implications concerning freedom of speech and opinion really got me to thinking when I came across Stanley Fish's blog post on the "imperial" Obama. Fish, as he writes, has been struck by the difference in language since Obama became president. While Obama when he began his campaign in February 2007 spoke of a project "larger than his personal ambitions" and made frequent use of the pronoun "we" to speak of what would be accomplished in his administration, everything altered with the inaugural address. As Fish writes: "The promises are now made to an America that is asked only to stand by while they are fulfilled."

In the address to Congress on February 24, for instance, "the royal we has flowered into the naked 'I,'" eight "right off the bat," according to Fish. And when, so Fish continues, Obama thanks Canada and Germany, "it is as if those sovereign nations were doing him a personal favor to which he was entitled. When he invokes 'my administration' you might think he was talking about some prized possession. (My daughter ... my ducats.)" You get the picture.

Fish thinks that Obama likes the sound of his own voice. I don't hold this against the president. After all, as Fish asks, don't we all like the sound of our own voices?

There is, however, something less seemly going on, and it is occurring among the people who should be reporting on the president's grand ambitions, which, as Robert Samuelson writes in The Washington Post, include an expansion of health-care subsidies, tightly controlled energy use, and the greatest growth of government since Lyndon Johnson. Samuelson asks: "Are any of his proposals practical, even desirable? ... What might be the unintended consequences?" You get the picture.

Instead, according to Phil Bronstein (editor at large of the San Francisco Chronicle), the press is failing to fulfill its own First Amendment role, namely, to offer the public a range of information and viewpoints and to serve as "a forum where people can venture and exchange ideas independently of government interests" (as Dieter Grimm has written in his contribution to Extreme Speech and Democracy). The media, like the fawning courtiers serving  a despot, are content to publish the administration's own "official" view of itself. Again, one can't blame Obama for acting like an emperor since the press is so clearly of the opinion that he should be one. The media, despite its claims to the contrary, is clearly uncomfortable with the messiness of the democratic process. Journalists nowadays take the position of Rousseau who went so far, in Julie and Emile, as to declare that true communication was the avoidance of words. Thus, the General Will emerges from "the voice of duty," not from the opinions of individuals. The press in the U.S. is only too happy to serve Obama's imperial ambitions.

For me, the most disturbing instance of failure of the press concerns the president's defense of the "right" of Muslim women to wear the hijab. Ask the gal pictured below, being hectored in Tehran by a morals policewoman, whether she feels empowered with full-body covering. Will the press allow Obama to come down on both sides of the issue in the present turmoil in Iran? The Pew report, comparing Obama's press coverage with that of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, made this comment: "Obama, by contrast, while he has had good weeks and bad in the media, has managed to recover from the rough ones by changing tactics and redirecting the narrative." Goethe recognized this pre-democratic ruling style.

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