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February 02, 2006

The Freedom To Offend

The past few weeks have been interesting ones for freedom of expression. The stories in the news are, in a way, not nearly as interesting as the reactions of various groups to the questions they raise about the competing values of unfettered speech on the one hand, and the warm and fuzzy concepts of sensitivity, multiculturalism, and tolerance on the other. And in the background looms a third issue: what about the right of individuals, groups, and corporations to decide for themselves what speech they will endorse, host, or broadcast? Should they be compelled to provide a vehicle for offensive or provocative speech, and if so, who should so compel them and under what rationale?

In America, freedom of expression is that rarest of creatures: a sacred cow alternately revered and reviled by special interest groups as it suits their purpose. So-called good speech is to be protected at all costs. Approved sentiments range from deep philosophical insights like "racism is bad" (Wow...who knew?) to more edgy but still-to-be-protected depictions of the Powers That Be as various fearful archetypes all brought to us by the letter "H". For unimaginative or historically clueless folks who don't shrink from trivializing the murder of 11 million people, comparisons to Hitler are a perennial favorite. Of course, the gold standard for those aiming to send shivers down the spines of little old ladies and small children is the invocation of a far more evil and menacing specter: Halliburton.

It's interesting to watch the reaction from the Right and Left to the Danish Cartoon controversy. As Mark notes, editors all over Europe have begun publishing the cartoons in solidarity with Danish paper Jyllands Posten:

European editors of various newspapers and magazines began to publish the 12 cartoons of Muhammed (shown here) in a gesture of support for the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten. The cartoons, all or in part, were published in France by the newspaper France Soir; in Germany, the conservative Die Welt printed one image on its front page; in Italy, the Turin daily La Stampa and Milan's Corriere della Sera published the 12 cartoons; in Spain El Periódico published the 12 cartoons; in Switzerland, the Swiss newspaper Blick published two of the cartoons; in Norway, a small Norwegian evangelical magazine, Magazinet, published the cartoons last month; and the editor in chief of Switzerland's Tribune de Genéve said he planned to publish the cartoons tomorrow.

But he may change his mind.

Jacques LeFranc, editor in chief of France's newspaper France Soir was fired by the owner of France Soir, an Egyptian, Raymond Lakah, who said he fired LeFranc to demonstrate "respect for the intimate beliefs of an individual." Apparently that only includes religious beliefs and not those silly ideals of liberty, freedom of speech and freedom from Islamofascist extortion.

Msr. LeFranc had stated that France Soir had published the cartoons, "not because we like provocation but because they are the object of a worldwide controversy where nothing less is at stake than the balance between the respect for religious belief and the freedom of expression." Msr. LeFranc had that stake replanted through his heart.

In Copenhagen, the editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten newspaper, Carsten Juste, said he regretted his paper's decision to run the caricatures, saying the "costs were simply too high" given the current boycotts and threats against Danes. He also said, resignedly,

"My guess is that no one will draw the Prophet Muhammad in Denmark in the next generation, and therefore I must say with deep shame that they have won."

One can't help but think of the parallel to Serrano's Piss Christ, a far more offensive example of what was viewed by many Christians as taxpayer-funded blasphemy. Yet this mode of free expression was staunchly defended by liberals in this country even though it was paid for by taxpayers who violently disagreed with its message. Contrast the reaction of former President Bill Clinton, who is serenely untroubled by speech that offends predominantly-Christian voters in his own country but wants to suppress it if offends Muslims. Andrew Sullivan takes him to task for the double standard he employs:

If we cannot speak of these things without giving offense, then we have lost our ability to discuss freely the most significant cultural shift of our time: the rise and rise of religious fundamentalism. While I'm still steaming, let me ask another question: How can Clinton glibly speak of historical anti-Semitism in Europe without noting that the most unrestrained anti-Semitism is now parlayed by the Islamic religious right? Where does he get off lecturing free people about their right of free expression, while remaining silent about the pathological anti-Semitism now manifested in Islamo-fascism and its adherents across the globe? Here's one option: buy Danish.

