How “free” is “free speech?”

I’ve been following the “free speech” debates, and can come to only one defensible conclusion. One conclusion, that is to say, which neither denies the free speech idea nor validates grotesque images and words published under its banner.

It is based on what I believe to be the one universal belief — a dictum found in some form in nearly every organized culture — which supersedes free speech. It goes by many names, but is best known in the Western world as “the golden rule.”

If you find it difficult — even impossible — to accept a vicious and grotesque representation of those things you hold dear and sacred and true, you ought not to create, spread, or tolerate such representations of anyone else’s dearly held truth.

Or, to paraphrase the original, “speak of others as you would have them speak of you.”

If “golden rule” is not comfortable for you, sounds too religious or too old fashioned, replace it with “the social contract.” Very nearly the same thing.

The arcane logic of the CIA

Perhaps, reading the catalogue of alibis and rationalizations out there which explain our government’s use of torture, you reach a point at which you say, “Okay, I understand. I don’t like, I don’t condone, but I understand. From their warped mindset, their infantile point of view, some brutalities were necessary.”

I hope you don’t reach that point, but if you do, hey, that’s simply a point where you and I won’t meet. Let it pass.

But surely you reach a point at which you say, “Holy shit, these guys are not only vain, misguided, brutal, insensitive, and opportunistic, they are also pretty fucking stupid to think anyone would fall for that line of reasoning.”

If you have not yet reached the point, please let me to lead you to it. An article today, several places, this version from the LA Times.

a Pakistani man named Janat Gul… was captured in June 2004, based in part on statements by a CIA informant… who… identified Gul as a facilitator for Al Qaeda who had knowledge of plans to conduct attacks in the U.S. in the weeks leading up to the 2004 elections….

After several weeks of being hit, pushed into walls and doused with water, Gul had not divulged any information about a plot.

The interrogations continued through September, despite cables from the personnel at the detention site saying Gul seemed to have little information to impart. In October, the CIA began to reassess the information from its informant who then “admitted to having fabricated the information.

In December… they described Gul as “a very simple man” who was not linked to senior Al Qaeda officials.

In April 2005, with Gul still in CIA custody, Justice Department officials asked the CIA what justification they had for his interrogation. The agency responded that Gul’s information had enabled them to determine that the informant was unreliable.

In simplest terms, the CIA argued that torturing Gul was legitimate and necessary because, although he was “a simple man, not linked to Al Qaeda,” his information — that is, his inability to provide any information — proved that the other informant was a liar.

If you want to stay awake into the wee hours tonight, consider what might happen if one of your neighbors reported that you were a Russian spy, or a Korean terrorist. That night a couple guys grab you and take you to a secret base in Tanzania. Once there, they kick the shit out of you for a few months. You don’t tell the anything useful, because you don’t know anything useful. Finally they decide you aren’t a spy or a terrorist at all, just “a simple man.”

However, torturing you was okay, because it proved that your neighbor was a fucking liar.

Sleep well.

About that “torture” discussion…

I resisted an obvious — I hope it’s obvious — temptation to comment on the recent torture report, not because I wasn’t sure what to say, but because I was pretty sure what to say.

Playing into this is the bullshit that went into justifying our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. And before that, our collective self-delusions following 9/11. I wrote at tedious length about each, and to no apparent end, other than to alienate a few acquaintances. 1

Fortunately for me (now I don’t have to write it) and fortunately for you (you don’t have to read my prose), David Simon has written what I would call, in this circumstance, a perfectly balanced, calm, and rational analysis of the matter.

If you’re not familiar with Simon’s prose, and his beliefs, consider his opening line.

Here’s the sad fucking truth:

The man is a national treasure. Go read him.

  1. I can’t politely say “bad rubbish,” but “good riddance” may not be far off the mark.  ↩

Yeah, what would he do?

The Vatican, in delicate terms, reports that Francis 1 will not meet with with the Dalai Lama. The decision to turn down such a meeting is not presented as Francis’ own choice; it has been announced (decided?) on his behalf, perhaps even without serious or meaningful input from the man himself. 1

So. Why would the Vatican want not to offend the Chinese? 2 What is there about China which would prompt the Vatican to defer to Chinese political considerations?

