Open Mic is Only for Stand Up Comedy

November 15, 2011

Political Theory


A technological mishap occurred following French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recorded discussion with President Obama at the G20. After the taped conversation, the two men continued their talk not realizing that their microphones were still on and reporters were still listening. Now that they were “off  the record,” their true feelings were brought to the table. Sarkozy shared his opinion on Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu by saying, “I can’t look at him anymore, he’s a liar.” Obama agreed with his French friend and replied, “You’ve had enough of him, but I have to deal with him everyday.” Their personal opinions then leaked to the Internet and were no longer just their private feelings, and now face international attention.

In this video, you can see multiple scenarios where maybe the microphones should have been turned off and freedom of speech should have been limited for the speaker’s own sake and pride:

The Constitution grants us the rights to freedom of speech and expression, and applies similiarly for freedom of discussion as well. Is there a limit where freedom of discussion ends? Is there a point where discussion should only be free for so long and in private, so that when it crosses into the public domain, officials should be limited for their sake and the sake of their intergovernmental relations? Sure, it can be argued that directly after the conference, the reporters should have turned their microphones off, but should Sarkozy and Obama have limited their remarks too in order to protect their places in world politics?

John Stuart Mill would probably view this situation as a natural part of life that just happened to be released to the public. He argued in this work, On Liberty, that freedom of speech should not be restricted or censored and thus this conversation was something normal that anyone could have had.  However, one might argue that given the modern situation in the Middle East, this conversation can have negatives effects after the uplifting G20 discussion about peace in the region. I have the latter viewpoint in that I believe that freedom of speech in this case should be restricted in order to protect the image and message that the two world leaders are giving off about their support of Israel and their hope for the Middle East. In certain cases like this one and those seen in the above video. Mill’s freedom of expression sometimes gets politicians and world leaders into predicaments that cause them to face consequences larger than themselves. Who should bear the consequences of the thoughts expressed by Sarkozy and Obama? Can they be laughed off or is this a larger matter of diplomacy? Should they be held responsible for transgressing from their country’s standpoint and the way they handle Middle Eastern affairs in the public eye?

In the Obama-Sarkozy discussion, like many other political microphone misfortunes, freedom of speech many have gone too far. It not only puts the speakers in an awkward situation when their true emotions are expressed, but it also makes the situation uncomfortable for those who hear it, and the future consequences to world decisions. Should public figures just merely be reminded to keep their discussions more private and be aware of their surroundings better? Or is this a matter of restricting free speech in order to protect the diplomatic relationships between countries?

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5 Comments on “Open Mic is Only for Stand Up Comedy”

  1. ldahbour Says:

    I like the last question you bring up about whether this is a matter of restricting freedom of expression as a means of preserving diplomatic peace. I don’t know how I feel about that. I mean I personally find it important to know what Obama and Sarkozy think about Netanyahu because their opinions revealed over the microphones contradict their positions in the United Nations. So, it is troubling to see a contradiction in dialogue that is public and dialogue that is private. It suggests that we never really know all the facts in political relationships, domestic and international. A question that I always have enjoyed thinking about is what is acceptable transparency in government. Obama always preaches that he is for a ‘straightforward and clear’ government that will present all the facts. Well, clearly in this case, his relationship with Israel is not clear at all and it is our right to know. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has consistently been a part of American politics and since our government invests time and money we should know what our stance is one this issue and discuss the clear intention of the American government. The interests of the American people should not be overlooked with respect to this matter because Netanyahu is annoying Obama to an unmanageable degree. We should know the facts on the matters of American interests and if that means we have to hear them through a slipped sound bite then there needs to be a serious revamping of our government’s dialogue, specifically towards the American people.

    If it is a fact that is a matter of American interest that could potentially cause civic discussion then it should not be restricted at all.

  2. ianbaker2041 Says:

    I think it’s quite funny to see that Obama and Sarkozy, leaders of pro-Israel nations, actually think Netanyahu is annoying. As my other comments have made clear, I am by and large pro-Palestine, and this type of thing just reminds me that not everyone in the United States loves everything about Israel.

