Print Friendly, PDF & Email

{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, 2012-09-21}

The furious protests across the Islamic world over an embarrassingly bad anti-Muslim video show just how enormous the gap between the West and the Middle East truly is. Protesters who demand that the President apologize or who think that we are using “free expression” as an excuse to defame Islam simply do not understand the Western notion of freedom. Explaining it to them may be impossible.

Then again, can you blame them? Explaining it to Americans is getting harder and harder.

By freedom, I don’t mean keeping our country secure from invasion by a foreign power. That’s the part of freedom the military is sworn to protect. Last I checked, it was doing a darn good job.

Nor do I mean the ability to democratically choose who governs. That’s very nice and all, (it beats dictatorship), but the mere act of voting doesn’t do that much for freedom. Some of the most anti-freedom actions in history have come from democratically elected governments. Witness, for example, the insurance mandate of Obamacare, or the democratically elected governments in Iran and Iraq.

America’s Founders understood the dangers of democracy very well. That’s why they coined the phrase “tyranny of the majority”, and incorporated safeguards against it in the Constitution. They understood that freedom means more than getting to vote for your oppressor.

No, freedom in its most vital sense is the ability to do things that the majority doesn’t like. It means you can practice a minority religion, or criticize one. It means you can practice a majority religion, or criticize one.

You can sleep with people others disapprove of, you can do what you want with your property, you can control what goes in to your body.

None of these are absolute, but the limits they are subject to are based on the rights of others to those same freedoms, not on what the majority thinks about them. The degree to which a society honors these ideals is the degree to which a society is free.

It is precisely this idea of freedom that appears to be unheard of in the Islamic world, at least if the protesters are to be believed. That’s because they don’t understand the difference between a country doing something and a country permitting its citizens to do something.

Then again, do Americans know any better?

Gov. Hickenlooper recently issued a statement opposing marijuana legalization, believing it would “send the wrong message”. The repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was vigorously opposed by social conservatives because of what they believed it said about America and morality. President Obama believes making some people provide contraception to others is how we discharge our civic duty. These are all examples of how this basic notion of freedom is increasingly discarded in modern political discourse.

If you want to help turn the tide, try some of these sound bites:

  • “We are not a country that makes bad anti-Islam films. We are a country that permits its citizens to make bad anti-Islam films”.
  • “We are not a nation that dresses women like prostitutes. We are a nation that permits women to dress like prostitutes.”
  • “We are not a nation that approves of marijuana. We are a nation that permits its citizens to smoke marijuana.”
  • “We are a not a Christian nation. We are a nation that permits its citizens to follow Christ.”
  • “We are not an atheist nation. We are a nation that permits its citizens to be atheists.”
  • “We are not a nation without a conscience. We are a nation that permits people to listen to their consciences.”

Nobody talks like this now because we’re in the middle of an election, and we’re obsessed with how lousy the economy is. But what if the reason the economy is so lousy is precisely because we’ve abandoned this notion of freedom? What if the reason for the chronic poverty of the Middle East is because they’ve never had it?

As Americans go to the polls and Arabs take to the streets, that’s something we both could think about.