Europe Welcomes Blunt Kerry, Who Says Americans Have ‘Right to Be Stupid’

Feb 27, 2013 12:51pm

Newly minted  Secretary of State John Kerry is making friends, as well some waves on his first European tour as America’s top diplomat.

Kerry  showed off his foreign-language skills in Paris Wednesday, speaking to French President Francois Hollande and U.S. Embassy staff and their families in French.

He began the meet-and-greet in French, but switched to English after a few remarks to tell the crowd he was “happy to be here,” according to reporters traveling with the secretary. U.S. Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin had introduced the secretary with a reference to personal history with the State Department, saying that Kerry had the Foreign Service in his blood.

Kerry joked to a chuckling audience that while the foreign service might be in his blood, he had “no intention of bleeding.”

Offering a hearty traditional English breakfast, Prime Minister David Cameron kicked off  Kerry’s journey in London Monday that will cover nine countries in Europe and the Middle East in 11 days. Cameron joked that the secretary will need “a good breakfast to prepare him for the long trip ahead.”

But it was in Berlin on Tuesday, a city where Kerry famously spent time as a child while his father served as a diplomat, where the new secretary of state made comments that delighted the crowd abroad but raised eyebrows at home.

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Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

Speaking in a town hall with German students, where reporters traveling with secretary said he was treated like a rock star, Kerry, 69, was asked a question about the Arab Spring and subsequent protests. As expected, the former Massachusetts senator and Vietnam vet spoke about the U.S. ideals of freedom of speech, religion and expression. But he was unexpectedly blunt, telling the students that Americans “have a right to be stupid.”

“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,” Kerry said, making the crowd laugh. ”The reason is that’s freedom, freedom of speech. In America you have a right to be stupid, if you want to be.”

Kerry called that right “a virtue” worth fighting for. He said he understood the frustration of young people in the Middle East and around the world who want the right to express themselves.

Protests in the Arab world, and particularly in Egypt, have been commonplace since the country’s revolution two years ago that overthrew Hosni Mubarak and led the way to the election of Mohammed Morsi, the leader of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood party. Issues related to the protests have included Morsi’s attempting to crack down on political dissent by issuing decrees and outrage and anger over four Egyptian students’ being arrested for doing the dance craze “Harlem Shake” in their boxers.

“You have intolerance in a number of different kinds of religions or points of view in different things,” Kerry told the students in Berlin. ”I know that Islam is not represented by a lot of jihadists and others. I know it’s a beautiful religion.”

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