A Free Speech Question

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Civil Rights, conservatism, News Media

I’m doing some “thinking out loud” today, or more accurately, “thinking on blog.” Forgive me if I wander a bit.

Righties are up in arms about cartoons lately. On the one hand, some righties are angry that the Washington Post published this cartoon by Tom Toles that ridicules Don Rumsfeld. On the other hand, other righties are angry that a major American newspaper won’t publish these cartoons, which ridicule the Prophet Mohammad.

Michelle Malkin argues that righties are not, in fact, being inconsistent. Those opposed to the Tom Toles cartoon (including the Joint Chiefs of Staff) are not issuing death threats or rioting in the streets the way some Muslims are about the Mohammad cartoons. The Toles objectors are just speaking out, writing letters to the editor, and otherwise exercising free speech. John at AMERICAblog reveals that the people objecting to the cartoon aren’t making any sense, but Malkin has a point — so far I haven’t seen any of them threatening violence. Anger at the publication of the Mohammad cartoons, however, has set off violence throughout the Muslim world.

(On the other hand, as a commenter to AMERICAblog points out, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff send a formal objection on official letterhead objecting to the political content of a newspaper, the newspaper editors might feel a bit intimidated. See also comments from Editor & Publisher.)

The Mohammad cartoon crisis began on September 30, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. When angered Muslims threatened the newspaper and Denmark with various reprisals, including a boycott of Danish products, several European newspapers reprinted the cartoons as an act of solidarity with the right to free speech. Since then violence has escalated — Palestinian gunmen shut down a European Union office in Gaza City. Protesters besieged the Danish embassy in Indonesia. And so on.

Malkin
and others on the Right are unhinged over the fact that American news outlets are refraining from publishing the cartoons, which are all over the web (link above).

I understand the urge to express solidarity for free speech. I remember when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — a really disgusting guy in my book — condemned Salman Rusdie to death after publication of The Satanic Verses. Americans flocked to bookstores to buy the book just to show the Ayatollah he can’t tell us what to read. That was noble. So why aren’t American newspapers showing Muslims they can’t tell us what to publish? Is this not giving in to the terrorists?

I’ll come back to that question in a minute. The other argument righties present for publishing the cartoons is based that old, bedrock conservative moral principle — they do it too. Specifically, other people make fun of Jesus, so why can’t we make fun of Mohammed? Malkin has more “they do it too” examples here.

Seems to me Jesus already explained that the “they do it too” defense doesn’t hold water.

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. … Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

I interpret that to mean “just because somebody does something that pisses you off doesn’t make it OK for you to do the same thing.” I’m dismissing the “they do it too” argument as typical rightie hypocritical whining.

So let’s go back to the “free speech” argument. Are U.S. news outlets refusing to publish the cartoons because they are spineless cowards, or could there be another principle involved?

Earlier today, the U.S. State Department took sides with the Muslims:

While recognizing the importance of freedom of the press and expression, State Department press officer Janelle Hironimus said these rights must be coupled with press responsibility.

“Inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is not acceptable,” Hironimus said. “We call for tolerance and respect for all communities and for their religious beliefs and practices.”

Malkin argues that the State Department is betraying the principle of free speech. On the other hand, as I recall we’ve got this little “ending tyranny in our world” project going on in Iraq, and it seems to me that if we are serious about that program (a debatable point, I know) we need to be careful that our words and actions regarding the Muslim world support the program. Encouraging newspapers to publish the cartoons might feel gratifying, but in the long run it could make anything resembling “success” in Iraq more difficult to achieve. And if we’re trying to persuade Muslims that the western way of doing things is superior, showing them that we are free to ridicule the Prophet may not be the best argument. I’m just sayin’.

I have one other argument against publishing the cartoons — they’re stupid cartoons. They’re crude. You may disagree, but IMO their only point is that Mohammad (and Muslims) are bad. They remind me of old war cartoons depicting “the enemy” in a way that makes us a tad squeamish when we look at them now.

This set me to thinking about what makes a good political cartoon. I’ve heard it said that a good political cartoon exaggerates to reveal an underlying truth. If the “truth” is a common bias or prejudice, where’s the revelation? IMO a good cartoon should have an eye-opening quality, like a mini-kensho; they should make you slap your head and say, wow, that’s right. I see it now. On the other hand, cartoons that serve only to reinforce bigotry are propaganda.

