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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Should the Government Call Koran-Burning "Un-American?"

Like other supporters of the rights of American Muslims to live on equal terms with other Americans, I was pleased to see this story in which a group of religious leaders came together to express their concerns about anti-Muslim sentiment, not just with respect to the New York mosque but elsewhere in the country -- indeed, more disturbingly elsewhere, since the many recent objections to mosques and Muslims elsewhere in the country lack even the fig leaf of the supposed sacredness of a site two blocks away from Ground Zero. 

I was a little perturbed, though, by the news (found in the same story) that various government spokespeople, including General David Petraeus, have taken to the airwaves to condemn the planned burning of Korans by an unfortunate pastor in Florida, with a State Department spokesman calling the plan "un-American."  Perturbed, not outraged. It may well be correct that the church's actions put the lives of American soldiers (not to mention many local innocents) at risk, and it should be obvious that I find those actions deplorable whether they would do so or not. Of course private citizens are entitled to deplore those actions and ought to do so, and surely government is entitled to do so too. But I cannot forget that the last administration also played this kind of card in the wake of 9/11, both in its immediate aftermath and when newspapers attempted to write stories describing the actual actions of the administration in the war on terror, and was often condemned for it. Those people who condemned the administration then may want to reexamine their views in light of the current administration's actions. 

My own view is that General Petraeus was entitled to say what he did, especially in light of his obvious duty to his own soldiers and the Afghan nationals he is charged with protecting.  But it is worth remembering that the exercise of First Amendment freedoms, even in a way that is worthy of condemnation, is part of the cost that we necessarily factor into any foreign policy venture. And something about the word "un-American" used by the First Amendment spokesman sticks in my craw. For one thing, although respecting the religion of others is indeed an "American" value, so, alas, is book-burning, at least as a matter of history.  One is worth championing and the other deserves condemnation, but on more specific terms than "un-American."  We can't hope to reach those we disagree with by counting them out of the conversation.  As it turns out, I doubt we can converse very productively with this pastor at all, and I assume that word was used to describe ourselves to Muslims outside this country rather than to converse with the pastor in the first place.  But I still think it matters what words we use, and that the government ought generally to hesitate before calling an exercise of free speech, no matter how worthy of condemnation it is, "un-American." Call the Koran-burning stunt by its proper name: "offensive." 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on September 8, 2010 at 10:26 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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Howard said:

"Except no one really takes that aphorism seriously anymore (it was not really applicable in the cases in which Holmes came up with it in the first place)."

I readily agree with the parenthetical portion but not the intro. (Holmes in effect apologized for his opinion (but not his "aphorism") in a First Amendment speech case dissent of his after his Schenck opinion.) As for the distant audience (compared to that of a small crowded theater), consider how fast, in a more crowded (and getting smaller) world, the reactions to Rev. Jones came along. For the cause of the First Amendment's speech clause, let's hope that the death threats are idle speech as is that of Rev. Jones (for whom I'll save not bones). Perhaps idle speech begets idle speech.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Sep 9, 2010 9:17:53 AM

Except no one really takes that aphorism seriously anymore (it was not really applicable in the cases in which Holmes came up with it in the first place). And certainly not in the context of political speech spoken to a mass, worldwide, quite distant audience. Jones is not causing or encouraging people to do anything harmful--he's pissing people off *at him.* And, really, the death threats are coming not in response to his speech, but to the publicity everyone else is giving his speech; no one would care about this little stunt but for the massive counter-speech.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 9, 2010 8:33:32 AM

Consider this in the context of Justice Holmes' "falsely yelling fire in a crowded theater" in a First Amendment speech case. Rev. Jones is yelling about a Koran-burning, a fire, with apparently false claims of Islam as expressed in the Koran, in a world crowded with 1.3 billion muslims. And the yelling is being done by a leader of a group of 50 individuals. On the Lehrer Newshour yesterday, it was reported that Rev. Jones said he has received a lot of death threats. My response at our dinner table was that 50 of them may have come from his own flock.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Sep 9, 2010 7:15:06 AM

Howard -- thanks, I'm not certain I agree with your first paragraph. I think it may be very healthful -- maybe even essential -- for a nation to be able to label certain acts (and the values they instantiate) "un-American." I think this is implicit in your caveat a few comments up that if it were the government burning books, it might be a different story (but maybe you disagree). In that case (but also, I think, in many, many others), it is essential that a nation be able to come together in an almost visceral way (without the sort of deliberations that Paul envisions) to condemn an action as anti-American -- deeply contrary to a nation's way of life. An example may be the stoning of women in other countries for committing crimes of "dishonor." If the nation is incapable of reacting -- viscerally -- with horror and disgust to atrocities of that kind, and to label them as unequivocally un-American without a kind of reflexive bow to the principles of "audi alteram partem" and fair and open discussion of the merit of such practices, then I think that is not only regrettable, but dangerous to the civic health of the nation.

