Defending the virtues of liberty, free markets, and civilization... plus some commentary on the passing scene.

Freedom's Fidelity

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Free to Offend (Me and Mr Wycliff III?)

In last week's column Don Wycliff published part of an email I sent to him and then solicited reader contributions to help explain why the Chicago Tribune was correct and editorially consistent in its decision to not publish the Danish Cartoons. Well, I'm going to assume that he did not quite get the response he had hoped for as his latest column does nothing to further clear the air or defend the paper's decision.

The first (of only two) reader responses he quotes points out that the Chicago Tribune did in fact publish a cartoon that depicted an unflattering image of Muhammad back in 1990. 'Why,' the reader wondered 'was it OK in 1990 but not now'? Don Wycliff's response is essentially, that it was not OK then, the Tribune made a mistake then and took a number of steps to apologize and prove their sensitivity and then assured everyone that they would never do such an offensive thing to Islam again.

Yet Mr. Wycliff still has not confronted the crux of the issue; why does the Tribune display no such sensitivities when it comes to offending other, non-Muslim religions? (Piss Christ!) So far, we're only left to guess.

Fortunately the second reader question digs at that issue, he asks in part "Why is it only religion that gets this special treatment in the sensitivity department?"

Finally we are getting somewhere! Mr. Wycliff responds:

Good question, with many answers on many different levels. From the perspective of the newspaper, we try to be sensitive to what our readers value and hold dear. And for most Americans, one of the things they hold dearest, even in this secular age, is their religious faith, the convictions that can rescue them from despair and invest their lives with meaning beyond the mundane. As John Lennon sang, "Whatever Gets You Through the Night."

But what Nardini is asking, I believe, is something more radical, more profound. What he seems to be asking is why do we have a 1st Amendment to protect the right to believe in and exercise those beliefs in what he, anyway, considers "mythology." Why do we give special status in our public lives and ceremonies to such beliefs?

Wiser minds than mine have pondered and opined on these matters for centuries, and I don't pretend to be capable of jousting with them. But sometimes, it seems, myths provide access to truths that otherwise would be inexpressible.

Is the question of why must something such as religion be protected under 1st Amendment laws really one that is "radical" and "profound"*? Perhaps I am being dense, but I've read that last passage over and over and the conclusion I continually arrive at is that Don Wycliff simply does not understand the true meaning/value of free expression. I'm not sure I believe that, but that is how it reads. Instead, it seems he is focused on the trees of religious sensitivity while overlooking the grand forest of free speech.

And although watching the Chicago Tribune and other media outlets attempt to intellectually contort themselves into a noble explanation of why they chose not to run the cartoons has been telling, it is apparent to me that the truth that Mr. Wycliff finds 'inexpressible' is that radical Islamists overseas have won a war of intimidation. As Alan Dershowitz and Bill Bennett put it "They have cowed the major news media from showing these cartoons. The mainstream press has capitulated to the Islamists—their threats more than their sensibilities."

Indeed as this Boston Globe Op-Ed notes:
THE PHOENIX is Boston's leading ''alternative" newspaper, the kind of brash, pull-no-punches weekly that might have been expected to print without hesitation the Mohammed cartoons that Islamists have been using to incite rage and riots across the Muslim world. Its willingness to push the envelope was memorably demonstrated in 2002, when it broke with most media to publish a grisly photograph of Daniel Pearl's severed head, and supplied a link on its website to the sickening video of the Wall Street Journal reporter's beheading.

But the Phoenix isn't publishing the Mohammed drawings, and in a brutally candid editorial it explained why.

''Our primary reason," the editors confessed, is ''fear of retaliation from . . . bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do . . . Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and . . . could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy. As we feel forced, literally, to bend to maniacal pressure, this may be the darkest moment in our 40-year-publishing history."

But back to Dershowitz and Bennett:

Since the war on terrorism began, the mainstream press has had no problem printing stories and pictures that challenged the administration and, in the view of some, compromised our war and peace efforts. The manifold images of abuse at Abu Ghraib come to mind -- images that struck at our effort to win support from Arab governments and peoples, and that pierced the heart of the Muslim world as well as the U.S. military.

The press has had no problem with breaking a story using classified information on detention centers for captured terrorists and suspects -- stories that could harm our allies. And it disclosed a surveillance program so highly classified that most members of Congress were unaware of it.

In its zeal to publish stories critical of our nation's efforts -- and clearly upsetting to enemies and allies alike -- the press has printed some articles that turned out to be inaccurate. The Guantanamo Bay flushing of the Koran comes to mind.

Read the whole thing. The press fondly fancies itself as a champion of free speech and expression, but it is now betraying that cause. Free speech necessarily means that someone is going to be offended - non-offensive speech needs no protection. As a society, once you start down the road of prohibiting some speech you instantly create censorship envy. Austria recently sentenced a man to prison for denying the holocaust. The next logical question from a Muslim in Austria is 'if there are laws to protect Jews from being offended where are the laws to protect the sensibilities of a Muslim?!?'

In the above context, that is a very persuasive argument. Moreover, if the true goal is tolerance, understanding, and social cohesion, this perfectly highlights why a general rule for free speech is superior to legally creating 'The Official Truth'.

Ultimately, free speech is the best defense of truth. A healthy society need not use the law to punish the holocaust denier, but only confront him with these images and rely on societal ridicule to marginalize his racist ideology.

The press does not need to shield us, the consumer, from what they consider offensive. If they want to carry the mantle of guarantor of free speech they need to stand for it when it falls under duress. The cartoons were certainly offensive, but once the reaction turned to calls for censorship backed by intimidation and violence, the images came to symbolize much much more. The Mainstream Media, and I'm speaking broadly here, should have published the cartoons with a disclaimer: That they believe that the images are gratuitously offensive, but their fidelity towards the civilizationally crucial concept of free speech and expression compels them to show support and solidarity for a principle that they, in theory, hold dear. Anything less undermines their credibility.

note on the "radical and profound" reference: *okay maybe I am just sour because Don Wycliff characterized my question as neither 'good' nor 'fair' ;-)


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