My hometown paper (the WaPo) was in the news last week with the Deborah Howell controversy. Lefty blogs all over the 'sphere got their pantyhose in a twist when the Post exercised the right of any blog owner to delete comments it deemed abusive. Apparently the freedom to express oneself does not include the freedom to make the rules in your own living room. Their faux outrage was even more ironic when one realizes the "offensive" comments resulted from an intentional assault of a type that is becoming all too common these days: a virtual ganging-up of the "active and engaged Left" trying to pressure the media into self-censoring viewpoints with which they disagree:

Over time, they will see that we are actually giving them an excuse to lean the other way. When Karl calls up Len, he can say that liberals are on the rampage --- what does he want him to do, ignore his own readers? We liberal bloggers and readers can produce some ballast on the other side so that the press has a way to resist the wingnuts.

Oddly enough, the self-donned clothing of righteousness (or should I say Lefty-ousness?) prevents these blogospheric commandos from considering the possibility that they have become that which they claim to oppose: a bunch of deranged wingnuts who avidly pour over every word the MSM writes with blood in their eye before dispatching digital attack squads to intimidate supposed Thought Criminals into hushed silence. The irony is almost palpable: this tribal triumphalism is not just thuggish and heavy-handed - it represents the attempts of a vocal interest group to suppress the free exchange of ideas and give a supposedly "unbiased media" an excuse to broadcast only messages approved by the Tolerant Left. The really funny thing here is these bullying tactics are justifed by the Right's criticism of the mainstream media.

But there is a vital difference between presenting alternative viewpoints in a series of posts from the Right side of the 'sphere (which can, after all, be read or ignored at will) and sending hoards of angry readers to insult, deface, and intimidate your opponents into silence. The first tactic is by nature non-intrusive. It promotes free speech and the exchange of ideas by offering a counterpoint to points it disagrees with. Speech is added to, not subtracted from by the addition of more opinions and ideas to the debate.

The second tactic is by nature coercive, invasive, and intimidating. It aims, via the deployment of a virtual mob, to suppress incorrect viewpoints and pressure their opponents either to keep silent or say only those things which will not arouse an attack.

It is instructive to note how those who are quick to be offended by viewpoints they disagree with can't wait to condemn their opponents for expressing the same sense of outrage via far less intrusive and extreme means. Witness today's letter in the Washington Post, in which the Joint Chiefs of Staff took the rare step of expressing their "disappointment" at a recent Tom Toles cartoon. Readers of the lefty AmericaBlog were outraged that America's military leaders should presume to exercise the First Amendment freedoms they have bought and paid for in their own blood. You see, the tolerant Left supports the troops... so long as can be conveniently silenced.

AmericaBlog tells us that the Pentagon is "trying to censor" a top political cartoonist:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff just sent a menacing letter to the Washington Post over a cartoon.

Here are the "menacing" words the Joint Chiefs used to "try to censor" the media:

We were extremely disappointed to see the Jan. 29 editorial cartoon by Tom Toles.

You all know what happens when military folks are "disappointed", don't you? They whip out their phone books and beat up people like Joel Stein. Of course this hasn't actually happened, but that doesn't stop people like Stein from implying that it will.

Using the likeness of a service member who has lost his arms and legs in war as the central theme of a cartoon was beyond tasteless. Editorial cartoons are often designed to exaggerate issues, and The Post is obviously free to address any topic, including the state of readiness of the armed forces. However, The Post and Mr. Toles have done a disservice to readers and to The Post's reputation by using such a callous depiction of those who volunteered to defend this nation and, as a result, suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds.

Here the Chiefs are transparently threatening the Post by publicly recognizing their right to print anything they wish! What monsters! But Mr. Aravois isn't done yet:

And why not have the Pentagon try to stifle a free media while supposedly promoting freedom in Iraq? The US government just arrested one of President Bush's top political critics for threatening his life with a t-shirt. So why not now threaten a top political cartoonist for drawing a cartoon that the Pentagon doesn't like? Why not use the power of government to try to censor the media, something that's a direct violation of that pesky and quaint 1st Amendment to the US Constitution - you remember, that document the Bush administration doesn't think is relevant.

Mr. Aravois doesn't scruple to spread outright lies about his opponents in the name of "free speech": even if no threats were actually issued in the letter, the truthiness of the matter is that he desperately wants there to be a threat, just as he would desperately like his readers to envision the administration arresting the press or censoring the media, neither of which have happened. Literal truth is irrelevant to Mr. Aravois. The emotional truth is all that matters.

As a matter of principle, do we really want to live in a society where people can't even write Letters to the Editor without bringing the wrath of a digital hit squad down on their own heads?

