Hear the words, “President Hillary Clinton,” and innumerable reservations and concerns spring to mind. Especially worrisome in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings is how her authoritative predispositions might impinge on free speech. And little is more revealing in this regard than her remarks while secretary of state to a 2011 meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation.
This group of 56 Muslim countries and the Palestinian Authority was meeting in Istanbul at the time. Its participants argued, as they had before and have many times since, for a ban on any criticism of Islam. As this country’s representative she needed to assert its values, and, to her credit, she did, explaining how the United States could not pass the laws those in her audience sought and reminding them that “for 235 years freedom of expression has been a universal right at the core of our democracy.” Sill, as a diplomat striving for good will, she wanted to express sympathy. In place of censorship, she offered this county’s commitment to “anti-discrimination laws and protecting the rights of all people to worship as they chose.” She must have known this would fail to satisfy her audience. So she took an additional step. Secretary Clinton promised that the United States government would also “use some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming so that people don’t feel they have the support to do what we abhor.”
That last statement says much about Mrs. Clinton’s approach to government and the fate of free expression should she become president. It is one thing for a truly civil society and its government to frown on cruel or bigoted remarks and in so doing gradually banish them from polite conversation. It is quite another for the government to use its coercive powers extra-legally to pressure those who exercise their rights in ways it disapproves.
The danger is evident in even a casual consideration of how a Clinton administration would shame its citizens. Would Washington publically name and chastise transgressors on its websites, in its publications, or through its social media connections? Would it mobilize something like a twitter mob to hound people out of their jobs or into obscurity? Would the shaming program extend to Muslim scholars who dissent from orthodox interpretations? Would the government attack historians who describe past Muslim actions in less than a laudatory light? Who would decide what and whom to shame? Would it involve a committee in the State Department? Would the Education Department be better suited? Would President Clinton establish a special task force for the purpose? Perhaps she would seek advice from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Would those chosen for shame find themselves barred from government contracts or employment? Would the institutions with whom they are connected lose government funding? Perhaps those shamed would have to embroider a letter on each item of their clothing, say a scarlet “I” for Islamophobe.
She, of course, left all such questions unanswered as she boldly promised to take the United States government where it has never gone before. It could be, of course, that she meant none of it, that she was just lying for the sake of diplomatic advantage or simply following orders from the White House. Such explanations might offer comfort on one score, but they would still leave citizens with questions about a prospective president who would lie to such little effect or bow so readily to pressure. On the assumption that she is neither a liar nor a coward, one must assume her statements are a sincere reflection of her beliefs, which then simply returns to the question of what kind of leader would see shaming as a legitimate activity for this country’s government. Whatever light one shines on these events, they are far from encouraging.