For that reason, I can’t get worked up into a pitch of free-speech righteousness about publishing these cartoons. I can imagine a cartoon I might support — say, something that reveals an ugly truth about bin Laden or Zarqawi, for example. No problem with that. But these particular cartoons are not worth going to the mattresses over, I say.

What do you think?

Update
: More about what distinguishes a good political cartoon from the master, Herblock.

Update update:
Andrew Sullivan writes, “The cartoons were not designed to “incite religious or ethnic hatreds.” They were designed to protest such incitement – and we have the corpses of Theo van Gogh and Pim Fortuyn as useful proof.” Oh good; protest religious and ethnic hatred with more religious and ethnic hatred. Yes, children, another variation of “they do it too!”

Occasions of hatred are certainly never settled by hatred. They are settled by freedom from hatred. This is the eternal law.

Others may not understand that we must practice self-control, but quarrelling dies away in those who understand this fact. — The Buddha (the Dhammapada, Pairs 3-6)


Update update update:
I think this editorial in The Guardian gets it right.

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26 Comments

25 Comments

  1. Lame Man  •  Feb 3, 2006 @3:43 pm

    I haven’t seen the cartoons or read what the wingers are writing, but I’m not gonna let that stop me from commenting here.

    Malkin and others are looking to bait Muslims with this stuff. Period. All the other “First Amendment” and “solidarity” stuff is cover for that baiting.

    The Internment-atrix is standing up for free speech? Please.

  2. joanr16  •  Feb 3, 2006 @4:52 pm

    I love Tom Toles. I hope he does a cartoon about the attempts to silence his Dr. Rummy cartoon!

    But jeez, Michelle, do we have to do every silly thing the Danes do? Aren’t they a bunch of pre-verted socialists anyway?

    Seriously, what specific event or situation are the Muhammad cartoons satirizing? Or are they just general poking-fun-at-folks-with-strange-beliefs-and-funny-headgear? Because that’s not satire; that’s rudeness. (A distinction I wouldn’t expect Rush Limbaugh fans to grasp.) I haven’t seen the Danish cartoons so I don’t know. But I don’t feel robbed of my First Amendment rights by not seeing them.

  3. Steve M.  •  Feb 3, 2006 @5:32 pm

    I think you’re basically right, Lame Man — though I think they also want to luxuriate in self-congratulation (“We’re brave enough to stand up to the Islamofascists and post these cartoons.

    By the way, if you actually want to see them, Malkin has links to all the righty blogs where they’ve been published — the list is here.

    Sorry, I know it will offend some people that I’ve posted a link to a righty blog, but it’s an easy way to see the cartoons. And you’re right, Barbara — they really are crap. They really are like the American propaganda image you posted.

  4. Steve M.  •  Feb 3, 2006 @5:35 pm

    (Damn, forgot to turn off the HTML tag above.)

    [I fixed it — maha, Comments Queen]

  5. Rev. Mike  •  Feb 3, 2006 @5:49 pm

    I agree. The cartoons are crap. They don’t make any decent points or illuminate anything at all. But people still have the right to publish anything they like, even crap. I’m also disgusted that anyone is upset about it. If your religion/prophet/belief system/holy book is threatened by someone’s stupid cartoon depiction of it then how true or fundamental can any of them be? Seems to me the only people who are offended by this kind of nonsense (regardless of religion) need constant reinforcement of their belief system in order to maintain it, which sounds like a lack of faith to me. If, as many islamists believe, everything happens at the will of Allah then it would seem to follow that these cartoons are drawn at his will as well.

  6. Tito  •  Feb 3, 2006 @5:58 pm

    oh, come on!
    Seriously guys, these are NOTHING compared to the cartoons published blasting various public figures. These just aren’t that offensive. Get off your soap box. I agree they were pretty bad though.

    The fact that there are idiotic muslims tossing off death threats over these just makes Islam look far worse than these cartoonist ever had concieved.

    Honestly, it’s starting to seem like the lefty blogs are just having a knee-jerk reaction to the righty blogs getting hysterical. (Yes, they are hysterical, but that seems to happen a decent amount.)

  7. Tito  •  Feb 3, 2006 @5:59 pm

    To clarify, by “pretty bad” I’m talking about the quality of the cartoons, not the offensiveness… though I did get a mild chuckle out of the “virgins” one.

