Friday, January 18, 2013

It’s Unpopular Speech that Needs Defending – Jessie Ventura, former Governor of Minnesota and Wrestler

There’s not been much happening on the career development front so in between my nights at Bruno’s (I still have bills to pay and Chinese New Year is round the corner), I’ve been trawling Youtube. In between getting my music fix, I’ve become a fan of speeches and interviews like people Congressman Dr Ron Paul and Jessie Ventura, the former Governor of Minnesota and wrestler. Both these men are often written off as part of the lunatic fringe by the mainstream Western Media. However, if you listen to them being interviewed by the likes of Fox News, you’ll find that both men make sense and more often than not end up running rings around their interviewers.

I’ve been particularly intrigued by Mr Ventura. I suppose the man appeals to me because he’s had quite an unconventional career. He’s been a Navy SEAL, bodyguard, wrestler, actor and the Governor of Minnesota.  Mr Ventura is a big man with a gruff voice. He looks more at home in a log cabin than he does in front of the books he’s authored.

Yet, despite all that, Mr Ventura is an intelligent man who makes a valid point. If you look at the interviews he was involved in that discuss the September 11, 2001 tragedy, you’ll find that Mr Ventura makes valuable points. He argues that the Bush II Administration lied to get America into a war and suggests that the attacks on the ‘Twin Towers’ was an ‘inside’ job.

These views aren’t exactly popular. If you watch the interviews that he gives, you’ll find the interviewers getting as emotional as they accuse him of being. When Mr Ventura suggests that the Twin Towers were blown up from within rather than crashed by the planes, you’ll find that the interviewers always yell, “How can you say that?”

Mr Ventura’s reply is inevitably, “I can because the constitution allows me to – popular speech does not need defending, it’s unpopular speech that needs to be protected.”

If you leave Mr Ventura’s thoughts about the September 11, 2001 attacks, you’ll realize that Mr Ventura has a point. If a society claims to value freedom of speech, it has to protect ‘unpopular’ speech as much as it allows ‘popular’ speech. If we claim that “Freedom of Speech” is ‘sacrosanct’ we have to put up with the fact that what is often said is …..well, garbage that you might not agree with. You work on the principle of “I hate what you say but I’ll defend your right to say it.”

When you look at things in this light, you’ll realize that Mr Ventura is performing a very important service for countries like America, which claim that it defends the right to “free speech” as sacrosanct.

Let’s face it, there is truth in the saying, “birds of a feather flock together.” Human beings will form groups with people they tend to agree with the most. I take myself as an example. The friends that I have made share many similarities to me. While we do have individual differences, we tend to share a common dislike for conventional wisdom. Like me, many of my friends have developed off-beat career paths, away from the accepted wisdom that it’s best to be under a big brand name company. Somehow or other, this strong similarity between us helps overcome whatever differences that we may have.

This desire to group together with ‘like-minded’ people tends to be the seed of culture formation. Mythologies about certain historical events develop because groups of people agree on certain things about the event and sooner or later everyone accepts things as conventional wisdom.

On the surface there’s nothing wrong with the development of conventional wisdom. However, there is a point when things become worrying – that is the point when the mythology of an event becomes sacred and it becomes a sacrilege to challenge conventional wisdom.

The first area where this is worrying is that this goes against the very concept of ‘freedom of speech.’ If you argue that ‘Freedom of Speech’ is sacrosanct, it does not mean that you only tolerate ‘Acceptable’ speech because you have to draw the line of “who” makes the decision of what is acceptable and what is not. Belief in “freedom of speech” means that you have to be prepared to be offended. You can then either ignore the speech that offended you or you can accept the points the other side made or you can refute the other side’s views with your own.

Then you have to look at the fact that when you make something sacred to the point of not being able to be challenged, you run the risk of closing all possibility to the fact that you may have been wrong and you also run the risk of killing ALL forms of innovation.

Let’s start with the killing of innovation. What is innovation other than the challenging of ‘conventional’ wisdom? Four centuries ago, it was conventional wisdom that the world was flat and the Sun evolved around the earth. Challenging those concepts was punishable by some horrible torture. Now, if you look at the history innovation, you’ll find that humankind only started making lots of progress in a hurry once the likes of Galileo and Copernicus challenged that conventional wisdom, paid the price for it and were proved right. 

The good creature comforts that most of us enjoy today have its foundation in the fact that people dared to challenge ‘conventional’ wisdom.

The other worry is that when you make something so sacred that it cannot be challenged, you hide the fact that the creators of the ‘mythology’ might have less than benign motives for creating the mythology in the first place.

