Friday, February 03, 2006

Thoughts on free expression and Muhammad cartoons

My view is pretty straightforward. I have zero interest in gratuitously offending a person's faith. On the other hand, when that person demands censorship, and censorship at the point of a gun, then it is an issue no longer of decorously and generously avoiding giving gratuitous offense, but of protecting the free expression of speech, even speech which I myself would not have offered.

The right to blaspheme, hard-earned in the European past and never undertaken in the Muslim world, is a cornerstone of Western freedom today. Today's American Catholic intellectuals, for example, are among the largest moral beneficiaries of the secular enlightenment's past battles to dismantle blasphemy having the force of law - for those same thinkers depart with impunity from what their own Church officials say and sometimes appear never to give a thought that they might have been jailed, tortured, or executed in times past.

The ever-sensitive Westerners who promptly cave on the cartoon issue, issue apologies, beg forgiveness, call for laws restricting free expression, show their "moderation" and "pragmatism," and back a return of what amounts to a law of blasphemy - well, I stand with Voltaire.

And Jefferson. And Thomas Paine. And with the rest of our enlightenment founding fathers who said, Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. The radical Islamists taking up their guns and declaring jihad are uncivilized barbarians. And likewise the Muslim masses who cheer them on. Each reinforces the other. Uncivilized barbarians. Impolite? Hurtful? All true and, at this juncture, necessary to say loudly? Yes.

Europe has never truly embraced free expression as a value, not even in Britain; it has merely allowed to flourish a certain libertinism that long ago ceased to offend. Europe has long confused the fact of having less demanding sexual standards than America's with having a more liberal culture. Not so. If anything, it has always been more conformist, even though it had different cultural standards to conform to, and ever willing to hedge on issues of individual liberty in the interests of a social consensus. Not having defended genuinely offensive free expression robustly in recent times, it is nearly impossible for Europe to reach back to its own secular past to defend it when challenged. Its nuances sink it. I wish the Danes well in the defense of their secular enlightenment culture and stand with them; I have doubts that Western Europe as a whole is up to the task.

Once upon a time Europe had a noble tradition of anti-clericalism - I say that with immense respect and admiration, even as a religious person, in part because I once lived in Spain near a street still called today La Calle de la Inquisicion. Europe seems no longer able to summon that spirit except when silencing traditional Christians and conservative Catholics - easy targets, always - and even though it thinks of itself as heroically secular. It is secular, to be sure, but purely in a passive, "lifestyle" sense - no longer a principle to be defended, and which in part sheltered the religious by allowing them space to dissent without fear of legal persecution. Secular used to mean, in Europe, a proud spiritual tradition of freethinking; not any more.

I think ever less well of craven journalists wringing their hands and agonizing over how not to take a stand in what should be their most important issue and finest hour. I have no time for human rights groups that invent all manner of new and refined "rights" but cannot bestir themselves to defend free expression, and instead, follow the multicultural pc line that speech that offends specially favored groups can be banned as incitement to religious hatred, etc., etc.

There are issues on which you cannot square the circle and cannot equivocate. If it offends, it offends. This is one of them. Who would have thought that we should have to refight this issue? What about you?

(Update, February 3, 2006. After castigating Europe's lack of will to defend its own secular culture, let me say how appalled, embarrassed, and disappointed I am that the Bush administration today chose the path of cultural appeasement. See the post above, here.)

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