Keeping speech free

Reaction to crude film speaks volumes on state of human freedom

Scientists disagree on the path, but not so much on the math: Either through evolution or revolution, mankind really got it going about 50,000 years ago when we started acting like the modern human.

It’s notable, though, that it’s only been in the past 236 years or so, when the race finally began throwing off authoritarian rule, that we began to understand our God-given rights – chief among them being the freedom to speak as we wish.

And in 2012, it’s truly amazing how few places on Earth that freedom is respected.

Various sites on the Internet claim that free speech has spread to most countries today. While perhaps true on paper, in practice things are much different. Even in Western Europe, the cradle of modern civilization, you can still get criminally prosecuted for stating politically incorrect beliefs (Dutch politician Geert Wilders and French actress Brigitte Bardot are but two examples).

It’s hard to quantify freedom of speech in the world, but several groups try, albeit using different nomenclature.

The international advocacy group Reporters Without Borders’ “Press Freedom Index” for 2011-12 ranks 179 countries for their press freedom, from best to worst. Finland, Norway and Estonia top the list; Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea round out the bottom.

The United States ranks 47th.

FreedomHouse.org doesn’t look at freedom of speech, per se, but “freedom of expression” – which a spokeswoman says includes speech. They include freedom of expression in ranking countries for their “Freedom in the World” score.

“The political uprisings that swept across the Arab world over the past year represent the most significant challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism,” the report says. “In a region that had seemed immune to democratic change, coalitions of activist reformers and ordinary citizens succeeded in removing dictators who had spent decades entrenching themselves in power.”

Unfortunately, the report notes, crackdowns in other Mideast countries, such as Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, offset much of the gains elsewhere.

And even in those “Arab spring” countries, it’s clear after the reaction to the anti-Muhammad video on YouTube that the populations are no more ready for free speech than many governments.

Recent developments in the U.S. were just a shade less ominous, as the government seemed to be spoiling to punish the anti-Muhammad filmmaker – on whatever pretense could be found.

We don’t support what this man did. We’ve seen the excerpts, and the video is unnecessarily inflammatory (if also quite juvenile in execution). Reports also

indicate the filmmaker, who has a checkered past, may have hoodwinked the actors into believing they were performing in a movie about a guy named “George” – apparently only dubbing the name “Muhammad” in post-production.

It also must be said that such a video, which purports to stand up for Christians, is patently un-Christian in its mocking of another religion.

But whatever else it is, it is also legitimate speech. And, in this country at least, it is protected by the First Amendment.

As violent as the apparent reaction to the video has been in the Muslim world, the real issue isn’t the video – but how the world has reacted to it. And what that reaction says about human freedom in 2012.

It says we still have an awfully long way to go to get out of the shadows of our 50,000-year-old ancestors.

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