  8. lurker  •  Feb 3, 2006 @6:26 pm

    Against The Madness has an interesting commentary on this, and basically says that the Joint Chiefs of Staff aren’t as dumb as they sound, in that their criticism of the Toles cartoon is motivated more in support for Rumsfeld than support for the troops. I tend to agree.

    And, Maha, your point is well taken that those particular cartoons are not really cartoons–they’re just stupid drawings. They have no ironic or subtle message to convey.

  9. Swami  •  Feb 3, 2006 @6:30 pm

    Maybe if the righties could view a similarity in outrage between the Islamic reaction to the cartoons and how some Americans feel about protester burning their flag, they might gain a different perspective.

    I have a desire to exercise my right to free speech by calling Michelle Malkin a shit stirring gook, but I wont, because I don’t want to be seen as an ignorant racist when my point is to illustrate differences.

  10. maha  •  Feb 3, 2006 @7:48 pm

    Seriously guys, these are NOTHING compared to the cartoons published blasting various public figures. These just aren’t that offensive. Get off your soap box. I agree they were pretty bad though.

    In most sects of Islam drawing any representation of the Prophet, even a flattering one, is blasphemy. It’s hard for me to empathize with making death threats because of a cartoon, but seems to me the Danish newspaper was deliberately trying to provoke Muslims.

    Honestly, it’s starting to seem like the lefty blogs are just having a knee-jerk reaction to the righty blogs getting hysterical. (Yes, they are hysterical, but that seems to happen a decent amount.)

    Aren’t many leftie blogs commenting on this that I’ve seen, just me and Echidne of the Snakes. That’s about it. And I was trying very hard to be fair and see the rightie point of view.

  11. joanr16  •  Feb 3, 2006 @8:03 pm

    Tito, you can’t seriously compare public figures (politicians and celebrities) to religious figures (Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha).

    I’ve always had this personal rule: to let the practitioners of a religion criticize/satirize the religion, and stay the heck out of it. (Besides, decent satire comes from someone who’s been on the inside of the thing being satirized.)

    I checked out the Muhammad cartoons and frankly, they’re stupid and pointless. If someone with no personal knowledge of, say, Shakespeare’s plays drew stupid and pointless cartoons that misrepresented the plays, I’d be offended. I think the difference is: I wouldn’t commit violence over it.

    I think the best news to come out of this whole brouhaha is that Michelle Malkin disagrees with Bush’s State Department.

  12. Tester  •  Feb 3, 2006 @8:28 pm

    Why the US job market is leaving liberals behind..

    http://futurist.typepad.com/

  13. Swami  •  Feb 3, 2006 @9:37 pm

    Thanks, Tester. I was feeling bad about leaving such a stupid comment above and didn’t want to be the dumbest commenter here.I appreicate you taking me off the hook. You’re a pal.

  14. Ray  •  Feb 3, 2006 @9:54 pm

    As I heard from another Muslim, “It is not forbidden to non-muslims to portray the prophet in images. The Prophet said “Let there be no compulsion in religion(Qu, 2:256)”. Non-muslims should never be forcefully compelled to see things our way.”

    This guy believes the paper should be the target of a boycott, not the country. Makes sense. But like any religion, there are many different idealogies of how a faith should be.

    Not sure what my point is, but from listening to this guy, it just proves to me that not all Muslims are terrorists, a thought that many can’t wrap their heads around.

    And with that, I think I have taken the baton as the stupidist comment here.

  15. Donna  •  Feb 3, 2006 @10:21 pm

    What do non-Muslims know about Islam? I suspect that we have nothing in our own experiences to compare with how the ordinary Muslims practice their faith which infuses their awareness so deeply and thoroughly that their faith is not separate from ‘secular life’. Muslims stop multiple times each day to pray. Perhaps the pervasive devotions we read about within some monasteries could compare…….

    I realize that the Muslim faith is an unknown to me, having grown up in a Judeo-Christian world where religion is usually structured as a once-a-week phenomenon, where taken-for-granted separations between faith and ‘the rest of one’s life’ are the norm.

    Islam is no different that any other faith which can have its teachings hijacked to extremes which call for, support, or ignore the demise or deaths of persons unlike themselves.