Well, for one thing, there are around one hundred million Catholics in China currently, and virtually all of them cut off from Rome: some twenty million or so adhere to an alternate sort of Catholic Church run by “official” leaders; the rest apparently are willing but unable to connect with Rome. That is a hundred million whom the Vatican might wish to gather into what is an uncertain flock. 3

Also, and perhaps even more importantly, China has become a dominant player in global economics, and can only get bigger. That’s economics, as in wealth. Money. Resources.

Rome cannot help being concerned about the economics. Consider. It’s an organization which, for the best part of two millennia, has been gathering and stock-piling wealth: currency, real estate, art treasures; you name it, and if it’s anything to do with money, the Catholic Church is a big player.

But if the church is so big, why would it worry? Wouldn’t its very wealth guarantee its continued success and safety?

No. Even with Mafia muscle, the Church is no match for the ambition of a world super-power. If the Chinese decide they want to take, take over, over-run, or run away with something — an island or a bank, for instance — the only thing likely to give them pause is the military power of the USA.

So. While Rome does try not to antagonize Washington, no one expects the US will react overtly should an offense be noted.

With Beijing, the situation is different.

Francis, therefore, will not antagonize anyone by meeting with any of the Nobel winners assembled just down the street from his place.

All that’s left is that quirky old question. WWJD? 4


I wondered at first how there could be one hundred million Catholics in China. Now it appears that was way off. The acknowledged figure is somewhere closer to ten million. One-tenth as many. It doesn’t change the basic question, however, though it probably makes the Church of Rome look even worse.


  1. I can imagine Francis, or someone like him — assuming he is anything like what I’d hoped for since John 23 — agreeing, or even arranging, to have this presentation decided by Vatican officials, and not by himself.  ↩
  2. There’s no question that this — taking care not to offend the Chinese — was the reason for snubbing the Dalai Lama.  ↩
  3. The Church in Latin America, not so long ago the pride of Rome, is lately in decline, as seems to be true in Africa and Southeast Asia as well.  ↩
  4. Nothing in the records, so far as I know, to suggest a parallel situation back then. Can’t help suspecting though, that had some other high-principled leader, one with affection for ordinary folk, asked Francis’ precursor for a meet, it would have happened. And any real or suspected opposition from the Procurator of Judea would only have increased the odds of a meeting. ↩

Crime and punishment

Why do we punish criminals? That is, what is the purpose of penalizing those who break the rules which we accept as limitations on our actions?1

So far, I’ve been able to categorize, or at least to put into lists, various reasons for the penalties we exact. What I’ve come up with is this.

Penalties are decreed/enforced for three groups:

The first group is the guilty party, the criminal. Penalties are intended to

  1. punsh him for his action (or inaction)
  2. discourage him from further violations

The second group is society at large. Penalties are intended to

  1. satisfy collective outrage
  2. discourage others from similar violations

The third group is the victim. Penalties are intended to

  1. repay the victim for his loss
  2. impose retribution on the guilty

Which of those are the more important, which the less? Have I omitted any which ought to be included, or included any which do not belong?

These questions are more or less rhetorical, but feel free to answer them if you wish. This is still a rough draft of an idea; usually I wait until an idea is fully formed, or its presentation has been edited and revised a few times, before throwing it out in public.

So this is an on-going exercise. Experiment. There are (I hope) obvious connections to a few earlier posts. I want to develop a clear statement of my own beliefs about the way things are, and possibly to suggest how they might be made better.

  1. Don’t yet quibble with the terminology. I’m trying to generate a rational analysis here. This is simply a starting point.  ↩

Though experiment: your image

Stage 1

Imagine a picture of yourself, one you’ve seen or one which might be taken tomorrow. But make it a specific sort of picture — flattering, candid, goofy, elegant, whatever you like.

Now then, suppose someone tells you that picture is going to be published on the front page of your daily paper, is going to be published

  1. IF you pay a certain amount, or
  2. UNLESS you pay a certain amount.

Okay, you see the gimmick.

Stage 2-A

Imagine the best possible picture of yourself. Would you pay to have it published? How much?

Stage 2-B

Imagine the worst possible picture of yourself. Would you pay to prevent its publication? How much?

This is not a public poll. Consider it a tentative look at changes in our ideas of self and privacy. You’ll probably see where this is going if you check a post I wrote early last year.

More tomorrow, or sometime soon.