Dangerous Dan Thoughts and musings on the world

2/7/2006

The Globe’s Brave Surrender

Filed under: Media,Politics,Society,World — Dangerous Dan @ 12:27 am

Providing a paradigm example of irony, many furious Muslims around the world have taken to the streets committing acts of violence in protest of cartoons that implied Muslims were violent. There's nothing quite like playing to type. Thus far, mobs have torched a few embassies, some neighborhoods have been roughed up, a few protesters have been killed as a result of their own rampage, and untold numbers of Danish flags have been incinerated. The non-violent protests have involved boycotts of Danish goods.

As I argued in my last post, this conflict and how the West responds to it is important. It can either defend its core values of free speech and a free press and insist Muslims put up with these values or assimilate them, or the West can roll over and adopt Islamic religious edicts as binding on it through self-censorship. At least one prominent newspaper has chosen the latter course.

In an editorial, the Boston Globe chastises the European papers for publishing the cartoons, accusing them of pulling a childish prank. In fact, this editorial gets things wrong in a surprising number of ways.

This was a case of seeking a reason to exercise a freedom that had not been challenged. No government, political party, or corporate interest was trying to deny the paper its right to publish whatever it wanted.

The Globe certainly demonstrates its shortsightedness as to what constitutes a challenge to free speech. This statement comes just after explaining that what led to the cartoons’ initial publication is that a "Danish publisher of children's books had complained of trouble finding an illustrator to draw a likeness of Mohammed." This wasn't an accident, it was because potential illustrators were afraid to draw such pictures. It was the threat of violence that silenced them. If it was tacitly acknowledged that anyone who drew likenesses of Jesus would face the real threat of death from Christians, I somehow doubt the Globe would be so narrow in their thinking. They might instead think that the Christians’ threat of death constituted a very real challenge to free speech and a free press and that it should be confronted.

This is exactly the case with the Islamists. I don’t suppose the Globe has paid much attention to events in Europe, such as the Muslim riots in France, the murder of Theo van Gogh, that whole Salmon Rushdie thing, and many others, but the Islamists couldn’t make their challenge any more clear or obvious than if they put out a pamphlet called “The Challenge to the Freedoms of Speech and of the Press,” personally authored by Osama bin Laden. To say that the Danish newspaper was exercising a freedom that had not been challenged is a remarkable feat of ignorance.

Journalists in free societies have a healthy impulse to assert their hard-won right to insult powerful forces in society. Freedom of the press need not be weakened, however, when it is infused with restraint. This should not be restraint rooted in fear of angering a government, a political movement, or an advertiser.

This is practically a declaration of surrender. Don't let the fear of censure or strongly-worded letters from governments or politicians restrain the press. Nor let the fear of advertisers pulling their money retrain the press. The fear of riots, death, and the destruction of property, however… well, we’ll let that restrain the press.

The Globe's editorial staff may not agree with what you say, but it will defend to its last advertising dollar your right to say it! Just don’t ask it to put anything else at stake.

As with the current consensus against publishing racist or violence-inciting material, newspapers ought to refrain from publishing offensive caricatures of Mohammed in the name of the ultimate Enlightenment value: tolerance.

As I also argued in my last post, the value of tolerance has been distorted and misused. It merely means that you put up with people with whom you disagree and you don't try to coerce others into believing as you do. Given the violence and calls for violence from some Muslims in Europe and elsewhere, this is clearly a value that hasn't been inculcated among them. If this is the ultimate Enlightenment value, as they say, and if the West is based on it, then how do they expect the West to stand when a significant portion of its population do not hold it? Is tolerance of the intolerant to be pursued to the West’s own self-destruction or should a line be drawn?

Tolerance also does not demand that I not publish cartoons that, to any rational objective person, are no big deal. Name me another religion that would respond in the way these Muslims have if especially tame, mundane cartoons were published about their religious figures?

That aside, the idea that the Enlightenment's ultimate value or contribution to the world was tolerance is absurd. That's the sort of statement a college freshman throws out as a rhetorical flourish with absolutely no support. The Enlightenment was a rationalist movement that relied on science, logic, and secularism, that sought out to diminish dogma and censorship, and helped to separate religion from government. Given this, the societies and nations that base themselves on Islamism and the people rioting are fundamentally anti-Enlightenment. Western entities that practice self-censorship because of certain religious dictates are also being fundamentally anti-Enlightenment.

Just as the demand from Muslim countries for European governments to punish papers that printed the cartoons shows a misunderstanding of free societies, publishing the cartoons reflects an obtuse refusal to accept the profound meaning for a billion Muslims of Islam's prohibition against any pictorial representation of the prophet. Depicting Mohammed wearing a turban in the form of a bomb with a sputtering fuse is no less hurtful to most Muslims than Nazi caricatures of Jews or Ku Klux Klan caricatures of blacks are to those victims of intolerance. That is why the Danish cartoons will not be reproduced on these pages.

This commits two sins. The first is the part about any pictorial representation of Mohammed being prohibited. This is a particular interpretation that some hold, but it has not been consistently followed by Muslims themselves as you can find plenty of representations of Mohammed in Islamic art. I would imagine and hope that there are also many, many Muslims who don't think the rule is valid and/or simply don't think representations of Mohammed are that big a deal, including ones that feature him wearing a turban bomb. So for the Globe to say that this is a prohibition with "profound meaning for a billion Muslims" is simply false and is another college freshman flourish, one that involves irrational, unsupportable overstatement.

