World sees what ‘idea marketplace’ looks like

Friday, September 10, 2010

Comment? E-mail me

The worldwide flap over the on-again, off-again threatened burning of the Quran by a Florida pastor is only part of what a recent New York Times article called a summer of “simmering debate” over freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

The marketplace of ideas is really what’s at the heart of controversies from a potential bonfire in Gainesville, Fla., to the opening of the mosque-community center near ground zero in New York City, to mosque construction in Tennessee, to anti-American Muslim protests overseas.

The First Amendment's five freedoms — which also include press, assembly and petition — all serve to protect Americans’ individual rights to worship, speak, write and seek change in government policies and practices as they wish. No majority vote or approval is required for free expression. No orthodoxy is mandated. No government instruction must be followed in political or social views, as the momentarily famous Pastor Terry Jones has demonstrated.

In so many other nations, those basic freedoms and that basic philosophy do not apply. In so many places, religious or autocratic laws or mandates in matters of faith or personal expression must be obeyed on pain of punishment or death. No deviation from the party line or religious edict is permitted.

From North Korea’s secretive government to Iran’s “Supreme Leader”-dominated bureaucracy, from authoritarian states like Venezuela and Vietnam, to nations such as Somalia and Sudan rated among the “worst of the worst” in civil liberties by the watchdog organization Freedom House, there is no marketplace of ideas save for those deemed proper, permitted or party-line.

In much of the world, it’s unimaginable that our head of state cannot block a book-burning, or punish flag-burning, or silence political foes through force of law.

It’s not just dictatorships, repressive regimes or theocratic societies where the market in free thought is constrained. In any number of Western democracies, there remain laws protecting religions from criticism or insult, or soft libel laws that provide an easy path to suppression of free expression.

In a controversy reminiscent of the current Quran situation, Muslims worldwide were inflamed in 2005 when cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad were published, first in a Danish newspaper, then elsewhere across Europe and eventually across the globe. In many cases, those cartoons were reprinted not because of their content, but as a free-press protest against vague or oppressive blasphemy laws.

Some would call such laws well-intentioned, designed to spare the faithful of any faith from hate speech or to tamp down potential sectarian violence. Others would say the laws are simply intended to protect the majority faiths from challenge.

Certainly, it’s not a new observation in the United States to note that the First Amendment is seen nowhere else on Earth. But thanks to 24/7 news and the World Wide Web, the rest of the planet is seeing what the First Amendment looks like in the United States.

Whatever the reasons, there’s no real marketplace of ideas elsewhere as it exists here under the First Amendment’s plain-spoken 45 words.

Comment? E-mail me