A Free Speech Question

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.

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?

: 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.

Fools Rush In

The Brits are mourning the loss of 100 soldiers in Iraq, and this story by Richard Norton-Taylor in today’s Guardian probably isn’t much comfort:

Tony Blair told President George Bush that he was “solidly” behind US plans to invade Iraq before he sought advice about the invasion’s legality and despite the absence of a second UN resolution, according to a new account of the build-up to the war published today.

A memo of a two-hour meeting between the two leaders at the White House on January 31 2003 – nearly two months before the invasion – reveals that Mr Bush made it clear the US intended to invade whether or not there was a second UN resolution and even if UN inspectors found no evidence of a banned Iraqi weapons programme.

This disclosure comes from Phillipe Sands, a QC (Queen’s Counsel; a barrister appointed as counsel to the Queen) and professor of international law at University College, London. Last year Professor Sands exposed doubts of Foreign Office lawyers about the legality of the invasion. These disclosures forced Blair to publish the full legal advice given to him by the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith. Norton-Taylor continues,

Downing Street did not deny the existence of the memo last night, but said: “The prime minister only committed UK forces to Iraq after securing the approval of the House of Commons in a vote on March 18, 2003.”

According to Professor Sands, the memo reveals:

· Mr Bush told Mr Blair that the US was so worried about the failure to find hard evidence against Saddam that it thought of “flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft planes with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in UN colours”. Mr Bush added: “If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach [of UN resolutions]”.

Isn’t that entrapment?

· Mr Bush even expressed the hope that a defector would be extracted from Iraq and give a “public presentation about Saddam’s WMD”. He is also said to have referred Mr Blair to a “small possibility” that Saddam would be “assassinated”.

· Mr Blair told the US president that a second UN resolution would be an “insurance policy”, providing “international cover, including with the Arabs” if anything went wrong with the military campaign, or if Saddam increased the stakes by burning oil wells, killing children, or fomenting internal divisions within Iraq.

You’ll like this part:

· Mr Bush told the prime minister that he “thought it unlikely that there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups“. Mr Blair did not demur, according to the book.

It’s clear to me that the Bushies came into office with a burning desire to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein. And out of that burning desire came the various and ever-shifting rationales offered by the Bushies about why this was necessary. But these were always the excuses, not the reason. The reason was never eliminating weapons of mass destruction; otherwise, word coming from the weapons inspectors that they weren’t finding any would have at least suggested to the Bushies that perhaps the invasion wasn’t necessary. Instead, Bush was eager to entrap Saddam Hussein so that there was a backup excuse in case the WMD thing didn’t pan out.

And it was never about fighting terrorism, or they wouldn’t have passed on three opportunities to take out Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before the invasion. NBC News’s Jim Miklaszewski reported in March 2004:

Military officials insist their case for attacking Zarqawi’s operation was airtight, but the administration feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam.

In other words, the Bushies needed Zarqawi to be in Iraq, even though he was operating in an area not controlled by Saddam Hussein, because they needed reasons to get Saddam Hussein. (See also Daniel Benjamin in Slate.)

And it’s hard to believe Bush ordered the invasion with serious aspirations of nation building when he and his “advisers” prior to the invasion hadn’t bothered to make any plans for nation building. The “ending tyranny in our world” stuff has all the earmarks of a post-hoc excuse. They’re making it up as they go along.

Certainly, the hard core Neocons for years believed in the fairy tale that taking out Saddam Hussein would, by itself, trigger a domino effect that would spread democracy and American hegemony all around the Middle East. I don’t call these people “over-educated twits” for nothing. And a lot of these twits advised Bush to go ahead and invade on any excuse he could patch together, I’m sure.

I don’t think oil was a primary consideration for most of the Neocons, but to many — like Dick the Dick — I’m sure it made the prospect of invasion a lot more interesting. And all those mega-GOP campaign contributors in the defense industry certainly added to the interest. The Bushies may not have made plans for nation building, but they were johnny-on-the-spot about handing out those no-bid contracts.

In 2002, Karl Rove realized that the drumbeat to war could easily drown out the Democratic mid-term campaigns, but I think this reason was a by-product, an added benefit, not the Real Reason. I wrote about other added benefits in March 2003:

The Cakewalk War was supposed to be the magic bullet that would solve all of Shrub’s problems. First, the war would stimulate the economy. Second, all that news coverage of joyous Iraqis dancing in the streets and thanking their American liberators would put Shrub’s approval numbers right up to where they were after September 11! Win-win!

In other words, the Iraq War must have seemed a better and better idea to the Bushies, the more they thought about it. Niggling little details like a lack of WMDs or no solid connections between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were brushed aside. Oh, and the pain and death of war? What’s that?

But the Real Reason, the ultimate reason, that George W. Bush came into office burning to invade Iraq was, I think, revealed in the hours after the Marines entered Baghdad. What did they do? Did they immediately occupy government buildings known to have contained records about Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs? Of course not. Instead, they were ordered to the Rashid Hotel to tear up the floor mosaic portrait of Poppy, George H.W. Bush, placed there as an insult to the 41st President.

For the Boy King, it was about besting his old man and settling a score. All the other reasons were just props. He may have persuaded himself that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, but without the score to settle Iraq wouldn’t have gotten his attention to begin with.

In other Fools News, Murray Waas writes in National Journal,

Vice President Cheney and his then-Chief of Staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby were personally informed in June 2003 that the CIA no longer considered credible the allegations that Saddam Hussein had attempted to procure uranium from the African nation of Niger, according to government records and interviews with current and former officials. …

… Despite the CIA’s findings, Libby attempted to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had been sent on a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger the previous year to investigate the claims, which he concluded were baseless.

(Digby: “I guess that blows ole patriotic whistleblower Karl Rove’s excuse out of the water, too. Remember how all the wingnuts said he was just warning the press off a bad story when he spoke to Matt Cooper?”)

Eriposte at The Left Coaster
provides detailed background and analysis to the Waas article. The one aspect of this that stands out for me is the extent to which Dick the Dick and Scooter would go to ensure compliance with their beliefs and plans. Whether the uranium story was true or not doesn’t seem to have worried them.

See more links to news stories about the January 2003 memo at After Downing Street.