Free speech in America ‘I’m the president. I want to keep my job’

 

The dome of the Capitol in Washington DC supports the bronze Statue of Armed Freedom [Reuters]

 

This is a day when having freedom of speech is just hard.

I’ve watched parts of the controversial video clip and like most, I found it beyond disgusting. I don’t think the word exists that could express my revulsion for what it depicted.

I just kept thinking this is so awful, so obviously meant to stir up violence and bloodshed. I thought about the souls of those who created it.

How could their religion or their own hatred take them to this place? I don’t think I’ll ever be able to answer that question.

What I have been trying to explain in my role here at Al Jazeera English is the first amendment, freedom of speech and it hasn’t been easy.

Truthfully, I don’t think I’ve done a very good job in my role as explainer of America. I believe that every citizen of every country has some beliefs that are just a part of their national character.

For Americans, the first amendment is at the core of who we believe we are. I’m not being jingoistic. For the record, I don’t believe I was indoctrinated at the Democratic National Convention by the slogans, pictures of Abe Lincoln and patriotic music.

 

President Obama had a lot to live up to in his acceptance speech [AFP]

 

I’m at the airport in Charlotte, waiting to go home, and I’ve just realised I’ll be on one of those small planes.

I hate these planes, and I think my pilot may still be in high school, so I’m going to try to focus on what we learned this week at the Democratic National Convention.

I said often during my live shots that this was likely the most important speech of President Barack Obama’s political career. I’m not sure he delivered, but I’m also not sure he could have. As a candidate, you can talk in the abstract, about the ideas of hope and change. It’s much harder to craft a speech when you also have to talk about your record.

As the president reminded us: “I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the President.”

I know what it means to send young Americans into battle, for I have held in my arms the mothers and fathers of those who didn’t return. I’ve shared the pain of families who’ve lost their homes, and the frustration of workers who’ve lost their jobs. If the critics are right, that I’ve made all my decisions based on polls, then I must not be very good at reading them. And while I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said: ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.'”

That to me was the most powerful moment of his speech. It summed up in simple terms what I think the underlying theme of this convention was: “Being President is hard, and no one could do it better.” Gone are the days when so many believed that this one man could change the world – and no one single speech could bring that back.

What we got instead were plenty of shots at his opponent, basically the message was, “if you’re not thrilled with me, you are really going to hate the other guy”. That is where the fear came in; the next most memorable moment was all about mocking Mitt Romney. “After all, you don’t call Russia our number one enemy – and not al Qaeda – unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War time warp … You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”

It was a pretty clever line and it’s probably good politics, but it somehow seemed beneath this president, who promised to elevate the discussion. That is what I took away from this speech; it’s what I’ve heard all around the country, that “the campaign is just not the same as 2008”. I realise now, after the convention, those days are long gone. As Barack Obama said, he is no longer a candidate, he is the president – and he wants to keep his job.

Other key speeches:

Vice President Joe Biden: 5 out of 10

I just kept thinking, as I watched: “He is just a better speaker than this.” His job was to be the attack dog, and he tried to fulfil it. First, he tried to paint a picture of the president as courageous and compassionate. I’m not sure why they took this tack; he never could have done a better job at humanising his boss than Michelle Obama did. I have to wonder why the campaign didn’t use his knowledge of Washington to tell the audience about all the times the president tried to reach out to Republicans – only to be ignored. I think, if the country is disappointed in this administration, it is in large part because the tone has gotten worse, not better as promised. He could have blamed the Tea Party; they aren’t going to vote for him in any case, so why not point the blame?

Former President Bill Clinton: 8 out of 10

I had forgotten what it was like to watch Bill Clinton give a speech. As I watched him, I couldn’t help but wonder why the campaign would put him up before the current president. He does it like so few others can. I followed along his prepared text and was simply amazed that he was just adlibbing most of his speech. The most memorable lines seemed to come off the top of his head, not the teleprompter. Who else can do that? The only flaw, in my opinion, was that it was just much too long. He made so many points, I couldn’t help but think most of them were going to get lost. The one thing I think most will remember from the former president was his defence of President Obama – when he said that no-one could have fixed the economy in just four years.

Michelle Obama: 10 out of 10

Here is how I know that it was a good speech. When she spoke about her girls, and her voice cracked, even the cynic that I am instantly thought that she was conveying real emotion. She said much that was meant to make her husband seem like the rest of us, but what I took away from her speech was the underlying theme that she truly believes that he isn’t in it for the glory, but for the greater good.

If that message got through to the electorate, it will be hard to erase with any number of nasty 30 second TV adverts.

First amendment

I believe there is a reason it is the very first amendment in our Constitution. We are taught as children that it is a fundamental right, to be able to say what we believe without retribution.

That of course means we have to accept when people say the exact opposite of what we believe; laws against “hate speech” that are popular in other parts of this world, would just never go over here.

It’s never been an easy belief, but the internet makes it so much harder. It used to be, before the technology existed that anyone could make this video, but no one had to distribute it.

