Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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Photo of the Day, Sports Proletariat Edition


Michael Russell competing in the qualifying rounds of the Australian Open. Qualifying is a tournament-before-the-tournament, where players not highly ranked enough to get automatic berths compete for the last few spots in the main draw. Russell, a 36-year-old American starting his 18th year on the tour, is currently ranked 156th in the world (his career high was 60). While the winner of this year's singles tournament will get $3.1 million Australian ($2.55 million USD), by winning the first match of the qualifying, Russell has guaranteed himself only $8,000 Australian, or $6,568 USD, which is probably barely enough to cover his expenses in making the trip down under. If he makes it through the qualifying rounds, he will likely have to play one of the top-ranked players in the first round of the main draw, and his chances of beating a player like Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal are extremely small. A first-round loss, however, would get him a purse of $34,500 ($28,325 USD), which would make the trip more than worthwhile.

Are the French Free Expression Hypocrites?

Last week, I suggested that while the outpouring of support and unity in the wake of the horrific murders of staff members of Charlie Hebdo in France seems to be about free expression in the abstract and not about defending particular kinds of expression, we might be misleading ourselves a bit on that score. Many people said that while they realize that the magazine's work is often offensive to many, you don't have to like all their cartoons to honor the courage of the staff in continuing to publish in the face of very real threats, and to proclaim loudly that no one should be killed for saying what they think.

True as that is, the content does matter. Let's be honest: if you declared "Je suis Charlie" (privately or publicly), then you probably weren't that offended by their work. Maybe it's because people like you weren't among their targets, or because things like blasphemy don't bother you all that much. Even if you didn't approve of some of their cartoons, your reaction to them was more intellectual than visceral.

That doesn't mean you don't believe in the principle of free expression, just that how you react to people paying a terrible price for their expression will depend in large part on what you thought of the expression. It's the difference between saying, "What happened was wrong" and actually going out to participate in a rally or making a public show of solidarity. As I said in that post, if the creators of the white supremacist magazine Stormfront had been murdered, we'd all agree that it was unacceptable, but we wouldn't be putting on "I am Stormfront" t-shirts.

But what's important about the American version of freedom of speech is that even the most abhorrent views get the same First Amendment protection as any other speech. It isn't that our laws and jurisprudence don't set limits on what you can say, but those limits aren't very limiting. You can't directly incite violence, but you can do it indirectly. In America, you can say, "All Zoroastrians should be killed," you just can't tell an angry crowd, "Hey, that guy on the corner looks like a Zoroastrian—go get him." Similarly, you can lie about lots of things—for instance, you're free to publish a tract claiming the Holocaust never happened—you just can't lie intentionally about an individual (if I proclaim that my neighbor killed Kennedy when I know it isn't true, he can sue me).

The looseness of these limits on speech is a pretty recent development in American history. For most of our country's existence, you could get tossed in jail for advocating certain political ideas. In 1920, socialist Eugene Debs ran for president from prison, where he was serving a sentence for sedition because he opposed the draft in World War I. In the 1960s, Lenny Bruce was arrested multiple times and charged with violating obscenity laws, because in a comedy club with only adults in the audience he said dirty words that today you can hear every night on HBO. Today, those prosecutions seem absurd to us. In fact, we've all but stopped prosecuting people for obscenity, when for decades it was a constant topic of debate and legal wrangling.

Although First Amendment jurisprudence is still somewhat complicated, we've essentially come to a place where we allow almost any speech that doesn't do direct and demonstrable harm to specific individuals. But in most countries, even those that you might think share our commitment to free speech, they're much more comfortable outlawing speech that they've decided is harmful in a much broader, more long-term way—not because it injures a specific person, but just because they think it isn't good for society. And one of those countries is France. In the last week they have arrested dozens of people for violating speech laws by doing things like "condoning terrorism." Most notably, the French government is considering charges against the incredibly popular anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonne, who wrote on his Facebook page "je me sens Charlie Coulibaly," (I feel like Charlie Coulibaly) combining the "Je suis Charlie" with the last name of the man who killed four hostages in a Jewish market.

As an American, you probably think, "Wait—how can that be a crime?" But in France, it can be. It's also a crime to deny the Holocaust, as it is in a number of other European countries. Does that make the French hypocrites? They'd probably argue that there are certain classes of harmful speech that they've identified and outlawed, and the Charlie Hebdo cartoons don't fall into those categores, while other kinds of speech do. Like you Americans, they'd say, we draw a line between speech that's allowable and speech that isn't; our line is just a bit different from yours.