    I haven’t seen nor do I want to see the cartoons which have so offended Muslims. I have two reactions to the uproar about these cartoons.

    Reaction #1: I think the uproar on our side shows great ignorance on the part of westerners about a way of life we don’t understand, and, in a corollary way , the uproar over there shows that Muslims, having no experience of separating themselves from their religious teachings as westerners have grown up doing, don’t really grasp our ‘free speech’ values.

    Reaction #2: I fear that that ignorance on both sides just fans extremism.

  16. maha  •  Feb 3, 2006 @10:44 pm

    As I heard from another Muslim, “It is not forbidden to non-muslims to portray the prophet in images.

    There’s a whole lot about the major religions as they are practiced that don’t have a dadblamed thing to do with the teachings of the Founder. I know very well this is true of Christianity and Buddhism, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be true of Islam.

    Not sure what my point is, but from listening to this guy, it just proves to me that not all Muslims are terrorists, a thought that many can’t wrap their heads around.

    Yep. It’s called “bigotry.”

  17. Tito  •  Feb 3, 2006 @11:21 pm

    Ok, there are two values in conflict here a) freedom of speech. b) “cultural sensitivity” for other cultures and values

    As liberals we value both and they are in conflict in this situation. Yes the cartoons are dumb. But in this case, it’s blatant that many from another culture are calling for us to give up freedom of speech.

    We’d are up in arms when our government tries to do this. What is so different here? “Because we need to be sensitive to their culture?”. Sorry, but I can’t see how cultural sensitivity and respect (which are good) should EVER trump a fundamental value in our own culture.

    If we viewed christian fundamentalist culture with that kind of deference, we’d have packed it in a long time ago. Why call for that just because its muslim fundamentalist culture?

  18. maha  •  Feb 4, 2006 @7:16 am

    Sorry, but I can’t see how cultural sensitivity and respect (which are good) should EVER trump a fundamental value in our own culture. … Why call for that just because its muslim fundamentalist culture?

    That’s the essential question I was asking myself. I considered your point of view. However, I believe the essential point of the cartoons in question was to reinforce bigotry and bait Muslims. Republishing the cartoons amounts to enabling hatespeech. And I think the reason Malkin et al. on the Right have been obsessing over this story for the past several days is that it gives them a “righteous” cover for expressing their hate of Muslims. Leave me out of that, thanks.

  19. Lynne  •  Feb 4, 2006 @8:08 am

    I’d just like to add that, as an elementary school teacher, “they did it first!” is the most frequently heard excuse for bad behavior. I spend a lot of time explaining that retaliatory behavior makes both people wrong. You’d think a lot of adults would have somehow gotten the idea. But no. Wars start this way, and we don’t have to think hard for examples of this!

  20. erinyes  •  Feb 4, 2006 @9:10 am

    I certainly agree with your comment, Maha.
    On Keth Obermans’ show last night, he asked a panel their take on the cartoons. The response to the cartoon depicting the “battle hardened” soldier and Rumsfield was negative, but nuanced among the three. My opinion about that cartoon (based on my life experiance of completing dangerous assignments at the requests of chair-butted superiors) the depiction is not dissing the soldiers, but slapping Rumsfield for his arrogance.
    If I were a soldier on a second or third deployment in a hostile land for no good reason, watching my comrads getting maimed or worse, I’d be drawing some damning cartoons myself.
    The people on these news shows need to be very cautious of what they say, it may cost then their jobs or worse, and this is the danger to free speech.At least things have “loosened up” a bit in the last year or so, people are not so quick to shout “Traitor!!” at dissenters. All but one of the hard core Bush supporters I know are VERY pissed at his performance ,calling him a liar “worse than Clinton”. Part of me is happy about this, but I realize there is over a year left in his term, and since he is has been anointed with a
    reverse Midas touch”, this is a danger to the whole world.
    As far as the Mohammed dissing goes, I’m sure the reaction of some of the Muslim hard core is intentionally trumped up to reinforce the “crazy Muslim” meme. Sane people know that not all Muslims are fanatic, just like all Christians are not rapture cultists, but it’s a whole lot easier convince people to accept the killing of crazy people than to accept killing innocent families in predator drone strikes and the torture of “suspected” terrorists.The whole world is watching.

