Stephen Hawking caused quite a stir by saying something fairly obvious, that the religious view of life and death is a bedtime story. Religion helps us live our lives without worrying about the void that lies beyond. We just don't know if there's any form of existence for us after our bodies die.
For example, in Great Britain, it seems, a court can dictate that no mention be made in the news about a soccer player who had a sexual affair, while married, with a television celebrity. Here in the US the idea of the government dictating something like that is ludicrous. And I think they're wrong in Britain. But I can say that because I have free speech, and they don't have to listen to me, so it's cool.
Consider France and the now-unmentionable Twitter and Facebook. I applaud this, not because I believe the government should dictate to news people what they can and can't say, but because as a society, they made a choice. One that gives more options for the future. Less lock-in for our friends in California. They have to work to get French people to use their services. If people want to use them, great. But they shouldn't get the table tilted in their favor by government-licensed media.
I like it because they made a choice. Something we, here in the US, have a lot of trouble with. Because our system has some crazy ideas about corporations and free speech. (In the US, corporations can buy as much airtime as they want to promote their political ideas and candidates. Because they have so much more money than people, this basically makes politics an entirely corporate thing. Not bad you say? But one of the roles of government is to protect all of us from the crazyness of corporations. Ooops.)
You can't shout Fire in a crowded movie theater. Bradley Manning is in jail for exercising a form of speech that the government thinks is illegal. Insider trading is a form of speech. If you think all speech, no matter what, must be unrestricted, well you and I live on different planets.
Joe Hewitt, a smart guy who I like to have lunch with in Berkeley, Santa Cruz and NY, is concerned that I applaud the French for what they did. I assume he read the last paragraph of the piece he was reacting to. "Of course it would be better if the French media self-regulated so the government doesn't have to step in." I made it the last paragraph because I anticipated people would choose that angle to respond, and I wanted to be sure they knew that I didn't think government regulation was the best way for it to happen. I think most people, if they're going to comment, will read at least the last paragraph.
I'm not a libertarian, although at one time I was. I believe in liberty, but I also believe we need to have a collective consciousness that isn't completely insane. I think we're driving off a few cliffs, others do too, and what are we supposed to do? Keep our mouths shut?
I think the difference can be traced back to what Adam Smith called The Invisible Hand. It's a beautiful idea. One that Ronald Reagan picked up on, and marketed very well. So well, that I voted for Reagan twice. I liked what he was saying. Trust in the goodness of people and the Ouija board of self-interest, and all will be good.
That doesn't work because the world is too complicated, and I didn't appreciate that at the time. As a very young person, I hadn't experienced much of the complexity. That's part of what's so great about being young.
Self-interest was a very good thing to depend on when the world was simpler. When global warming wasn't an issue. Or nuclear weapons. When the collective insanity of the American people didn't lead them to the conclusion that the economy works like their household budget. Yet a lot of people, including apparently a lot of our elected officials, do believe that.
I think France, by stepping in, in a relatively small matter and saying "Wait, we don't want to go there," was a good example of a society making a conscious choice. I admire that. I wish my country had that ability, but we don't.