There was a system of checks and balance in the established media. I had that experience multiple times as a reporter working in local news.

Someone would tell you the most outrageous things, and you just didn’t put them on the air. In fact, you had a responsibility not to.

YouTube has changed the equation. It removes the checks and balances. I understand that is one of the main reasons it exists, to open up the media to everyone.

I have no problem with that, the American media has in many ways let the world down. There has been too much power, concentrated in too few hands.

I can’t help but wonder if YouTube shouldn’t open the question to its users. If this is really an attempt to open mass media to the masses, maybe everyone should get to decide, if and where it is taken down.

I can’t help but think most Americans would say, “Yank it”. Whoever made this film has the right under our laws to produce it, but that doesn’t mean they get to send it to every corner of the globe digitally.

They don’t, and in my opinion everyone involved in sending this out should stop and think about the part they are playing in humanity.

Censoring internet

I haven’t been part of what I’m sure have been heated discussion in YouTube’s headquarters. I’m sure the argument is that if you start censoring here, what’s next?

That is the driving fear when it comes to any discussion of the First Amendment, if you start to peel away this “inalienable right” where does it end?

I think it is telling in the last decade when most Americans have sat back silently as certain rights like privacy have been rolled back; the right to free speech hasn’t really been touched.

It is that sacred to Americans.

I don’t know if this can really explain what to Americans doesn’t need any explanation, but I wanted to try. In case I’ve fallen short, I’ll leave you with the words of Aaron Sorkin who wrote the movie “The American President” and has a remarkable talent putting into words and pictures the best of what this country should be.

In his world, the American President had this to say about freedom of speech and why it is part of who we are:

Everybody knows American isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say; “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating, at the top of his lungs, that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free, then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.” Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.

In short, I believe this vile video does not reflect the views of the vast majority of Americans, but the right to make it, is for many what it means, to be one.

With less than two months to go for the US presidential election, most opinion polls suggest that Barack Obama is a clear favourite to beat Republican challenger Mitt Romney. A Gallup poll last Thursday gave Obama 50% of the popular vote against Romney’s 44%. However, a Rasmussen poll showed Romney nosing ahead by 47% to 46%. So, an Obama victory is not certain.

The US president is not chosen by popular vote. The country has an electoral college system, with each state having votes in an electoral college in proportion to its population. The winner in each state gets all its votes. A candidate needs a majority of electoral college votes—at least 270—to become president.

Most states are unambiguously Republican or Democratic. Since the outcome in these is a foregone conclusion, the campaign focus is on just eight battleground states that could swing either way.

The New York Times recently estimated that Obama probably has 237 electoral votes in the bag, 185 from states with solid support plus 52 from states leaning strongly towards him. Romney probably has only 206 assured electoral votes (158 from solid states plus 48 leaning towards him).

Of the remaining 95 electoral votes in the battleground states, Obama needs to win only 33 to become president, and this does not look too difficult. By contrast, Romney needs to win 64 of the remaining 95 electoral college votes, a very stiff task.

Florida, with 29 votes, is easily the most important of the eight battleground states. Romney absolutely has to win this state. If Obama wins this, he is virtually assured of becoming president. Obama carried this state in 2008, but earlier Republican George W Bush carried the state in 2000 and 2004. Opinion polls suggest the state could go either way this time. Florida has suffered from an especially painful housing bust, which could hurt Obama.

Ohio, with 18 votes, is another crucial state that was carried by Bush in 2000 and 2004 but by Obama in 2008. The last 12 presidential winners have won this state, so it qualifies to be called the supreme swing state. Although the US economy is suffering from a very tepid recovery, farmers in this agricultural state have done well because of high farm prices, which have sent farmland prices up too. That may give Obama an edge.

The other battleground states are Virginia (13 votes), Wisconsin (10 votes), Colorado (9 votes), Iowa (6 votes), Nevada (6 votes), Indiana (6 votes) and New Hampshire (4 votes). If Obama does well in these six states, he can afford to lose both Florida and Ohio. That gives him a lot of elbow room, and explains why he is ahead in the race right now.

In some ways, his strong showing in opinion polls is astonishing. The economy is still sputtering four full years after the Great Recession of 2007-09 , and unemployment is still a stratospheric 8.1%. However , unemployment was over 9% when Obama came to power, so things have got slightly better, and that may be enough for him to scrape through. It’s worth remembering that Roosevelt too got re-elected in 1936 despite very high unemployment, since it was even higher when he came to power. It helps to have got elected during a terrible downturn: after that, almost anything looks like an improvement.

But what matters is not just unemployment but incomes of those who are employed . The US median income has been falling steadily in recent years: those getting jobs are getting lower wages. Romney’s key electoral plank is that the middle class is getting wiped out by Obama’s economic failures. This sentiment is shared by many voters, yet the middle class has not turned decisively against Obama. Romney’s chances will improve greatly if the economy slides downhill in the next two months. Sadly for him, the economy seems to be picking up.

