Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Abusing Freedom: The Missing Link Between Rights and Responsibilities

The controversy over the irresponsible publication by the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet of a modern blood libel and the immoral defense of that newspaper by the Swedish government highlights something that too often gets neglected when rights are defended: with rights come responsibilities.

The Swedish government was correct in saying freedom of the press gave Aftonbladet the right to publish Donald Bostrom's article. The Swedish government was incorrect in disavowing the condemnation by its ambassador to Israel of that article, a condemnation that was well-deserved.

One can - and often should - defend the right of a person or organization to act in a certain way while simultaneously condemning that action. By disavowing its ambassador's condemnation of Bostrom's libel while defending his right to write, the Swedish government effectively gave its approval to Bostrom's article. For this, the Swedish government merits condemnation and also owes the world an apology.

One of the alternative haggadahs we use at Pesach refers to each generation discovering new freedoms. Since my formative years in the 1950's and 1960's, we in America have rightly expanded a number of rights and freedoms, but we have erred in ignoring the responsibilities that come with those rights.

Two examples.

The right to abortion. My first memory of abortion involved the police discovering the dismembered body of a young woman who had been hacked to pieces after dying during a back-alley abortion. I think of that whenever so-called "pro-lifers" campaign to make abortion illegal; safe, legal abortions need to be available in order to save human lives.

This necessary right to an abortion does not conflict with the responsibility to use it as a last resort, to try to avoid needing to avail oneself of that right. Those of us who support the right to abortion too often ignore this responsibility.

The second example, censorship, is more closely related to the Aftonbladet abomination.

The censorship of sexual content and violence that stifled artistic expression until relatively recently was juvenile and, as far as it was mandated by government in the United States, unconstitutional. It had to be eliminated.

Lost in the transition was the responsibility of the entertainment industry and media to act responsibly. The current freedom does not require gratuitous sex and foul language that has nothing to do with either art or entertainment but which does desensitize people, particularly our youth, with negative consequences to society.

Donald Bostrom, the writer of the blood libel published in Aftonbladet, admitted he had "no clue" as to whether what he wrote was true. Effectively, he admitted he was unethical, since journalists have the responsibility to verify the truth of what they write. Based on his own admission, he should be censured by his fellow "journalists," although given the sorry state of journalistic ethics these days that's highly unlikely to happen.

Back to the Swedish government, had it not disavowed the condemnation of its ambassador to Israel, it would have no obligation to say anything about the article. It did, however, get involved and once it did its involvement has been despicable, albeit in character.

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