12/28/2012 01:53 pm ET Updated Feb 27, 2013

Our Fading Right: Freedom of Speech


I watched a documentary on Chinese artist Ai Weiwei called Never Sorry. The name is a double take on his 2009 Munich retrospective "So Sorry", where Weiwei rattled cages with the installation "Remembering." It's an exterior piece built from 9,000 children's backpacks commemorating the Sichuan earthquake in 2008; the brightly-colored bags spelled a line from a letter written to commemorate the death of one woman's seven-year-old daughter in the quake, where thousands of students died as the result of sub-standard buildings legitimized by bribes of Chinese officials.

Everything right on the outside, a soft and crumbling truth within. I think of us when I write that.

This is the kind of cause that Weiwei has worked to address with his whole career. America-educated but China-born, he operates in his homeland today as an internationally recognized artist-cum-activist, famous for speaking out against his government, lifting his middle finger to everything beloved and saying figuratively, and occasionally literally, "F*** You" to The Motherland.

I wonder when the last time someone said "F*** You" to our country and meant it to make anything better.

Never Sorry is arresting not because of its use of "The F*** Word" or profligate offensive hand gestures, but because Weiwei, like most other dissidents in his country, is playing a price for speaking up. We see in his actions and reactions as the truth about free speech in the present day, and against the backdrop of modern China Weiwei, bruises and flushes to paint the picture of oppression with smiles in the daylight and force in the dark. The beautiful cities broken with force and fear is antithetical to our Western ideals of modernity, and it is alarming to see streets and sidewalks walked by watchful, combative police holding digital camcorders; arresting to see Weiwei harassed, thrown out of government buildings, and assaulted in his hotel room. He tracks all of these events religiously, on Twitter. His life is one of protest by argument, with an encroached establishment and historically strong opposition to active citizenry.

Today we are arguing loudly about our rights not in the First Amendment, but the Second. I have to wonder if we're putting our emphasis in the right area.

It is difficult to look at free thinkers and free speech advocates being jailed, injured, or killed for speaking out and then argue about our access to guns, no less writhe, fight and spend in support of bigger clips and higher repeat rates before we've even touching the deadly weapon of meaningful speech.

Is it about money?

Public officials talk about China the most when it comes to cash. In the election, their economic policies and how candidate Romney would "label China a currency manipulator." Even today, the false accusation that the United States' owes massive portions of debt China floats around water coolers (the truth is, they hold only about 8 percent of the total).

Money and guns. What we can use as individuals. Speech is only for the benefit of the common good.

One of Weiwei's more famous pieces is the expansive and incredible "Sunflower Seeds", part of a Tate Modern exhibition. Over 100 million hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds were laid in a room the size of a football field, mimicking the sand-grand spread of the people of China, or Weiwei's collective impact via tiny bits of information via Twitter. It reminds me of us. The 300-plus million in our country, weighing tons, demanding forklifts to be moved but lying uselessly spread out for passersby young and old to rifle, pile, and rustle as they like. I finished Never Sorry with a sense of unease; that we fight for the wrong things, work to "secure" our rights rather than actually use them.

Is the issue that we "don't have the time"? Or just don't care. Or is it that we are far too comfortable to fight for meaningful change anymore.

During the darkest moments of the documentary, Ai Weiwei goes missing. Not for a night, not for a week, for months; abducted by the government, disappeared for exercising rights we ignore. In response, Americans exercise their already-won right to Google the latest starlet laid bare by a hacked cellphone, and slosh forth an orgasmic toast to the "freedom of press." We are the true "one-percenters", the spoiled brats of the world. Shutting our ears and eyes against the need, the lack, gathering interest on our freedoms while others have none.

We could use our most fundamental right, to make things better in our country and in others. Take to the streets. Raise our voices to progress. Put the "I" back in "Washington." Offer more effort than signing a three-second petition, vote more than once very four years, and in the midst of our own incredibly comfortable upheaval demand that our country does things differently. Use the right others are dying to have, and maybe do more to demand that other people get that right too.

But we remain silent. Sit, click, ogle, Google.

China is a torn country that juxtaposes vast technological advancement with bleak rurality; there is a rising middle class with fixed or declining social freedoms, and a history of imperialism running back thousands of years. Yet people like Ai Weiwei risk their lives, their family, all security, to speak. What's our excuse?