Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A tale of two UN Speeches

Barack Obama recently made a speech at the UN talking about the recent attacks on the US Embassy in Benghazi, and the anti-Islamic film that may or may not have sparked the whole thing.

The line that got a lot of attention was the following:
The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.
Taken at face value, this is a deplorable and pathetic response to this whole sordid mess, sounding like a combination of apology and pandering.

But as Ken at Popehat points out quite eloquently, the context of the line does make it somewhat less unpalatable. Taken as a whole, the speech is actually a fairly good defense of free expression, which you can read over at Popehat. Even the 'The future does not belong to Islam' line is part of a repeating rhetorical device:
The future must not belong to those who target Coptic Christians in Egypt – it must be claimed by those in Tahrir Square who chanted “Muslims, Christians, we are one.” The future must not belong to those who bully women – it must be shaped by girls who go to school, and those who stand for a world where our daughters can live their dreams just like our sons. The future must not belong to those corrupt few who steal a country’s resources – it must be won by the students and entrepreneurs; workers and business owners who seek a broader prosperity for all people. Those are the men and women that America stands with; theirs is the vision we will support.
The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied. Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shiite pilgrims. It is time to heed the words of Gandhi: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.” Together, we must work towards a world where we are strengthened by our differences, and not defined by them. That is what America embodies, and that is the vision we will support.
Meh. "Targeting" (i.e. murdering) Coptic Christians is not at all equivalent to making a crappy movie about Islam. And the atheists would dispute even the narrowly defined claim, as they would argue that Islam, like all religions deserves ridicule and contempt. Still, if you were to weigh up the sum of all the sentiments expressed in the speech, it's not too bad.

But here's where things get murky. As one of the commenters, Tarrou pointed out, the line about not slandering Islam is the only thing that most people will ever hear from the speech. And what should you make of that? As I wrote over in the comments section:
I guess it comes down to whether you think that the speechwriters put that line in knowing that it would be the only thing that gets quoted. I could see it going either way, but the the way you interpret the overall speech seems to vary a lot based on the answer to that question.
On the one hand, if you write speeches for a living, you've got to know that one wrong line means that that will be the only thing that gets quoted. You might assume, therefore, that they write speeches accordingly, and the line was thus deliberately chosen knowing it would be quoted (but in a context where they can point to the rest of the speech and say "see, we were defending free speech!").
On the other hand, I can also imagine that it would be immensely frustrating to be a speechwriter and know that the vast majority of people will never read past the headline if you happen to put in one infelicitously chosen remark. If it was just a slip, then they'd be sharing Ken's frustration that nobody is reading everything else that was said, which does indeed defend free speech quite robustly.
And there's the rub. I tend to favor some part of the former interpretation - that line was deliberately chosen to sound like a highly quotable passage of appeasement in a speech that generally wasn't appeasing. Weigh that accordingly, but these guys are pros, writing for a worldwide audience.

In other words, it's a mistake to assume that everything in a political speech represents the balance of exactly what the politician means. More often, it's just designed to have a specific effect on the various parts of the audience.

So should you give Obama most of the credit for a reasonably good defense of free speech, with the remark about Islam merely a way of getting the Islamic part of the audience onside by showing he respects their religion? Or should you be skeptical that the Islam line was the deliberately chosen, quotable part of the speech, and the rest was just a way of insulating himself against criticism?

I dunno.

The whole thing reminds me somewhat of what Glenn Reynolds said during the 2008 election about Obama's anti-free-trade rhetoric while Austan Goolsbee was singing a different tune to the Canadians:
When it comes to things like NAFTA, there seem to be only two possibilities. Either Obama's anti-NAFTA talk is a ruse to fool the rubes, or his coterie of distinguished economic experts is a ruse to fool a different batch of rubes.
On the NAFTA one, thankfully, it seems that he was actually listening to Austan Goolsbee and not the unions. On this one, I guess we'll see.

So much for the first UN speech. What was the second one?

Via Half Sigma, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's UN speech about, among other things, the coming 12th Imam. Yes, really.
Mr. President, Friends and Dear Colleagues,
Creating peace and lasting security with decent life for all, although a great and a historic mission can be accomplished. The Almighty God has not left us alone in this mission and has said that it will surely happen. If it doesn't, then it will be contradictory to his wisdom.
-God Almighty has promised us a man of kindness, a man who loves people and loves absolute justice, a man who is a perfect human being and is named Imam A1-Mahdi, a man who will come in the company of Jesus Christ (PBUH) and the righteous. By using the inherent potential of all the worthy men and women of all nations and I repeat, the inherent potential of "all the worthy men and women of all nations" he will lead humanity into achieving its glorious and eternal ideals.
-The arrival of the Ultimate Savior will mark a new beginning, a rebirth and a resurrection. It will be the beginning of peace, lasting security and genuine life.
Even supposing you believe this (and lots of people do), it's a rather strange thing to throw into a speech to the world's leaders. Say what you will about the specific claims, you have to agree that it's pretty straightforward - you're not left in enormous doubt trying to parse the subtle political meanings. As Half Sigma noted, expect to read about this exactly nowhere.

As part of his visit, he also apparently wanted to meet with the Occupy Wall Street folks, but that didn't seem to actually happen.

So cheer up, conservatives! You could be ruled by Ahmadinejad instead.

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