Kerry’s right-to-be-stupid speech will be remembered

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 26, 2013
US Secretary of State

John Kerry: As Secretary of State he appears to be celebrating Americans’ right to be stupid

John Kerry has celebrated Americans’ right to be stupid even as Foreign Policy celebrates his right to be marginal.

Kerry probably didn’t mean it quite like that, but his American-right-to-be-stupid speech is likely to be quoted for years as a good example of a bad choice of words.

America’s chief diplomat is the son of a diplomat and has spent years dealing with foreign policy and world affairs. And yet, his first overseas pronouncement as US Secretary of State appeared to celebrate Americans’ right to be stupid and dysfunctionally disconnected from the rest of the world!

On his first foreign outing as US Secretary of State, Kerry told German students that in America “you have a right to be stupid if you want to be.”

They laughed. Who wouldn’t? One can almost hear the comebacks on that: “If you’re American, you don’t just have a right to be stupid; you have a responsibility”. And so on and so forth.

Should anyone care? Foreign Policy at least is on record to say that nothing Kerry says or does matters very much. David Rothkopf writes that “Kerry’s room to actually make big adjustments to U.S. foreign policy is very limited. To the extent that he does, it will really be at the margins.” So that’s alright then. Kerry, like every other American, has the inviolable right to express himself stupidly.

Taken as a whole, however, the thrust of Kerry’s argument was true enough and worth reiterating to foreign audiences. Namely, America’s extreme love of free speech, political freedom and diverse opinion.  “As a country, as a society, we live and breathe the idea of religious freedom and religious tolerance, whatever the religion, and political freedom and political tolerance, whatever the point of view,” he said. “People have sometimes wondered about why our Supreme Court allows one group or another to march in a parade even though it’s the most provocative thing in the world and they carry signs that are an insult to one group or another. The reason is, that’s freedom, freedom of speech.”

But then he went on to say, “In America you have a right to be stupid – if you want to be. And you have a right to be disconnected to somebody else if you want to be.”

It’s not clear if this was Kerry’s own idea of wry, pithy comment or if it was his speechwriters/ punchline-providers. But he might have been better advised to follow the golden first rule of diplomacy, particularly when talking about American tolerance of stupidity – say nothing, especially when speaking. Positively stupid to do anything else.