    One thing that is important to note is that the private stuff that was leaked is merely the opinion of two men; it doesn’t necessarily have to represent the views of the country. As you point out, the United States largely supports Israel in the United Nations (although the UN has a history of acting pro-Palestinian, and the US has supported this on numerous occasions), and just because Obama doesn’t like Netanyahu does not mean that the United States’ policy will not remain pro-Israel. There seems to be a divide between what the president feels and what the nation does, and that’s how it will likely remain. Obama is being advised by incredibly smart, in the know people who aren’t associated with politics; his policy is shaped by their advice, not his own opinions. While I would love for Obama and Sarkozy to act on their feelings, that’s not going to happen. It doesn’t seem to be contradictory that the US supports Israel but Obama dislikes Netenyahu because these are separate occurrences which should not be seen as linked.

    Was the microphone incident a bad thing? Maybe. I really don’t know. It’s no secret that there is tension between the United States and Israel, and there has been more or less since Israel’s inception over a variety of things (I won’t get into that here). This seems to be just one more case where the personal tension between the men leading their respective nations shows a little bit, and I doubt the Israeli leadership is surprised in the least with what Obama and Sarkozy said. I would say that by and large the mics should have been turned off just because the conversation between Obama and Sarkozy was private, but I don’t think it’s going to do much to US-Israeli relations because an icy atmosphere already exists there. The US may outwardly support Israel, but it’s a marriage of convenience in many ways, and what Obama says about Israel or its president privately, while it should not be shared, won’t have a huge impact on international relations.

  3. rfieds Says:

    I think you present an interesting dilemma in the realm of the world’s diplomatic relations. I agree with Ianbaker and think it is quite amusing that both Sarkozy and Obama, two overt supporters of Israel, feel so vehemently about how truly annoying the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyu is. One important thing that we must recognize is that while it may seem unfair that these comments were leaked to the public, Obama and Sarkozy are two of the most important people in the world and they must recognize their surroundings. The virtues of the oval office and the French President’s office come with the understanding that a microphone will always be under your breath, even when you think it’s not there. I think Obama and Sarkozy made tremendous mistakes making those remarks to the public and they should be more cognizant of their surroundings and the consequences of something like those comments coming out. This is not a matter of restricting free speech to protect diplomatic relations. The bottom line is that what was said should be said in a private area where the two presidents know that their opinions will not become public.
    However, I think that Idabour brings up a very important issue: when is transparency in government acceptable. I understand that Obama and Sarkozy are undoubtedly two pro-Israel presidents, however is it good that these opinions become revealed or should they remain transparent?
    Overall, I think that this post presents an intriguing concern that should be corrected by two of the most important people in the world. They need to be more aware and concerned with their surroundings when discussing private matters.

  4. sgbraid Says:

    I don’t think this is a question about the restriction of free speech but rather a question about the two presidents being smart. Obviously, Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy can talk about whatever pleases them and their perspective and ideas about certain people or situations should not be limited. Their conversation is not a matter of free speech “going to far” because they did not endanger anyone. Their words are not rare and — even though I am indifferent about their opinions — i’m sure that their beliefs are shared by other citizens and political figures alike. These are two presidents, so it would be next to impossible to limit their expressions.

    That being said, they should be aware of their surroundings and the forum in which they are talking. If Obama and Sarkozy want to discuss how much they dislike Benjamin Netanyahu, by all means they should talk about it all they want — they should just do it at a time when they are not surrounded by media and political figures. They should have realized that their microphones were still on and that they where surrounded by reporters. Conversations like the one between Obama and Sarkozy should be held in private unless they want the whole world to know their true feelings about anyone and everyone. Yes, this conversation between Sarkozy and Obama can be detrimental to the current “peaceful” — Even though the United States is one of Israel’s biggest allies, Obama and Netanyahu have had heated feuds in the past — relationships between Israel and the United States and between Israel and France. But their statements are out their and now they are going to have to ease the public that their statements did not have any meaning. This is something the two presidents should have thought about before they decided to have a conversation bashing Israel’s prime minister with their microphones on.

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