I agree that this particular controversy may not be such a circumstance -- my thought about your second paragraph is that the reason for the reaction is complicated, implicating both values that you discuss as well as a general sense that burning books is itself an independently morally culpable act. But the fact that one can defend the book burning as free expression does not mean that one cannot, and should not, also recoil in horror at the practice, at least in this instance -- and describe that disgust, as a nation, in the strongest condemnatory language that one can come up with. I think "un-American" does a reasonable job at this sort of thing.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 9, 2010 6:58:19 AM


I agree (with you and Dave) that we as a nation can commit to particular values and can, through our words and deeds, promote those values. But (and I think this is Paul's point) throwing around the label "un-American" does not really get us at those values.

But is the problem here that the Church is planning on burning the Koran? Or is the problem that the Church is (unfairly, IMO) criticizing and attacking Islam as a violent religion that threatens the public welfare? The latter would be thoroughly inconsistent with the value of religious pluralism and tolerance. But would we be having this conversation if the Church was planning an anti-Islam rally and march this Saturday? If the problem is only the former, then this is not about pluralism at all, but simply an objection to one particular form of expression.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 8, 2010 11:52:07 PM

Thanks, Howard -- for what it's worth, I think I agree with Dave, but would probably go further. If a nation cannot say that -- *as a nation* -- it commits itself to certain values, then I think it has already lost something important qua nation. This is not to say that values to which a nation is committed will not, in particular situations, conflict (e.g., liberty and tolerance, in your examples). I think they often will, and in that case, the sort of debate that Paul talks about is worthwhile (whether it can ever really resolve anything is another question -- I'm doubtful here too). But I still think that a national commitment in principle to certain values is important for cohesion and civic health.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 8, 2010 11:07:55 PM

Paul, I think you will find that the state department spokesperson (P.J. Crowley, assistant secretary of state for public affairs) actually hit the points you would have had him hit: burning the Koran is constitutionally-protected but it contravenes the value of religious tolerance held by most Americans. It is un-American behavior because it is behavior most Americans would condemn. I suppose Crowley had to know that "un-American" would be the soundbite, but he took care to explain what he meant by that term.

Furthermore, the context was quite clearly explaining America to the world. Do you think the government should be allowed to do this? Or does government always have to adopt some sort of posture of agnosticism about Americans themselves?

I'm a little troubled by your description of book-burning as a historical American value; certainly there have been book burnings in American history but does that promote book-burning to an American value? I have met some actual book-burners rather like Terry Jones. They were actually more interested in burning rock and roll albums. They seemed to think of themselves as radically counter-cultural, in some sense consciously un-American, for they rejected mainstream American culture.

On the other hand, every time I can recall government trying to instill book-related values in me, it seemed to be telling me book-burning was always bad and book-reading was always good.

Posted by: Managing Board | Sep 8, 2010 10:46:52 PM

Sorry for the repeat post (it is not that I thought the point so brilliant).

Marc: The latter; thanks for putting it in a much clearer way. I also second Paul's last point: The "un-American" tag is a label disguised as an argument--not unlike "judicial activism"--and just gets us nowhere.

Dave: One form of counter-speech (which I discussed in an article several years ago) is protesting a symbol by destroying it. In that sense, the better analogue may be flag-burning, which is pretty clearly protected. Can we respect "religious pluralism" as a value while still being able to sharply and harshly criticize the ideas in that religion, even in the most offensive terms? Can I respect pluralism (in the sense of your right, as a matter of law, to practice your religion) while still saying your religion is wrong? And if the answer is no, doesn't that mean we are imposing, as a value, a "right" idea--which seems antithetical to the free speech principle.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 8, 2010 10:27:47 PM

Dave, I think those are absolutely excellent criticisms, and I knew that particular sentence about book-burning would get me in trouble. What bothers me about the un-American tag, I think, is that it substitutes a label for an argument, and tries to count someone out of the conversation by, so to speak, disenfranchising them. I may just prefer longhand to shorthand, but I would rather see American values discussed than labeled. I appreciate that there is a certain tension in this: the American ideal is of a country united by values, and arguments about values, rather than birth status, but one of those values is tolerance of others and of their faiths, so this church is acting in an "un-American" fashion in that sense. But, again, I would rather debate those values, and call the conduct offensive (as it obviously is), than try to pre-empt that discussion through the use of a word like "un-American."

