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Simon Jenkins

Simon Jenkins

Posted: January 14, 2011 02:47 PM

The ugly American is back. Can the handsome one do anything about it? When Barack Obama addressed a shocked nation in Tucson, Arizona on Wednesday, he deployed the only weapon left to a crippled presidency, the power of rhetorical cliche. He deployed it brilliantly.

"Together we thrive," he cried meaninglessly. "For all our imperfections we are full of decency and goodness." While American hearts were broken, "yet our hearts also have reason for fullness... The forces that unite us are stronger than the forces that divide us." Despite pleas to keep war jargon out of political discourse, Obama asked, "How can we honor the fallen?"

The answer came in copious references to heroism, family, home, hearth, to "September 11... faces of hope... simple wishes... those in need... the American anthem... hand over heart." True Americans, said Obama, "jump in rain puddles." In a tribute to a nine-year-old gunned down by a madman, he added, "If there are rain puddles in Heaven, Christina is jumping in them today."

More substantive was the president's remark, "It is part of our nature to demand explanations, to try to impose some order on the chaos." The process also involved "debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future." Americans had to make sure that they speak to each other "in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."

Foreigners are always surprised by America's capacity to speak right but somehow not do it. Washington must contain more wisdom and talent than anywhere on earth, yet it contrives the disaster zone that is American foreign policy. This is normally put down to such impediments as the American constitution, the silent majority, sheer bigness and freedom of speech.

Today's culprit is freedom of speech, or at least the speech of the American right and its broadcast cheerleaders. Shock-jock radio presenters feed on biased television news to present a view of the world divided between goodies and baddies. The baddies are always on the brink of victory and must be confronted with a virile aggression. Language that might not disturb a balanced mind can clearly stimulate and legitimize an unbalanced one.

The vitriol and inaccuracy of the campaign against Obama's public health reforms last year were like those against abortion and homosexuality. To many Europeans the echo across the Atlantic was from a people isolated from the outside world and unable to handle today's social and scientific progress. Debate was infused with a nastiness and xenophobia, as if America was a land composed of tribes bred only to hate the outside world, and often themselves.

I was asked some time ago by a university-educated Texan, in the nicest possible way, what it was like to live in a country of "baby-killers" about to be "overrun by Muslim bad guys." I inquired where he had gained this bizarre impression of Europe, which he had never visited. It turned out his sole information about the world beyond America's shore came from Fox News. He was not stupid. But he and millions of people like him considered this source of news a sufficient window on the world. He genuinely thought American troops would soon have to save Europe from "the Arabs."

Freedom of speech, like freedom of traffic, can only be defined by the curbs and regulations that make it real. It is a Hobbesian jungle. It requires a marketplace where the trade in information, ideas and opinion has a framework of rules, including rules to maintain fair and open competition. Most will be voluntary, but others need enforcement.

The America Supreme Court last year essentially freed from control all political campaign gifts from corporations, on the grounds that this would be a breach of free speech. Obama warned that it would "open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections." Yet Obama himself declined to champion the "fairness doctrine" that once governed broadcasting licenses by America's Federal Communications Commission, and governs them throughout Europe. The doctrine was rescinded in 1987 under pressure from the right.

Under Britain's 2003 Communications Act, the UK's Office of Communications rules on "due impartiality, due accuracy and undue prominence" are voluminous. So is the BBC code of practice on balance. Both require impartiality within news presentation rather than just between channels -- or not at all as in America. Article 10 of the European convention on human rights goes further. It subjects freedom of expression to "such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society." Most Europeans still rely on self-discipline on the part of the media, and on the pluralism of the internet. Even so, they would argue for regulated airwaves, as they would for laws preventing libel, slander and incitement to illegality and racial hatred. Free speech needs its own discipline, however enforced.

When Kenneth Clark was asked what quality best defined civilization he did not answer with liberty or wealth or equality. He answered with courtesy, the framework of rules governing people's tolerance of each other, so their discourse might be creative. Most of the time it is best for that courtesy to be informal. The best rebuttal of the politics of hate is a torrent of love, and if not love then at least of facts.

Sometimes, as Obama said, there is a yearning "to try to impose some order on the chaos." If American politics is now going the way of "wounding not healing," America's friends must plead that it accepts the tonic of order. The great paradox of democracy is that freedom cannot exist without chains.