To return to where we started, you probably think it would be ridiculous for the French to put Dieudonne in jail for a Facebook post, but if they do, you also probably won't be organizing a march to proclaim "Je suis Dieudonne," because his views are despicable and you don't really want to associate yourself with him. So does intellectual consistency demand that we defend someone like Dieudonne with a vigor and energy equal to that with which we defend Charlie Hebdo? Not really. You can take the position that French speech laws are too restrictive and even someone like him should be able to say whatever he wants, but you don't have an obligation to put those abstract ideals into some kind of political action every time you take a position. We all pick and choose.

Awful Poll Question of the Day, Courtesy of Pew

As a general matter, the Pew Research Center probably produces the best publicly available polls—they're methodologically sound, carefully executed, and often ask better questions than other organizations exploring the same topics. But I have a real problem with this one, which comes from a new report released today.

When you ask, "Do you think Barack Obama is too tough, not tough enough or about right in his approach to foreign policy and national security issues?", you're framing foreign policy and national security as a matter of toughness. While in some instances we use "tough" with a negative connotation"He's too tough on his kids"the vast majority of time, we think of being "tough" as a positive. I wouldn't even describe the foreign policy beliefs of those who fetishize "toughness" as being too tough. Are John McCain's ideas about foreign policy "too tough"? No, they're juvenile and stupid.

So if you're going to ask a question like this, you at least ought to offer an alternative framing as well, like: "Do you think Barack Obama is too thoughtful, not thoughtful enough, or about right in his approach to foreign policy and national security issues?" That's no more a leading question than asking whether he's tough enough. 

Photo of the Day

Pete Townshend on stage in 1966. It has now been 50 years since The Who released their first single, "I Can't Explain." Fifty years! If you are reading this and you know who The Who is, then yes, you are old.

Why the Paris Attacks Didn't Happen Here

We've been hearing a lot from certain people that the terrorist attacks in Paris just show how weak Barack Obama is, and we're probably going to get hit with this kind of attack here, because the terrorist are emboldened or something. In my post this morning at the Plum Line, I looked at some things noted terrorism experts John McCain and Lindsey Graham have said about the topic. In particular, I've been somewhat frustrated by the fact that there seems to be a lot of interest in the possibility of a link betwee the Paris attacks and some kind of international conspiracy, when the whole point of an attack like that is that it requires no support from anyone. Does that mean we're vulnerable to something like it? Yes, we are, but so is everyone.  

But even if you believed that Obama is eroding our intelligence capabilities (and I have no idea what [Graham] talking about on that score), does that make us more vulnerable to a couple of guys with guns shooting up a public place? If such an attack were in the works, it wouldn’t require getting resources from overseas, and it wouldn’t require coordination and communication of the kind American intelligence might intercept. All that would be necessary is for someone who is angry enough to go to a gun show, pick up some heavy weaponry, and he’d be on his way. And he probably wouldn’t have to go far—according to this calendar, there are 61 gun shows happening this week in America—not this year or this month, but just this week.

Given how easy it would be to carry out an attack like the one on Charlie Hebdo, the real question is why it doesn’t happen all the time. While there have been a number of cases in recent years in which right-wing terrorists have tried to shoot a bunch of people, there have been only a couple of occurrences of politically motivated jihadist attacks like the ones in Paris—not an attempt to plant a bomb or do something similarly elaborate, but just somebody taking a gun and shooting a bunch of people—most notably that of Nidal Hassan, who killed 13 people at Ft. Hood in 2009 (there was also a Seattle man who killed four people last year and claimed it was revenge for American military actions).

So why doesn’t it happen more here? The answer is that unlike their European counterparts, American Muslims are as a group extremely assimilated and patriotic. So there’s virtually no one here who wants to carry out such an attack. Our relative safety on this score isn’t a triumph of intelligence, it’s a triumph of the American culture of welcoming immigrants.

I realize that to somebody like John McCain, that's deeply unsatisfying, because it doesn't involve invading somebody. And it doesn't mean that an attack from a home-grown terrorist wielding nothing more than a gun might not happen here, because it might. But it's almost impossible to stop; the best thing we can do to prevent those kinds of attacks is what we've been doing (for the most part), which is to create a society in which there are as few people as possible who would even contemplate doing such a thing.