Common Sense with Dan Carlin: Culture Wars

An independent political podcaster, Dan Carlin has been producing his Common Sense show for several years now. I enjoy listening to him because he usually has an interesting angle on topics which isn't replicated by the talking points you hear on talk radio and TV. He therefore gets me to think a little, though I'm not always in agreement.

One such example that got me thinking recently was in the second half of this podcast (first half is on the decline of the US as a solo superpower). He talks in the second half about certain Muslim states going to the UN to pass an international law against blasphemy - that is, you can't make fun of religious figures anymore. Dan takes this as a jumping off point to discuss the topic of the book Clash of Civilizations. He wonders if this is an example of how people from different cultures simply don't share certain values; is it naive of us as Americans to assume that, say, freedom of speech is something everyone wants?

I wondered this same thing again last week when I saw that China feels it is being "unfairly" targeted by Hillary Clinton's criticism of China's censorship rules. In fact, Chinese officials claim that those criticisms "damage ties" with the US. Here is the full text of their extremely vague statement:

“We are firmly opposed to these words and deeds which are against the facts and damage Sino-U.S. relations,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a Chinese-language statement posted on the ministry’s Web site. “We urge the U.S. side to respect facts and stop using the issue of so-called Internet freedom to make unjustified attacks on China.”

What Clinton said was generally that censoring internet information is bad, and that Google was right to stand up to China's censorship of its searches. Nothing that China said refutes that. So one of two things is going on with this quote:

1. Clinton's remarks were really veiled shots at China, implying that the hackers that came after Google were sponsored by the Chinese government, and China is now making veiled protests in outrage at that accusation; or

2. China is implying that, although freedom of speech is a value that the US and the West in general consider a paramount human right, China does not value free speech like we do and therefore does not feel the US has the right to impress our values upon their culture.

I do not know enough about the Google-China hacking situation to know if it's #1. Does it seem possible to you that it could be #2? If so, do you feel it's fair to say that free speech is not necessarily a basic human right, but instead is simply a cultural value? And if so, is it something that China is justified in withholding - and being indignant towards the US about it?


  1. I made a tactical mistake by mushing together three separate topics that are worth talking about on their own - Dan Carlin, Google's China situation, and the culture wars topic - but just respond to whatever you feel like.

    I know MP you've said you occasionally listen to Carlin. Anything to like there, in your opinion?

  2. You know, that is an interesting question that I will have to spend some time pondering. Is free speech a basic human right or a cultural norm?

    Off to my pondering room!!!

  3. Initial thoughts to help further discussion:

    Is it inherently wrong to punish someone who gives a disagreeable opinion? (definition of "disagreeable" also must be pondered)

    If the government keeping secrets for national security is considered acceptable, is China's government censoring of criticisms against the Chinese government also acceptable along the same lines of reasoning?

    This may move to a broader discussion on political a dictatorship or monarchy acceptable if that single leader is compassionate and always helps the people and there is less suffering?

    In fact, can a utopian society be a monarchy or dictatorship?

  4. I think you're on the right track with this... disagreeable and also "punish" being the key definitions to the first question.

    Your second question I think can be easily answered by using logic - an impartial judge or someone could say "censoring information about democracy isn't representative of an imminent threat" where as "censoring information about anthrax manufacturing" probably is.

    I think to answer your third question about broader systems you have to answer the first question. In other words, is the Bill of Rights in our Constitution unassailable, or are those rights simply cultural values and not "unalienable Rights" as Jefferson put it?

  5. I wish MP were here because I feel like he could give me the breakdown of what the UN defines as basic human rights... I am off to research, will report back

  6. Royce, you might be a little backwards. I think the first question is whether the Bill of Rights is unassailable.

    In this thought experiment, we are following Descartes' method in removing our base assumptions. (except we're not going all the way down to knowing nothing and then building up from "I think, therefore I am.")

    First, start off removing the assumption that a democracy (or republic, etc.) is the best/ideal form of government. Is it possible for another form of government to be appropriate or better? If so, can censoring criticism of the government be considered good for society (such as national security secrets are considered good for society)? If it is possible that a monarchy or oligarchy can lead a utopian society, then I can make the argument that it follows, that censorship is acceptable for the good of society.

  7. I think I just did say that the first question is whether the Bill of Rights is unassailable. Either way, yes - that is the first question.

    Aaron, to answer your questions I think you have to answer even more base questions - how do you define "the good of society"? What is the purpose of government? To produce a utopian society? What defines a utopian society?

  8. For now, for this thought experiment, I think we can disregard the specific actions that determine the good of society. We can use a base assumption that a good government acts on behalf of the good of society, while a bad government acts on some other behalf.