  21. joanr16  •  Feb 4, 2006 @10:23 am

    The Guardian editorial that maha links to strikes me as straddling the fence. It did clarify one important point, however. The editorial refers to “cartoons which, even though offensive and provocative, say something about uncomfortable issues that are central to the modern world.”

    The caricatures of Muhammad are simply that, caricatures, and could just as easily have been spray-painted on the wall of a mosque by vandals. In no way do the cartoons, by themselves, “say something about uncomfortable issues.” (On the other hand, a cartoon that might have been published on 9/12/2001, showing Muhammad weeping over the terrible misinterpretation of his teachings, is easily defensible under the “Guardian doctrine.”) Every time maha points out that the Danish cartoons were baiting Muslims, I want to shout, “Yes! Yes!” The Danish publishers had to know what can happen when a sacred figure appears to be disrespected. And since the cartoons serve no other purpose (the fatuous “exercise in self-censorship” excuse notwithstanding), they served only to… gosh, bait Muslims. Indefensible, to my thinking. And unbelievably stupid.

    As for the Toles cartoon, I’m still amazed that anyone can think Donald Rumsfeld is a sacred icon. Jeepers. Toles’ cartoon is a classic example of the kind described by the Guardian editorial. It can’t be much more specific in its commentary.

  22. Swami  •  Feb 4, 2006 @12:05 pm

    Every time maha points out that the Danish cartoons were baiting Muslims, I want to shout, “Yes! Yes!”

    I think that they are more than baiting Muslims.. they are baiting us in the same way that Bush lumped various act of terrorism together in his State of the Union speech as being the product religious extremism rather than to address them as acts committed by perceived political injustices in different situations. The terrorist find strenght and consolation in their religious beliefs,but their motivations are political.. 9/11 was not carried out for religious reasons, it was done for political reason….If killing infidels was the goal than they could have had a greater success in attacking Hong Kong.

  23. Anonymous  •  Feb 10, 2006 @9:47 am

    Propaganda and distraction from other things that are happening.

  24. Bozwellian  •  Feb 10, 2006 @3:57 pm

    Supposedly the cartoons were requested in order to attempt a dialogue..That they were taken and manipulated elsewise and seemingly easily as those in the Islam afaith have been viewing what appears as a reassugence with a vengence of those CRUSADES of oden times and perhaps, given all ..well, just the straw that broke the camels back and they need to assert THEIR position and demand the West layoff trying to REFORM them in Western image (which in way, is kinda’ Osama’s supposed contention as well…)
    The Bushlers looked to Iraq as a place to get a “footprint” , they had been told that it was coming, the need to get off of Saudi sacred soil to ease things for the Royal RUlers there…Iraq was a “natural”..had good “global” position on the map, had oil and was so decimated from Saddam rule , was figured to be used as a BIG easy SHOWTIME EXAMPLE to all others of just how magnificent the USA powers were and to intimadate others into no further messings with US…Well, it has backfired and Osama and Iran and others ARE THRILLED with the Bush INEPTNESS which has USA in a quagmire using up valuable resources , bogging the military and draining the national treasury to support at the expense of programs and needs of the homeland citizenry..Osama and others never dreamed , ony prayed they could be so successful in achieving such results.
    We are into the SIXTH year of bungles, bumbles and blunders by the Bush Brigade and we have the last three yet to endure and can but like but PRAY we survive and recover !! Suggest all cross their fingers for extra measures of luck…for we keep getting told God is BLESSING the USA and one wonders for sure if we can afford much more of Gos blessings as they are indeed being played out and about !!!

  25. Elliott Lake  •  Feb 12, 2006 @3:29 am

    The cartoons were solicited by the paper’s editor in an effort to bait the Muslims in Denmark & incite racial hatred in the same manner as the Aryan Nations used to march in their parade in Coeur d’Alene every year, hoping to proselytize and to stir up violence–they aimed to start a race war in the US.

    These cartoons were solicited, drawn and used for similar purposes. Why other papers re-printed them, I don’t know.
    I do know that when the Aryans & other such groups sent out mailings with their hateful lies in them, I felt like having my mailbox exorcised.

    No, of course rioting is no answer to the cartoons–but I can understand how things could easily get out of hand. The rioters were played rather skillfully, first by the editor & his cartoonists, then by the Saudis later.

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