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Tuesday, February 07, 2006


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Both sides are too dug in. I believe in free speech, and insulting cartoons can't (and shouldn't) be outlawed, but I also know that most mainstream publications would not make the editorial decision to print something so deliberately provocative. Also, once the controversy left Denmark, it took on a life of its own in volatile, unstable places, such as Lebanon and Syria. The violence is inexcusable.

For once, the U.S. comes out smelling like a rose, though. I thought that was funny. U.S. Muslims remained calm, and Bush & Co. came out with a statement condemning the cartoons as insulting to Islam. What a laff riot. Never know what they'll say next.

I respectfully disagree with the idea that free speech is a relative virtue. Its defense is meaningless precisely until free speech injures.

So far as I've been raised to understand it, the value of free speech is absolute. And whenever speech is met with physical violence, and not with speech, I condemn the violence -- not the speech.

In the US, Holocaust deniers and the Ku Klux Klan are both protected by the First Amendment (the right to free speech, the right to free assembly -- many of our other basic freedoms are protected by the first amendment, too). Hate-crimes legislation is under repeated constitutional challenge because of its entanglement with those First-Amendment freedoms. Since the obsenity trials of the late 1960s (Lenny Bruce was given to saying things like asshole in his comedy routines, and this violated the laws of places like NYC), the US has protected obscene speech, no matter how large or violent the group being offended by that speech. Ditto flag burning, etc.

At least, this has been the case up until now, and liberals have been proud of it. US liberals claim to be worried about the restrictions to free speech possible under the new Supreme Court regime.

US newspapers refrain from publishing these cartoons not because they have wisely decided "to exercise their right to freedom of expression responsibly and to take into account the diverse sensitivities that compose our pluralistic contemporary societies," as Ramadan suggests would be prudent. They've not published the cartoons because they're scared witless by the possibility of terrorist retaliation.

All this talk about the respectful limits of free speech, within the US context at least, is a smokescreen. The Muslim crowd scares media corporations. Free speech in the US has its limits, but they're not limits of sensitivity or civic responsibility: they're limits of fear and violence.

It may not have been clear that I was using the idea of a Muslim crowd (or, as it's often called here, the "Arab Street" -- which drives me crazy, as if all Arabs were Muslims, or all Muslims were Arabs) as it functions in the minds of western media conglomerate managers. I realize that there are a variety of Islamic attitudes regarding "modernism," modernization, and western cultures. There's no such thing as a monolithic Islam, any more than any other religious faith.

US newspapers also don't publish that sort of cartoon because they tend to be less provocative than the European papers I have seen. There are far fewer deliberately insulting cartoons directed at _anyone_ in mainstream US newspapers. I can't imagine any non-indie newspaper publishing a cartoon insulting Jesus, either. Pop culture and entertainment venues would obviously be another story altogether.

I've seen from afar how the US constitution guarantees free speech but I'd be hard pressed to discuss how the Westminster systems of governance differ from yours in that respect. I just know that they do. It's a grey area as far as I'm concerned. I'm always more inclined to argue ideologically than to argue about the law. That's why Ramadan's piece appealed to me. I don't see the principle of free speech as the main issue here which is why I see it as needlessly provocative for other newspapers to publish the cartoons. I think it's all very well for western media to trumpet the virtues of free speech but they are owned, as you say, by powerful corporations and do *not* act as vehicles for speech by any other than the most powerful and usually conservative forces. So I see the free speech take on this as a red herring.

I don't see it primarily as a free speech issue either. After all, the New York Times can publish racist screeds if it wants to, but they don't do it, because the community wouldn't tolerate it. In the United States, in spite of still-existing racism, there is an understanding that Muslims are a part of the larger community.

In Denmark, some citizens objected to the publication of racist cartoons and everyone started screaming free speech. This is not a free speech issue. The Danish people who don't like the cartoons have every right to complain about them. They are among the lowest status people in their culture, but they still have a right to be recognized and complain when they see racism in their own country, Denmark. By objecting, they are helping to set the standards for what is acceptable in that society. That is not censorship; that is participating in a free society. The peaceful demonstrations inside Denmark are perfectly legitimate.

The violence is a separate issue. The violence is happening far away from Denmark, in countries that have no tradition of "free speech." We can lecture them all we want about free speech, just like they can lecture us about blasphemy, but neither side can truly appreciate what the other is saying, because of the different world views.

The media is not making any distinction between Muslims who live in western countries, and those that are rioting in the Middle East. This is typical, all Muslims being lumped together as if they are all part of the same group. The rioting is being used by some as evidence that Muslims in general are primitive and can't appreciate democracy, but the Muslims living in democratic countries are playing by the rules.

In the States, there's been a HUGE amount of commentary from the liberal press about using free speech responsibly, more or less following the rationale of the article you quoted. It's a little distressing, because these are the same people who advocate very strongly for flag burning and for letting people be as satirical as they want to be about Christianity. In the European context, I understand that free speech is not an unfettered value, but in the States, the idea that there would be special classes of speech is a conservative idea that tends to privilege the Christian "majority" and (surprise, surprise) commercial/corporate speech.

I get that the free speech issue isn't quite the point of what happened here (it's telling that no one wrote about the problem last fall, though, while Danish religious and media leaders attempted to hash out a solution) but I'm disturbed by some of the rhetoric against free speech that's arising from the situation. In the States, arguments for moderation almost always turn into attacks on the left wing (what there is of it) in American political and public life.

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