No, I’m not going to tell a religious joke here on the blog, but I will staunchly defend anyone’s right to poke fun or criticize religion (or anything else) on the pretext of free speech. Defending religious sensibility, however, has become the latest front in a war pursued by diverse politicians to curtail free speech.
There has been much attention, for example, on efforts by leaders of Muslim states—from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai—to outlaw Islamophobia which, despite its name, has less to do with “fear” of Islam and more to do with constraining an internal debate about some of its more noxious interpretations.
Despite the Chinese government’s best efforts to block the spread and influence of social media, it appears that its stranglehold on information is slipping, forcing the government to take steps toward reform. Earlier this month, the Twitter feed administered by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began to report on the dangerously toxic air quality in the capital. The New York Times reported on the government’s efforts to shut it down:
The existence of the embassy’s machine and the @BeijingAir Twitter feed have been a diplomatic sore point for Chinese officials. In July 2009, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, Wang Shu’ai, told American diplomats to halt the Twitter feed, saying that the data “is not only confusing but also insulting,” according to a State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks. Mr. Wang said the embassy’s data could lead to “social consequences.”
Like Lenny in James Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan doesn’t understand much about how the world works. He does understand, however, how to lead a slow motion social and religious revolution in Turkey and transform a once vibrant if dysfunctional democracy into a strongman dictatorship. In his first decade in power, Erdoğan’s animus has been strongest toward the press. Turkey now ranks below Russia and Zimbabwe in press freedom; Reporters Without Frontiers labels Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Indeed, Erdoğan strokes journalists like Lenny strokes rabbits.
Now it seems that the Turkish government is beginning to turn its animus toward classic literature. According to Hürriyet Daily News, “The İzmir Education Directorate’s books commission is seeking to ban certain parts of John Steinbeck’s classic ‘Of Mice and Men’ for several “immoral” passages, according to daily BirGün.” This should be especially worrying because Izmir is not some provincial Anatolian town, but in the heart of the Europeanized Mediterranean.
Alana’s right that the White House’s effort to encourage YouTube to take the video down is a “dangerous precedent.” It’s also Sisyphean. YouTube is just the best known video hosting site: if they take the video down, it will show up elsewhere. Or for a nominal fee, its creators — or anyone else — could serve it from their own website. The whole approach is not only dangerous; it’s ridiculous. As the U.S. movie and music industries have found out, it’s impossible to win a war against the Internet if your only weapon is take-down notices.
The White House’s effort to play on YouTube’s terms of service could only have arisen in the context of an Administration that desperately wanted the video to go away, but recognized that mounting a legal challenge to it was a public opinion loser. I’d love to have been in the room when some bright young staffer said, “We can’t tell them to take it down. We can’t even ask. But what if we ask if it violates their terms of service?” I wonder if anyone in Silicon Valley is rethinking their support for Obama 2012 now.