Romney has attacked Obama for his healthcare reforms, and for being soft on illegal immigration. However, it’s far from clear that these are election-losers for Obama. Romney’s own healthcare reforms when he was governor of Massachusetts bore a close resemblance to what Obama has done at the national level.

Obama has opted for class-warfare rhetoric, painting Romney as the sort of rich financier who caused the last economic bust, who avoids paying his fair share of taxes, and who wants to benefit billionaires (through tax cuts) at the expense of the poor. This has put Romney on the defensive. Public antagonism to rich financiers, plus the slight improvement in the economy, may suffice for an Obama victory. But Romney still has an outside chance.

n 1992, Francis Fukuyama, famous American political scientist wrote The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama argued that the worldwide spread of liberal democracies in the late nineties marks the end point of humanity’s socio-cultural evolution. He was referring mainly to the collapse of communism. It may be an exaggeration to call this The End of History.  But the year 1989 which saw the dismantling of the Berlin Wall was no doubt a radical turning point in global history. It heralded the dominance of democracies, and the triumph of Washington in the Cold War between the American and Soviet blocs.

1989 was a turning point for India’s political history also. That year’s Lok Sabha election saw BJP make a big leap forward in the Lok Sabha from a miserable two seats (1984) to a respectable 86 seats (1989). BJP emerged as the principal challenger to Congress Party’s hegemony over national politics.

In the next decade, the BJP kept growing and the Congress Party kept dwindling until in 1996, BJP became the largest party in the Lok Sabha, and in 1998-1999 the BJP-led NDA assumed full control of the Union Government, and gave the country a 6-year spell of stable, good government and meaningful progress in numerous fields.  Since then, whenever anyone has asked me: what would you describe as BJP’s main contribution to national politics, my answer has always been: transforming India’s single – dominant-party polity into a bipolar polity.

This achievement, I hold, is a boon not only for the BJP but also for the Congress, and of course for the country and its democracy. Unfortunately, the Congress does not view it that way, regards the BJP not as the principal opposition, a continuing interaction with which would be beneficial for governance, but as an enemy which has to be defeated, and decimated, at all costs.

Pranab Mukherji was an exception. As Leader of the Lok Sabha for most of UPA’s tenure, he did maintain a continuing contact and interaction with leadership of the principal opposition.  So, when recently after the CAG report on Coal the Congress Party indulged in some very irresponsible and even slanderous comments against the CAG, we decided to call on him and urge him to administer some sage counsel to his erstwhile colleagues.

Going through a 2-volume Constitutional Law of India edited by Shri M. Hidayatullah, I discovered that in one of his Parliament speeches delivered in 1953, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar not only described the Comptroller and Auditor General as “probably the most important officer in the Constitution of India,” but also regretted that he had not been given adequate powers to discharge his duties properly.

This is what Dr. Ambedkar exactly said: “If this functionary is to carry out the duties – and his duties, I submit, are far more important than the duties even of the judiciary he should have been certainly as independent as the Judiciary. But, comparing the Articles about the Supreme Court and the Articles relating to the Auditor General, I cannot help saying that we have not given him the same independence which we have given to the Judiciary, although I personally feel that he ought to have far greater independence than the Judiciary itself.”

****

When I look back at the last sixty years of my political life and try to assess what can be regarded as the second most important contribution Jana Sangh and BJP have made to Indian politics, I would say that assisting Loknayak Jai Prakash Narain to bring together all non-Congress Parties, fighting the traumatic Emergency and saving Democracy is the second major contribution.  In this matter, the BJP played a pivotal role.

The country’s politics has today reached a point where the ‘Coalgate’ issue raised very powerfully in Parliament by the NDA has been taken serious cognisance of by the Supreme Court.

‘Coalgate’ is a scam about which the CAG has said that the scam cost Government 1.86 lakh crores. The fact that for most of the time under CAG’s review the coal ministry had been with the Prime Minister has made ‘Coalgate’ a fitting climax for exposure of  the series of scams starting with the 2G and Commonwealth scams of 2008.

***

That on a day when the Supreme Court has put six pertinent questions to government about this coal scandal, government should have decided to announce FDI in multi-brand retail may be regarded by some as a desperate bid to shift the focus of debate from corruption to ‘reforms’. If Government really thinks so, it is gravely mistaken. The Judiciary, the CAG and the Opposition in Parliament, together with the media, have ensured that the corruption issue continues to dominate the people’s mind until the next Lok Sabha elections. The FDI in Retail issue may actually prove for UPA nothing other than Harakiri.

I sincerely hope that just as the 1977 election results have guaranteed that no government hereafter will think lightly of abusing the Emergency Article 352 again, the outcome of the forthcoming Assembly as well as Lok Sabha polls will make politicians realize the heavy cost they have to pay if their hands are seen by the electorate as sullied by corruption.

In an earlier blog, I had said that I would not be surprised if in the coming Lok Sabha elections, the Congress Party’s score slumps to just two digits, and that the biggest beneficiary of this would be the BJP. If and when this happens, the BJP would be able to claim as its third achievement: a major first step has been taken towards creating a CORRUPTION – FREE INDIA.

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