    Most likely, this would end up being for the good of the individuals within the government. (Here I am making the assumption that if a government is not acting on behalf of the good of society, then there is no reason for it to act on the behalf of anyone other than the individuals within the government. I am assuming there is no logical reason for government not to act either in their own self-interest in the interest of society as a whole...can you think of any other possibility?)

  9. One of my initial considerations is that it is possible for a monarchy to act for the good of society, as opposed to the monarch acting on behalf of him/herself. I tend to believe in the inherent good of individuals and that a monarch or dictator does not imply corruption.

    However, in thinking in terms of governments, their design is to last multiple generations and so a government must have a system in place to prevent any leader from succumbing to corruption.

    So now my next thought experiment is whether you can have a system of government that allows for a monarchy or oligarchy, prevents such leadership from becoming corrupt, allows censorship of speech (specifically censorship of criticisms of the monarch), and is not a democracy/republic.

  10. I just typed a whole thing and my browser crashed, grr

    I want to be careful about going too far down "what are different types of gov't" path cause I'm only concerned with that insofar as it informs what cultural values different people hold, versus what human rights are considered universal.

    I think you can come up with other forms of gov't than can progress through generations that aren't democracies - for instance, Communism is one such attempt.

    To what extent would Communism (or whatever) be able to say to Democracy, "We are taking care of all our people, but we are doing it differently than you" and would that be okay?

  11. My eventual goal is that if you can find an example of a "good" system of government, that has in place systems to prevent corruption, and for the good of that government censors criticism of the government...then that could prove that freedom of speech is a cultural norm, not a unalienable right.

  12. Of course, this is technically the easy way out. Disproving something by finding a single counterexample is easier than proving something true.

  13. Well knowing the general concepts of an ideal Communist system, wouldn't that fit the bill of the 'good' system of gov't that's promoting a good society (every citizen is being taken care of)? And if that same system then said, since we're taking care of everyone, don't be trying to rock the boat, cause if you want change it's because you want personal gain at the expense of the society, wouldn't that be censoring speech for the good of the society, in theory?

  14. Wow. Just stunned. You made FIWK sounds intelligent. I feel like you two have entered a "let's play philosophy majors for a day" mode.

    My 2 cents: The Communist trends of the 20th century have not been looked kindly upon by history (yes, a short history so far). When the Berlin Wall came down, the West was shocked to see how poorly the East lived. China has become the power it is today after it switched to a free-market economy in the early 80s.

    While it's somewhat disingenuous to bring economic prosperity/conditions into a political and philosophical discussion, I feel it merits attention since "the good of the society" must include economic progress (a minor assumption here: a society with no economic progress is inherently not good).

  15. So then, combing yours and Royce's most recent comments, is it possible for a Communist society to be considered "good"? Has anyone read their Marx recently? How is Communism supposed to work?

    So you're saying that Royce's example of ideal Communism fails to provide a counterexample of a "good" system that allows censorship. Does anybody know why Communism in East Germany and China failed?

  16. From my limited readings (read very, very limited), they failed since it's pretty much impossible to drive economic progress through a top-down approach. To date, the economic model most effective at generating economic prosperity (as well as driving up the Gini coefficient) is a free-market (bottom-up) model.

  17. You had me until Gini coefficient. How dare you interject actual terminology into our vapid conjecture. What do you expect us to do, learn something?

    Aaron, while I think it's interesting to continue down this line of thought, let me take a different direction for a minute:

    In Carlin's example, he was talking about Arabic societies legislating that blasphemy (mean spirited insults of religion and God) should be illegal. That's restricting speech. He posits that this is an inherited cultural value because of Islam, etc etc. So do you believe that a quasi-democracy or some other representative form of government could as one of its core principles accept something like restricting blasphemy, while still respecting the individual rights of its people?

  18. Have either of you read Outliers yet? Half of his book discusses how the cultural legacies we descend from greatly influence how we "fit" into society. He brings up a study that showed that Korean pilots were more prone to plane crashes than Americans since it was frowned upon to question authority in the Korean culture (e.g. harder for a flight engineer to question the pilot), and this translated into the Korean cockpit.

    My point in bringing this up is that the possibility still remains that Arabic women, if given the chance to vote, would vote to keep the burqa. Or, in your example, Arabic societies, if given the chance to vote, would ban blasphemous statements.

    So, yeah, I'm not really answering your questions directly, but I think that there is some merit to us (the West) pausing before we attempt to impose our form of Democracy upon others. Ours was formed through our own history, and is something unique to America - what's to say that, given even the best conditions (open willingness of all parties to participate), the theory would play out as successful?

  19. I think Kathryn Schulz finally answered my question about free speech. I particularly liked this quote, "Take freedom of speech. Governments that refuse to acknowledge their fallibility don’t need (and in fact must destroy) dissent. But those that recognize their fallibility and hope to correct their mistakes must permit open expression – even if whatever is expressed seems odious, unpatriotic, or simply untrue."