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Sep 8, 2010 9:33:53 PM

I totally get the point that calling something un-American assumes that there are certain essentially American values, but I'm willing to say that there are a few of these that can be identified by looking at the Constitution and our national traditions. I'd include respect for religious pluralism as one of these values.

And it's true that these traditions and values are malleable enough that the term un-American can be thrown around carelessly. But simply because a term can be used lazily or wrongly does not mean that it's meaningless.

As for the content, I suppose book-burning can be construed as counter-speech of a sort, though it doesn't seem terribly far off from cross-burning, which is a form of "speech" that is deeply problematic, constitutionally and otherwise.

Posted by: Dave | Sep 8, 2010 9:28:06 PM

Howard, I'm not sure I understand. Are you really saying that nothing can be called "un-American" because to do so is some form of objectionable "essentialism"? Can a commitment to "essentialism" be called un-American? Or are you really saying that to be "un-American" (and therefore, to be "American") is meaningless, at least at this point in our collective history?

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 8, 2010 9:20:25 PM

I have a general problem with calling anything "un-American," since it assumes an essentialism that is unwarranted. Think of all the things that occasionally get labeled un-American in political debate: Socialism, non-English-language official business, flag-burning, deficits, and the NBA's minimum-age requirement. But how is one side or the other of any of those issues essential to America.

Moreover, I do not see what is "un-American" or inconsistent with the First Amendment of what the Church is doing here. This is an extremely aggressive form of counter-speech by one private speaker against another private speaker--which seems exactly what the First Amendment is all about. Now if it were the government burning books, we might have a different story. And I'm not even sure I would call this offensive, other than because I disagree with the basic message.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 8, 2010 9:08:35 PM

I have a basic objection to the whole concept of calling anything "un-American," since it imposes an essentialism that is unwarranted. Look at all the things that are frequently called "un-American" in political debate: Socialism, official use of languages other than English, deficits, and the NBA's minimum-age rule. *Government* book-burning is contrary to First Amendment values. I am not sure one private group burning another's books is any different than any other form of counter-speech by one private group against another private group--and private counter-speech is at the core of the First Amendment.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 8, 2010 8:58:00 PM

I don't have a problem with using the term "un-American" to describe the Koran burning, mainly because I think it's right. One core American value, dating to the Revolution and enshrined in the Constitution, is religious tolerance. As with all values, this tolerant ideal has not been lived out in all respects (and in some instances has been horribly trampled on), but I don't think that means we should deny its American-ness, only that we should be mindful of the difficulty of realizing these kinds of ideals.

To attempt to marginalize and denigrate all members of a particular religion by burning their holy book is utterly counter to this tradition and these values. It doesn't get much more un-American than that, in my book. (And I don't think that the fact of past book burnings in the U.S. makes book-burning somehow a uniquely American act. It merely means that people are imperfect and may not always uphold their nation's best ideals.)

Nor do I see why it's inconsistent to invoke the term "un-American" and also defend free speech. That we must tolerate a given practice under the Constitution does not mean that we must refrain from criticizing its content. This reminds me of Nazis marching through Skokie. I think it's perfectly consistent to defend the Nazis' right to march publicly, but to also express the opinion that Nazis are assholes. One might even say that it's part of the distinctively American process of free speech to have this kind of discussion; highly controversial, possibly objectionable speech should not be suppressed because we think we should have a freewheeling public debate about its merits.

As for the alternative (i.e., calling the book-burning "offensive"), I don't think it's more accurate or descriptive. One may not feel personally offended by the book burning because they are not Muslim and so the Koran is not their holy book, but may still think it's a terrible (and un-American) thing to do because it's inconsistent with our nation's long commitment to (though imperfectly realized history of) religious tolerance. Related, calling book-burning "un-American" doesn't count anyone out of the conversation; it merely subjects them to (valid, IMO) criticism for their constitutionally permitted contribution to that conversation.

Posted by: Dave | Sep 8, 2010 8:09:50 PM

Yes, I agree there is some degree of irony there. There also tends to be a very selective nature to these "semi-official" announcements. Just please let's not have some official House resolution or something.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 8, 2010 11:52:06 AM

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