Yes, the First Amendment guarantees that our freedom of speech cannot be abridged by the government. It says nothing about self-censorship, the right of individuals, businesses, and groups to decide what speech they wish to broadcast on their own dime and during events they sponsor. It does not protect us from the distasteful necessity of hearing viewpoints with which we disagree, nor does it prohibit us from objecting to those viewpoints when they are aired, as much as Mr. Aravois would like that to be the case when it suits his purpose.

And interestingly enough, the Cindy Sheehan incident has an interesting twist. Apparently the wife of a Republican Senator was also asked to leave due to the sporting of a Support The Troops t-shirt deemed to cross the no-protest line. As is normal in Washington, the incident is now being blown way out of proportion with all the attendant weeping, wailing, and threatening of lawsuits we've all come to expect. But the incident, though it was arguably handled poorly, undercuts Aravois' depiction of a ruthless reich-wing adminsitration determined to suppress anti-war dissent.

I think a free society can survive even the hamfisted discouragement of dumb T-shirts at the State Of The Union address.

We all arguably have the right to express ourselves, but others have both rights and feelings as well. The common thread in all of these incidents is that self-censorship was noticeably absent from the scene. In each case, the intended point could easily have been made without insulting others or purposely setting out to evade the reasonable desire to allow a scheduled speech to take place without disruption.

There are many ways to make a point or to disseminate our points of view in this country. The question that is all too seldom asked is: what effect will my words have on others? No one wants to see the heavy hand of censorship descend on America, but quite frankly it's hard to see the difference between the hypothetical but so far non-existent spector of government censorship of the media and de facto censorship of that same media by an unruly and abusive mob. The solution, it would seem, is both simple and as old as time: think before you open your mouth.

Try weighing your words to see if a point can be made without lobbing verbal Molotov cocktails at your ideological opponents. It's hard to see how a free and multicultural society can work if no one is willing to honor that most fundamental of principles: the Golden Rule.

Update: Somewhat predictably, the WaPo sees nothing offensive about the Toles cartoon. Instead, in the bizarre recharacterization so beloved of the media, the military becomes the offender for having the nerve to resent having their service and sacrifices characatured to make a point they disagree with.

Only in America. Let me say again that like the JCS, I think the WaPo can say anything it wants. The question is: should they? And counter to Fred Hiatt's lofty pronouncements that he "does not censor" Mr. Toles, it is hard to imagine the Post running a cartoon that was viewed as offensive by any of the identity groups that continually paralyze American discourse by throwing the race or hate speech card.

Our military, on the other hand, are a safe target because if they dare to voice an objection, they are "firing back".

Got it. Apparently it's not so much a question of the freedom to offend everyone equally as the freedom to offend certain "safe" groups...such as the folks who guarantee your First Amendment rights. My irony meter is now officially pegged.

Posted by Cassandra at February 2, 2006 05:43 AM

Comments

"pour" is pore, is it not? As in poring over the double standard of blatant whining.

Another outstanding post, Cass.

Posted by: Crckt [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 2, 2006 09:40 AM

I would also like to add that I was offended by your misuse of 'that word,' and demand a retraction, in triplicate, with Ted Kennedy bringing the Senate to a filibuster. Oh, and I also want fries with that.

Posted by: Crckt [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 2, 2006 09:41 AM

Heh... sorry. I'm trying to make up for two days of silence by offending as many people as possible.

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 2, 2006 09:45 AM

What you are advocating is using common sense Cass. That sense of "idealism" died out in the '60s when the Imperial Federal Guvmint took over "public" indoctr...er,...education. Sounds like a hippie thing huh? Except I bathe regularly. ;-)

There is a battle brewing over what is and is not proper in the press and argument. The media coverage of the war is blatantly anti-American and biased. Hence the formation of alternative news sources, including blogs, that are quickly knocking the circulation numbers down in the MSM all over the country. That type of bias, which is called Jourbalistic ethics in the world of media non de plume, we can and do deal with directly by simply searching for our news elsewhere.

But not so with argument. Where are the alternatives to the electronic terrorism campaigns. The instalanches that can shut down a blog or someone's e-mail simply because they hold an opposite opinion. The extremes on both ends of each issue have found that they can radically disrupt someone's ability to make an argument and there's no stopping them. You advocate common sense. I say common sense is a dead horse that has been ridden and beaten into the grave of submission. So what is the answer?

