In practically his first outing as secretary of state abroad, John Kerry made some remarkable statements in a meeting with young Germans. The main thing being widely quoted is this:
“In America, you have a right to be stupid if you want to be,” he said. “And we tolerate it. We somehow make it through that. Now, I think that’s a virtue. I think that’s something worth fighting for.”
Of course there’s a right to be stupid in America! Indeed, just this week it’s been expanded into being the right to be simultaneously stupid and secretary of defense!
Yet is it stupid, as we will see in a moment, if the author who is Kerry’s main guide to Islam, Reza Aslan, writes this:
“Pundits and politicians are already ringing the alarm bells. The common refrain you hear in the US: The Middle East is being overrun with religious radicals bent on oppressing women and destroying Israel. That is nonsense, of course.”
To be fair, Kerry’s statement was in the context of defending, albeit not very well, freedom of speech in America. (Kerry was obviously referencing President Barack Obama’s UN speech in his own talking points.) How Kerry defends it is what’s scary and dysfunctional.
He was basically saying: Yeah, we know that all these dumb people who don’t agree with us are wrong but we let them talk anyway because it works out okay in the end since nobody listens to them anyway. While he used the words “virtue” and “worth fighting for,” those sentiments seem to be clumped onto the end for form’s sake. Kerry certainly doesn’t say–or understand–that people have rights and government has limits. Instead, he talks as if the ruling elite tolerates such fools because it’s so nice.
That is remarkably different from a more traditional defense of American liberty like: We have seen how in a free-market place of ideas the best ones generally triumph, progress happens, people are happier, and prosperity ensues. Or, we believe that people are endowed with rights by their creator and no one can or should take them away.
Now that standpoint is really “something worth fighting for” and Americans in the institution now run by Chuck Hagel have been doing so for a couple of centuries. No American goes into battle to defend the right to be stupid.
Oh, wait! Kerry apparently does think so since, as he put it, showing his superior grasp of the English language: “You know, education, if you make the most of it, if you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”
So, you have the right to be stupid, but watch out because if you are you might end up in the armed forces fighting to defend the right to be stupid!
In contrast to a proper approach, Kerry makes the American system sound like letting the deranged walk the streets as homeless people, babbling incoherently but doing little harm. Sure, let them cling to their guns and religion while we smart people make all the decisions. He’s merely turning around a traditional left-wing critique of democracy that comes from Herbert Marcuse or Noam Chomsky, of “repressive tolerance.”
And that seems to be what Kerry and Obama really believe. Ironically, they are the modern-day equivalent of what used to be called right-wing reactionaries ruling a patriarchal society that consists of aristocrats and peasants.
Another feature of Kerry’s performance was displaying the Obama administration propensity for apologizing. The question Kerry was answering came from a young German Muslim who merely asked him about his views on Islam. There was no criticism of the United States. It was an invitation to go into a riff about America as a great, tolerant place not to cringe and insist that outside of stupid people the United States America isn’t horribly “Islamophobic.”