The cartoon controversy deconstructed
The overwhelming majority of those protesting the notorious Danish cartoons have, of course, never seen them. The same goes for the overwhelming majority of those defending them. Whatever one thinks of them, there is a strong case that newspapers by this point have a responsibility to print them just to let their readers see what is at the center of a global protest wave. But, with depressing predictability, in the US and much of Europe this falls to the ideological conservative press, which then get to smirk and gloat about how the rest of the world is too intimidated by the Muslim menace. A sneering case in point is Human Events, "the National Conservative Weekly," which has all twelve cartoons on its website.
Putting aside the Islamic prohibition on graphic depiction of the Prophet (which Muslims themselves have not always honored, as the London Times pointed out in a Feb. 4 op-ed), most of the cartoons are simply too unimaginative and obscure to be either offensive or funny. A few are offensive, in a sophomoric way. Worst is the one portraying the Prophet with a bomb for a turban. A close second is the one showing the Islamic crescent above the Prophet's head like a halo—but forming Devil horns. Making a valid point about both the status of women in (orthodox) Islam and the blindness of fanaticism is the one depicting burqa-clad women with only their eyes showing contrasting a sword-weilding Prophet with his eyes covered—but the menacing, big-nosed, crazy-bearded caricature of Mohammed is pretty sinister. Only three are vaguely funny. One, slightly off-color but still chuckleworthy, shows a procession of mangled suicide bombers arriving in Heaven as the Prophet says "Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins!" Another is a self-portrait of a cartoonist drawing the Prophet while glancing nervously over his shoulder. The one with the best claim to actual humor, ironically, doesn't poke fun at Islam but at Jyllands Posten! It shows not the Prophet, but a Danish immigrant schoolboy named Mohammed, who writes on a chalkboard in Arabic: "Jyllands Posten's journalists are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs!" (Of course Human Events disses this cartoonist, Lars Refn, as a "coward.") The inclusion of this one should provide some food for thought to those who insist the cartoons are "not about free speech." Of course, free speech and ugly xenophobia are not, alas, mutually exclusive.
It should also be noted that the Danish Foreign Ministry has put a "Questions and Anwers" page about the cartoon controversy on its website. This reveals that three of the cartoons—those concerning pederasty, bestiality and the Prophet wearing a pig's snout—were never printed by Jyllands Posten, but added by conservative mullahs in their "dossier" circulated in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that launched the anti-cartoon crusade. Absurdly, this last falsified "cartoon" is a photo from an arcane annual event held in France entitled the "Pig-squealing Championship." It just shows a bearded Frenchman in a pig's mask—the only reference to Mohammed was in the mind of the mullahs. (These three fabricated "cartoons" are online at the—conservative, of course—Gateway Pundit.)
The Foriegn Ministry statement also says that Jyllands Posten may, in fact, be prosecuted under section 140 of the Danish Criminal Code, which outlaws "public ridicule" of any established religion.
This "not about free speech" line is becoming alarmingly common. For instance, Karen Pollock of the London-based Holocaust Educational Trust recently said that the Holocaust cartoon contest announced by an Iranian newspaper in retaliation for the Danish debacle "is about vicious anti-Semitism, not about 'free speech.'" (Boston Globe, Feb. 8) When will these people get it? If free speech doesn't protect vicious anti-Semitism, and vicious anti-Islamic propaganda, it's not free speech.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't oppose such propaganda—on the contrary, we have a responsibility to do so. But through exercising our right to free speech, and criticism, analysis and protest—not by rejecting or calling for further limits on free speech.
"Progressive" commentators have also been quick to point out the double standards on the free speech issue—which, as far as it goes, is entirely legitimate. Bay Area IMC gets credit for reprinting some of the cartoons even while condemning them—and pointing out that Independent Media Centers have been legally threatened and even shut down over allegedly anti-Semitic pro-Palestinian cartoons in Europe. (Although Counterpunch has—predictably—come dangerously close to cheering on the Holocaust revisionsists in pointing out the hypocrisy that they are barred from publicly expressing their views in most of Europe.) One could also point out the anti-free speech provisions in the Patriot Act, which everyone seems to be overlooking except the ACLU.
The problem with those who point out the double standards is that rather than rejecting any moves against free speech, they often act as if those imposed in the name of Holocaust remembrance or the War on Terrorism justify those in the name of sensitivity to Islam. So the whole global dialectic is reduced to a clash of conservatisms—Western versus Islamic.
The notion that "hate speech is not free speech" is repeated like a mantra by supposed "progressives" (who, incidentally, invariably have nothing to say about hideous anti-Jewish caricatures that routinely appear in the Arab press). This is closely related to the contention made too frequently by supposed "progressives" that free speech is a tool of oppression (an argument especially resorted to by anti-pornography crusader Katherine Mackinnon).
For those of us who can remember longer than a minute or two, there is a disquieting sense of being through the proverbial looking-glass. Freedom of speech is largely a legacy of generations of struggle by the radical left. It has been vigorously opposed by the ruling power structure in the West—as it still is, if anyone bothered to pay attention. But the free speech movements of Berkeley (1963) and San Diego (1912)—linked, respectively, to civil rights and labor struggles—are fast becoming forgotten history. Even the First Amendment was a sop thrown to appease the rabble following Shay's Rebellion—not (as the conservatives would have it) a magnanimous gift from the benevolent Founding Fathers or (as the "progressives" would have it) an insidious scheme to allow the white male power structure to shout down the rest of us. But today "progressives" rush to assume the role of authoritarian censors, while the right assumes the mantle of free speech.
Stanley Fish—who is a perfect amalgam of conservative and "progressive" anti-liberalism—wrote on the New York Times op-ed page Feb. 12, in a piece smarmily entitled "Our Faith in Letting it All Hang Out": "The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously." Yes, the idea that art should be tolerated because it is "only" art is both a moral and intellectual failing. But equally so is allowing the critique of this cowardly, self-deceiving view to serve as a justification for censorship or self-censorship. The real danger of the liberal view is that it is ultimately a weak defense of free speech. A real commitment to free speech recognizes the power of words and images, recognizes the risks of bad results from evil propaganda—and recognizes that they are worth it. Because the only alternative is not the risk but the virtual certainty of tyranny. The Patriot Act provisions and the pending British law criminalizing "glorification" of terrorism are the clearest evidence that if progressives surrender the issue of free speech we are giving our enemies a nice strong rope to hang us with.
See our last post on the cartoon controversy.