I really have no answer but I do know that my tolerance level has reached it's end. In personal confrontations I will no longer sit back and take it. I guess even the Independents have become the new radicals now as well simply because the extremists on both sides have driven themselves to step over the line of what will and won't be tolerated. Something as tasteless as the WaPo cartoon is not just simple editorializing. It is a purposeful attempt at demeaning those that hold to ideals that are so much higher than the cowards that nip at their heels could ever hope to attain. And it scares the hell out of the Left to have a return to Center. To have a return to where people are returning to old fashioned ideals requiring Honor, Duty, God, Country. The last two elections have forced their hand and they are trying to radicalize society as a whole to stop this onslaught of values and morals. It is simply unheard of to want to return to doing what's right simply because it is right!

The only pseudo-solution I personally can come up with is to attack the extreme at every turn. Not let up. Do not allow political correctness to go unchallenged. Force the moonbats to argue points and attack their "passion" and the "feelings" they have on an issue. Do not give in one inch. And vote accordingly. Which in the end will probably mean nothing!

But at least I'll "feel" better! ;-)

Posted by: JarheadDad [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 2, 2006 09:54 AM

Oops! That would be "Journalistic Ethics" above. Quotation marks and all!

Not to be confused with "Gerbilistic Ethics" which seems to be an epidemic sweeping the emergency rooms across the country. Involving Gerbils and certain anal cavities. Is this a great country or what? :-o

Posted by: JarheadDad [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 2, 2006 10:08 AM

You know, I honestly believe that the Left is going to return to just that set of ideals, JHD: to Duty, Honor, Country, and God.

The thing is, for about forty years the "Uttermost Left" has been advancing through the institutions of the press, the universities, and the levers of politics for one of the two major parties, until they have finally captured them. Even ten years ago Clinton & Co. openly embraced religion, because that is where the American center is. It's only become recently that the radical Left has come to completely dominate the Democratic party, so that the leading Democrats (in terms of visibility to the public) are now Nancy Pelosi, JF Kerry, and Ted Kennedy.

I know quite a few liberals who go to church every Sunday. They think that God's message is compatible with their politics, and have a vision of the proper society that is informed by both politics and faith. For now, they're voting for folks like Kerry because they are frightened and alienated by folks like Bush.

Yet I think we will see that these rude, hateful radicals who are coming to dominate the Democratic party will start driving out more and more of the gentle, religious sorts of liberals who occupy the center-left of the political spectrum. It will make it harder, not easier, for the Democratic Party to win national and even, in many cases, statewide elections. It will also start to shrink the number of congressional districts that are really "safe" for the Democrats.

I think that, at some point and probably sooner than later, there will be a revolution within the party against the hard-left. People will go along if that's the way to win and keep those strange, wild-eyed Republicans from winning. But if going along means that the Republicans keep winning, eventually people are going to simply toss the far Left overboard.

It's fairly clear that the Democratic party is on the road to rock bottom. The party is almost bankrupt, and dependent on the hard-left activist sphere to raise money; it has lost even its all-stops-out political battles, time and again; and at each of the last several stops -- 2000, 2002, 2004, Roberts, Alito -- the answer has been given: "Well, we need to push our leftist message harder."

It's not going to work. These trends aren't there for no reason. If you went through Bush's SoTU speech and lined up every statement he made, and asked me to agree or disagree with each one, I would probably disagree with most and agree with few of the programs and intentions he has in mind, even though I was a "Blogger for Bush" in 2004.

That shows that Bush is a moderate -- a centrist. I don't really like it (Medicare drug benefits? Argh!), but that's the way to win in America. Running against him is running against the center. It can be done successfully only by trying to capture those same issues better than he can do them. Tim Kaine's response to the SoTU ("There's a better way") shows that part of the Party is finally starting to get it.

And yet, you know: Dean's still in charge; they're still trying filibusters they know will fail; they're still inviting anti-war activists to attend the SotU; they're still getting all their money from the radical left, and having to pander accordingly. You can't capture the center by running left.

Once it breaks, and the Tim Kaines of the party recapture it, we'll have a return to the values and the civility that pleases the center. We'll have to -- it's their only hope of ever winning anything again.

Posted by: Grim [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 2, 2006 11:02 AM

Okay, talk about being offensive. I went over to 'Caption This' and about cured myself of athsma.

Posted by: Crckt [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 2, 2006 01:17 PM

Oh how I hope you are correct Grim. This country cannot survive without a viable two part system. What I don't understand (or maybe I do $$$) is why the Center Left and Center Right haven't formed their own party by now. There are only nuanced differences in the two sides and not diametrical opposition such as the Far Left and Far Right.

