How to be less wrong about the First Amendment

[Read the post]


Maybe Americans should have to take a quiz on this material before being allowed to comment on discussion forums. Another important point that sometimes gets missed is that the government of Swaziland or wherever is not bound to respect the Bill of Rights. It’s American.


On the other hand, as Neal Stephenson once wrote:

"We seem much more comfortable with propagating those values to future generations nonverbally, through a process of being steeped in media. Apparently this actually works to some degree, for police in many lands are now complaining that local arrestees are insisting on having their Miranda rights read to them, just like perps in American TV cop shows. When it's explained to them that they are in a different country, where those rights do not exist, they become outraged. Starsky & Hutch reruns, dubbed into diverse languages, may turn out, in the long run, to be a greater force for human rights than the Declaration of Independence."


This is such an important aspect of American power, it’s almost bizarre that everyone chooses to ignore it. I mean, we all know that American TV and movies and brands are far more dominant, in far more places, than American military power; we just assume that the latter must be more important historically, because history has so far been written by military power, not by TV and movies and brands.

I feel like Stephenson is absolutely right that people prize American ideals of justice and individual liberty, even in places that had very different values before. That’s probably a huge net positive for the world.

'Course, American TV also implicitly exports a lot of racist and violent and militaristic and socially divisive values, and it’s less good if those take root in new places.


It does feel sometimes, speaking as an Otherplacian, that some Americans have a somewhat limited view of the laws and customs of other places; sometimes to the extent that they believe that they invented the ideas of life, liberty, freedom of speech, and many others, and that if people of other nations start quoting from Hollywood productions the US model of those ideas, that they must not have existed in those nations in any form before exposure to Hollywood.

The Founding Fathers, of course, mashed-up their model of an ideal nation from ideas that already existed elsewhere. America and the world have evolved those ideas since then, sometimes in dialogue, sometimes from being on the loud end of the American cultural megaphone, and wishing to avoid the mistakes that America has made, and continues to make. Peace, love, and various freedoms are good things in themselves, and well worth promoting; but they don’t have to be American versions to be good.


Can’t not post this.


It is precisely this mistake that has led, among other things, to the present situation in the Middle East.
Outside the US many people regard “American ideals of justice and individual liberty” as deeply flawed. Many believe that Muslims and black people are badly treated in the US, and they see the US as trying to force the ideas of white Americans on their societies. They are far more aware of, say, Trump, than they are of Elizabeth Warren.
If you only take notice of the people from those countries who have come to the US, you are looking at the self-selected set of those people who do support it.

As Trump is so clearly showing, American exceptionalism is only a step away from potentially dangerous nationalism.


In practice, or in theory?

There’s a good argument to be made that America has often supported governments which oppress their populations. Of course that causes resentment.

But is the simple idea that a government cannot legitimately punish people for expressing opinions a “white” idea? I don’t see that at all.

The particular configuration of freedom of speech in the US, which includes many things but not libel, fraud, incitement to violence, criminal conspiracy, harassment, disturbance of the peace, obscenity, copyright and other IP violation, exposure of government and private secrets, and so on, may be ‘White’ in that most of the system of concepts originated or were conveyed to liberal theory by a ‘White’ country, England, and some of its colonies. Other communities have other rules.

1 Like

I don’t say that American values are an American invention (or that the US particularly embodies those values in practice). But it’s America, more than France or Sweden, that gets to present its version to the world.

I often hear British people talking about free speech in American terms, i.e. as though it were a fundamental right that our “unwritten constitution” (lol) guarantees. But in truth, the UK government can and does order newspapers not to report stories; parliament can take away any of our “rights” whenever it wants to (our current government was elected on a promise to repeal the Human Rights Act, which, just think about that for a second). If modern British governments are more wary of restricting speech, that’s largely because the electorate’s views on the matter have been so influenced by American media. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and I don’t think it takes away from our traditional British values of forelock-tugging xenophobic authoritarianism. The very fact that we don’t think of it as an American import suggests that it’s not alien to British culture.

That’s why I don’t think cultural exports should automatically be seen as damaging colonialism; people only take ideas from foreign media to the extent that those ideas are a good fit. Like the Arab Spring– that was influenced by ideas about free expression and democracy pushed by American media, not least Twitter, but it wasn’t about people rejecting their own cultures. They just, however they might feel about America itself, looked at some of its trumpeted ideas about individual freedom and saw a valid critique of their own countries’ regimes.


I remember being shocked when the British government attempted to ban Peter Wright’s “Spycatcher” (a 1987 memoir by a former MI5 assistant director). I couldn’t believe that the idea of banning books (in the real legal sense of banning) still existed in a Western democracy in the 1980s. Granted, post 9/11 I wouldn’t put it past the US government to basically do what they like in the name of “security”.


When the SCOTUS struck down the Massachusetts abortion clinic buffer zone law a couple of years ago it seemed like people were saying that part of the free speech rights of the anti-abortion protesters was easy access to an audience. They said that the targets of their free speechifying HAD to listen to what the protesters wanted to say to them, so there couldn’t be a buffer that kept them across the street or down the block from the clinic.

That seems fucked up to me. Were they misinterpreting the decision?

Nice! That quote is from In the Beginning was the Command Line

1 Like

Out of that laundry list I can’t find very many that apply specifically to what I described - [quote=“lolipop_jones, post:10, topic:79577”]
the simple idea that a government cannot legitimately punish people for expressing opinion

If the concept that you can’t be executed or jailed for saying “the president’s an idiot”, “the king’s a bully”, “the pope’s a hypocrite” is a concept that non-white cultures can legitimately reject on grounds of insufficient melanin content, then I’m damned happy that I live in a country founded by white people.

1 Like

I suspect it’s powerful in part because it isn’t officially recognized much. If it were, it could easily look like propaganda rather than culture.

I’m just pointing out that freedom of speech is by no means absolute in actually-practiced liberalism. There are some opinions for which you could be punished by the government, if they constituted copyright violation, libel, etc. No doubt there are other places where someone is thankful that he is protected from the utterance of blasphemy by unbelievers, etc. etc. etc. Liberalism tends to focus on property rights, hence people are specifically restrained from speech which theoretically damages the value of property.

Love this movie and their rendition of our national anthem! :laughing:

This topic was automatically closed after 5 days. New replies are no longer allowed.