Say what you like about Mr Ventura’s arguments about September, 11, 2001, but he has a point when he says that “Governments do lie.” He cites the “Gulf of Tonkin” incident which brought the US into conflict with Vietnam. Mr Ventura points out that this was a lie and 58,000 Americans of his generation died. His logic is not faulty when he points out that if the government lied over the “Gulf of Tonkin,” it is capable of lying over September 11, 2001.

In many ways historical events have proved Mr Ventura right. The Bush II Administration rushed into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the case of Iraq, the Administration sold the mythology that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and was a financier of the terrorist who attacked the ‘Twin Towers.’ Needless to say these two assertions have since been proved false.

Now, this comes from the American government, which is considered a relatively benign government. Can you imagine what less benign governments would do, especially if they had a public which was less questioning about the mythologies they created?

I think of Europe where it is illegal to question the “Holocaust.” If you want to go to jail, all you need to do is to make a public suggestion that the gas chambers at “Auschwitz” never existed.

Now, we can accept that this is an ugly incident in human, especially European history. However, has it made things any better for the parties involved?

So, what can we do? Well, we start by accepting that freedom of speech involves allowing the airing of views that might offend us. Then we have to accept that censorship is not the solution. The solution is to counter it with more free speech – you make a point and we’ll make ours with evidence. When you act like that and trust the majority of people to behave rationally, you become more credible. People can be converted if you listen and engage rather than try bully boy gangster techniques, which will only backfire.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


You have to credit the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who drinks in the Middle of Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek to provide the inspiration for the first blog post of 2013. A few nights ago he called me out to discuss an upcoming by-election.

If you can believe the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who drinks in the Middle of Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek, it seems that the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) is actually worried about losing a seat. The root of the Party’s worries can be summed up in three letters – AIM. Since the my fellow bloggers, particularly Andrew Loh of Public House and Alex Au of Yawning Bread, have covered the story, I’m going to avoid going into details. I will however, repeat the point that the ruling party’s reputation for honesty and transparency has taken something of a battering.

The Young Muslim Politician who fornicates with Prostitutes in Penang from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek was particularly keen to push me for ‘dirt’ on Andrew. In his words, Andrew is officially the ‘most powerful blogger’ in Singapore. He’s been trying to find out more about Andrew for several months. In one of those sessions of trying to find out more about Andrew, he asked, “Where does Andrew get his funds from? He’s officially unemployed. Why does he do it? There must be something there?”

I've always remembered that saying because it sums up one prominent fact about the powers-that-be. They simply don’t understand people who are motivated by something other than money and power.

If you look at the way Singapore operates, you’ll realize that the powers-that-be have been exceptionally good at using power and money to keep people in order. The scholarship system is a good example. Bright young things who might otherwise become trouble makers are given the chance to live an exceedingly cushy life. After a few years of living the good life, the best and brightest have no interest in over throwing the status quo – in fact they have every reason to preserve it.

On the surface of things, this is a brilliant way to get things done. As much as Singaporeans might bitch and moan about life, we’re not about to start a revolution in the manner of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt. Life is sufficiently comfortable either for ourselves or our loved ones to stop us from going onto the streets.
This is something that the powers-that-be have counted on for the last four decades. 

However, things are starting to change. The internet has given a voice to people who care about issues for the issues sake.

I think of guys like Andrew Loh and Alex Au, who have become part of an alternative voice to the mainstream in Singapore. Neither of them is making a lot of money nor are they about to win political office anytime soon. Yet, they continue to do what they do and have gained a sizeable following and reputation as a voice in Singapore. Why do they do what they do?

While I won’t call myself a close friend of either man, I know them well enough to say that both are motivated to things other than the material.

I think of my one meeting with Alex. I asked him how one could monetize one’s blog. He told me “don’t.” His reason was simple, if the blog became a commercial vehicle, I’d be beholden to commercial interest. If you think about it – he’s not wrong. Just ask yourself when you last read an article in a newspaper that was critical of one of the major advertisers.

Yawning Bread has no advertising. It’s free and accessible to anyone with an internet connection. The content is exceedingly sharp and the analysis is authentic and honest. The blog continues to be widely read.
Let’s face it; there are people who believe in something other than the almighty dollar. These people are hard to manage because they are motivated by something other than the obvious. Yet, in a funny way, these are the very people that can make things happen. People may disagree with Alex and Andrew but they respect them for their authenticity. These are the people who can change minds.

Instead of trying to bully or buy these people, surely the powers-that-be should be thinking of ways to work with them.