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Pyle: Speech, free and expensive

Published October 1, 2012 12:05 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly last week, President Obama offered a sound and sober defense of the principle of free speech.

Which is ironic, because Obama is now locked in the middle of the most expensive exchange of speech in the history of humanity.

Through last month, Obama's re-election campaign — together with the Democratic National Committee and his own SuperPAC, Priorities USA — has raised $690 million and spent $615 million. Over on the Republican side, the Mitt Romney campaign, the Republican National Committee and the Romney PAC, Restore Our Future, have taken in $633 million and spent $530 million.

(Reports have it that Romney is husbanding his money for some last-minute blitz. Which has led to the best line of the campaign so far, from former Reagan speech writer and current Wall Street Journal pundit Peggy Noonan: "Romney's staff used to brag they had a lower burn rate, they were saving it up. For what? For the moment when Americans would rather poke out their eyeballs and stomp on the goo than listen to another ad?")

Independent PACs, freed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling from any limits, are pouring millions more into their own ad buys, some overtly in favor of, or opposed to, certain presidential or congressional candidates. Total spending on all these incessant, discouraging and sometimes veracity-challenged messages will be well into the billions of dollars.

And, if the polls are right, the result could well be the return of so many incumbents, on both sides and at all levels, that nothing at all will change.

• Back at the U.N. President Obama preserved, protected, defended and explained the Constitution of the United States to the member states of the United Nations. But many of them still don't understand how the Most Powerful Nation on Earth could sit still for such things as the creation and dissemination of a dumb-ass video promoting what might be a nonexistent movie that denigrates the founding prophet of Islam.

Most of us in the mostly secular West, meanwhile, don't at all grasp how such a waste of pixels could so arouse so many people across the Muslim world to riot, burn, smash and, apparently, provide cover for the terrorist attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans at our consulate in Benghazi. How could they react so stupidly?

But large numbers of people in all parts of the world seem impervious to sense and unwilling to rationally evaluate the things they read and hear.

In Egypt, Pakistan and Libya, there are a lot of folks who think that blasphemy is a killing offense, and the nation where the blasphemers live should be held responsible. Absurd. And hard to argue with.

In Utah, Kansas and Mississippi, many people think Barack Obama was born in Africa. That Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when President Bush ordered the invasion of that country in 2003. That evolution didn't happen and that climate change isn't happening. That the U.S. spends 25 percent of its budget on foreign aid.

Both are forms of political and social oxidation. There, explosions. Here, rust. One is much more frightening, because it is much more visible. But, in the long run, both lead to destruction.

In both cases, as the president said, the proper reaction to bad speech — even really bad, liar-liar-pants-on-fire speech — is not mob violence or government censorship. The answer is more speech.

But in any society that hopes to be self-governing the real problem isn't folks who spin lies. It's the folks who believe them. And the folks who know better and don't do all they can to get the truth out.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, can be reached at gpyle@sltrib.com or via Facebook at facebook.com/stateofthedebate. Honest.