And KJ don't even start with that Librarian stuff neither!

I hope your position is not just wishful thinking Grim. I've been burned so many times by those people that I'm jaded on anything having to do with saving that party. Period!

Posted by: JarheadDad [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 2, 2006 04:24 PM

Well, since JHD won't let KJ say it...

It would do my heart good if the democrats fell off of the left edge and the republicans ended up being the big-gov party and the *l*ibertarian's became the small-gov party.

That's a two party system I could love.

Posted by: Masked Menace© [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 2, 2006 07:01 PM

I wonder if the Post will publish the Mohamed cartoons.

Posted by: Gandalf [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 2, 2006 09:11 PM

OK Menace! You done done it now! :-o

I'll say one thing then I'll let it go about Librarians. What is the party's offical stance on Operation Iraqi Freedom and the War on Terror? End of story!

Actually it's kind of funny. I was a Libertarian back in the 80s when I left the Dems. Boortz talked me into it when he just a local radio jock in Atlanta. And then boom! here we go again with the influx of moonbats into that party as well. There is a faction of the party that is slightly left of the moonbats of the Dems. They run your party now. Same story different party! Libertarians are now an extreme fringe and refuse to make themselves a viable party by shooting themselves in the foot. I definitely agree with a lot of Libertarian philosophies but the party will never go mainstream. I give you the party stance on war as just one example.

What I would like is a right leaning small government party that will remove the ever intrusive government from my life. I would like to see us return to the days when neighbors, churches, and communities looked after each other. I'd like to see a national retail sales tax and dismantling of the IRS. I would like to see communities and states get their schools back. Yes, those are Libertarian platforms but I also stand firm behind our CiC and the WoT which is in direct conflict with the wussies that run your party. Period!

Getting government out of our lives is the answer to the problem. Taking back education and dismantling the indoctrination of entitlements taught in them is the first step. Build a party around these ideals while standing firm against Islamofacists and I will join. Right now! Forget isolationism. Appeasement and isolationism are simply terms for surrender. I don't surrender worth a damn!

Posted by: JarheadDad [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 2, 2006 10:27 PM

JHD, that's why I put stars around the small "l". The isolationism and "no bigger issue than the drug war" are the two biggest problems with the official party.

Isolationism, when you boil it down is a "I got mine" philosophy. You only have the rights you can secure by force (and your own force at that, 'cause I ainta helpin'). This inevitably reduces to the rule of the sword. As only the strong can defend themselves. It even fails as a market philosophy because if I am free to make any contract with you that we both agree to then it should not matter where you are, next door, next city, next state, next country, next continent.

The drug war is just an outright loser. It rests as a core issue that can only be even safely tried once the other layers of personal responsibility (or lack thereof), property rights (or lack thereof, thanks KELO) and others are resolved, and not before.

But the idiots in the LP want to attack the citadel without ever establishing a beachhead. Perhaps if they had spent the last 20 years talking about emminent domain abuse instead of "I want my weed", KELO wouldn't have happened.

But even with all that said, the Official LP wouldn't be any worse than the Dems on the GWOT and we might get some gov't reduction out of the deal. To say that the LP, even in it's current form, is better than the Dems isn't exactly high praise.

And lastly, they certainly aren't *my* party. I'm registered as Republican and given the idiocy within the LP don't expect that to change any time in the next 50 years. I just think the LP, if it could moderate those 2 issues could be a much better choice for the opposition party than the current one. As I understand it, the Neo-libertarian Network is working toward those goals.

Posted by: Masked Menace© [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 3, 2006 10:06 AM

Aieeeee!

Battle of the Livid Terriers!

As much as I'd love to weigh in, I just don't have a dog in this fight.

*running away*

Posted by: Cassandra [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 3, 2006 10:16 AM

The neo-libertarian movement is just getting started. It includes an understanding that you have to compromise, can't be isolationist, and it is better to win some battles than die heroically for purity that can't be achieved.

Yes, the Libertarian Party has problems. Which is why I didn't vote for them for national offices in a post-9/11 world.

But that wing of the Republican party and the neos in the Libertarian party can make some movement if the rest of the world will actually recognize the need for another party.

It sure would be better than the big government and corrupt republicans we have now in Congress. Not that the Dems would be better. But if I can't vote third party, how can I keep voting for the party that doesn't keep its word?

Posted by: KJ [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 3, 2006 11:20 AM

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