Second, to say the cartoons are equivalent to "Nazi caricatures of Jews or Ku Klux Klan caricatures of blacks" is simply false. Even if you want to believe that of the turban bomb toon, tell me what's wrong with the one that features Mohammed traveling with his donkey or the one with a crescent halo over his head? Please find me a Nazi or KKK caricature that is as benign as these are.

Also, the comparison is invalid. Nazi and KKK caricatures mocked races by exaggerating physical features belonging to those races and by attributing certain behavioral traits or societal maliciousness to them that were utterly without merit. These cartoons, however, comment on an ideology, a religious one, but an ideology nonetheless. None of them exaggerate physical features of any race. They further comment on certain very real components of militant Islam, namely violence. As the riots, death threats, and embassy burnings have demonstrated, this concern is warranted and should have attention called to it. So here we have a third college freshman flourish: false equivalence.

So let us review. The reasons why the Globe will not publish the cartoons:
1) Freedoms had/have not been challenged – False
2) Never restrain only in cases of fear of government, politicians, and advertisers – False
3) Tolerance means we shouldn’t publish them – False
4) The world’s Muslims are offended by representations of Mohammed – False
5) The cartoons are racist and as bad as Nazi and KKK caricatures – False

I don't know what I have to fear more: the weak-will of Western journalists or their muddled thinking.

The CS Monitor has a nice roundup of various press reactions here and the Globe isn't the only media organ that's off track.

Others blogging: Rolled Stone, TheRIGHTJournal, themissinglink, and Volokh.

6 Comments »

  1. Extremely well articulated, Dan. The Washington Post published a great op-ed piece by a bureau chief of the German weekly De Zeit today that I wholeheartedly agree with.

    Comment by pamela — 2/7/2006 @ 9:06 am

  2. “It can either defend its core values of free speech and a free press and insist Muslims put up with these values or assimilate them, or the West can roll over and adopt Islamic religious edicts as binding on it through self-censorship.”

    Its core values of free speech? Like the free speech Cindy Sheehan was afforded when she attended the SOTU address wearing a t-shirt not in line with Bush’s particular tastes?

    Comment by Anonymous — 2/10/2006 @ 5:42 pm

  3. Anonymous, that has got to be the stupidest comment ever. Sheehan was kicked out as well as a Republican representative’s wife who was wearing a pro-Bush shirt. They were ejected based on rules of decorum that there is not to be demonstrating in the chambers, which is entirely appropriate.

    This is also a miserable comparison. If the press were prohibited from displaying her shirt (if she would have stayed) or if newspapers were not allowed to print death tallies on their front pages, then you’d have a case.

    It’s amazing that you can take an instance of broad intercultural conflict with severe ramifications for the world and then take it down to some wimpy political partisan talking point that doesn’t even hold.

    Comment by Dangerous Dan — 2/10/2006 @ 7:00 pm

  4. The republican representative’s wife was ejected because the security misconstrued her t-shirt to be anti-bush in nature. And, call them rules of decorum if you’d like, but essentially the intent is clear: they are a repression of free speech. I mean, it isn’t exactly like her shirt was strewn with profanity or even anything confronting; but in a Stalinist act of repression she was ejected.

    Having a political rally extolling the virtues of dear leader and then ejecting someone who – quite politely – questions some of dear leader’s dubious virtues; that is a classical repression of free speech. As for the rest of your reply, it is really just a manifestation of the way that conservatives answer any criticisms of their ailing regime these days. I mean, they’re always talking points if you don’t agree with them. And they’re always partisan points if they are points of view not supportive of your cause.

    But, trust me, I support the newspapers’ right to publish whatever they like – no matter how unnecessary or irresponsible that material may be – I just can’t understand why you are worried about those “core values” when those values are being undermined by the very regime that you so blindly follow. Could it be that you’re so worried about free speech because those that are threatening it aren’t Bush supporters? Could it be that –god forbid – you’re just a little bit partisan yourself?

    Comment by Anonymous — 2/19/2006 @ 7:04 am

  5. “but in a Stalinist act of repression she was ejected” If it was a Stalinist act she would have been put through a show trial and either executed or sent to Siberia. Instead she was removed from the building and the police later apoligized. Stalin would be very disappointed. I suggest that reasonable discourse may a skill you need to work on and that comparing ejecting a woman from a speech to the mass murder of millions of people for their political views makes you sound like a complete nutjob.

    “Having a political rally extolling the virtues of dear leader and then ejecting someone who – quite politely – questions some of dear leader’s dubious virtues; that is a classical repression of free speech” It was the state of the union, not a political rally. This is no where near a classical repression of free speech since the Senate has rules of behavior and Sheehan was an invited guest. The only person with a right to speak at the state of the union address is the president. See article 2 section III of the constution. It mentions the president addressing congress, not Cindy Sheehan.

    “As for the rest of your reply, it is really just a manifestation of the way that conservatives answer any criticisms of their ailing regime these days” So you are in favor of getting rid of our regime? We currently have a federal republic. What type of regime do you think should take its place?

    “just can’t understand why you are worried about those “core values” when those values are being undermined by the very regime that you so blindly follow.” I am interested in knowing what part of the republic is undermining the very values you are talking about. As far as I can tell the president was allowed to speak at the State of the Union. Perhaps there are other instances of our federalist republic attacking these core values, but so far you have not demonstrated any of them. Either that, or you are using words like “regime” without knowing what they mean.

    Comment by Pete The Elder — 2/22/2006 @ 7:37 pm

  6. Really appreciate you sharing this article.Really thank you! Cool.

    Comment by Kayli Morehouse — 4/17/2012 @ 5:30 am

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