Good reads: Freedom of speech, YouTube cats, and campaign strategy

This week's good reads include deciphering what our forefathers meant by protection for free speech, one man's quest to find a feline Internet sensation, and the 'invention' of political consulting.

By , Staff writer

Did the Founding Fathers truly intend for the First Amendment to provide absolute protection for free speech?  No, argues First Amendment legal scholar Eugene Volokh on his website, The Volokh Conspiracy.

“Which part of ‘make no law’ don’t you understand?, some people colorfully argue. Well, I understand ‘make no law’ just fine…. The real difficulty is with ‘the freedom of,’” Mr. Volokh writes.

In the Founders’ era, “nearly everyone, as best I can tell, saw ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of the press’ as providing less than complete constitutional protection for spoken or printed words. And this suggests that the term ‘freedom of’ referred to some understanding that there is a proper scope of such freedom (even if the scope was unsettled in some particulars), rather to unlimited freedom to say or print anything one pleases.”

Recommended: Blasphemy riots: 6 examples around the world

Volokh notes that there are clear problems with absolute protection for speech.  “A threat to kill the President is literally speech. So is ‘your money or your life,’ said to someone in a dark alley…. Attempted fraud is often nothing but speech. The list could go on.

“There are, I recognize, arguments for barring the government from punishing any of this speech.… But if one is to appeal to the wisdom of ‘the Founders,’ one should recognize that the Founders almost certainly did not understand ‘the freedom of speech, or of the press’ as embracing absolute protection for speech and press.”

Respected for her ideas

Pakistan is unlikely to be first to spring to mind for Westerners considering gender equality.  But in a reflective article written by Hani Yousef for Himal Southasian, the Pakistani journalist notes that she feels better treated at home than in Germany, where she has worked since early 2011.

Ms. Yousef recounts a recent conversation she had with an Austrian woman at a party in Berlin. “When I mentioned I was from Pakistan, her reaction was the oft-expressed assumption that it must be very difficult to be a woman there. I have lived and worked in journalism in Berlin for a year and a half, and the experience has made me appreciate the way I am treated back home as a career woman. I told her as much – that I find that I am more respected back home.

“Conversely, visiting Pakistan this winter after a year of living in Germany, I was overwhelmed by the respect I got for being a woman of intelligence. People – men, women, professors, analysts and relatives – wanted to know what I thought of the Euro crisis, and what my take was on political issues. … At a book festival in Karachi, an important defence analyst, a man, overheard my remarks about British analyst Anatol Lievin’s new book about Pakistan, and sought me out after the reading to ask if I had considered writing my views. The shock and surprise I experienced when he approached me made me realise how my self-esteem as a woman journalist had suffered in Germany."

How modern political campaigns began

A little trivia for the 2012 election season: The first political consulting firm in the world was Campaigns, Inc., founded by former journalists (and eventually husband and wife) Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter in 1933. And the influence of Mr. Whitaker and Ms. Baxter, Jill Lepore writes in the New Yorker, is still being felt today.

“No single development has altered the workings of American democracy in the last century so much as political consulting, an industry unknown before Campaigns, Inc. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, political consultants replaced party bosses as the wielders of political power gained not by votes but by money. Whitaker and Baxter were the first people to make politics a business. ‘Every voter, a consumer’ was the mantra of a latter-day consulting firm, but that idea came from Campaigns, Inc.“

“Whitaker and Baxter weren’t just inventing new techniques; they were writing a rule book. Never lobby; woo voters instead. ‘Our conception of practical politics is that if you have a sound enough case to convince the folks back home, you don’t have to buttonhole the Senator,’ Baxter explained. Make it personal: candidates are easier to sell than issues. If your position doesn’t have an opposition, or if your candidate doesn’t have an opponent, invent one.”

Epicenter of those online felines

If the Internet has an animal mascot, it is the cat.  And of the many, many cats prowling the web – in videos, in photos, even on Twitter – the most famous is almost certainly Maru, a box-loving Scottish Fold who lives somewhere in Japan.  Unfortunately, as Gideon Lewis-Kraus discovered when trying to schedule an interview with the feline YouTube star for Wired Magazine, Maru is also a recluse.

“I will never get to pet Maru, and neither will you,” Mr. Lewis-Kraus writes. “Maru’s supervisory documentarian is named Mugumogu, but beyond that fact, hardly anything is known about her. When I write Maru’s US book publicist—you read that right—it turns out that she knows no more than you or I. The publicist loops in Maru’s US book editor, who offers to pass along some interview questions to Mugumogu’s Japanese agent, who could have them translated, answered, and sent back. But I have no questions for the human being called Mugumogu. My interest lies entirely with the cat.”

Though the writer is unable to meet Maru, who has more than 168 million views on YouTube, he still provides an entertaining tour of the “Online Cat-Industrial Complex,” a phenomenon based largely in Japan. And while Maru goes uninterviewed, Lewis-Kraus talks to a satisfactory substitute: the Musashis, “once one of the most important cat bands on the Internet.” 

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