Free Speech

Okay, let’s see if I can get this straight. A right-wing Danish newspaper publishes viciously racist anti-Muslim cartoons, hoping thereby to stir up trouble. (I say “racist,” because the cartoons involved stereotypical “ethnic” images that were clearly directed against Arabs, not just against Muslim believers of no matter what race or ethnicity). The newspaper succeeds in its provocation, as violent protests spring up across the Arab and Muslim world. (The protests are often cynically fomented by dictatorial governments, and they focus exclusively on the insult to the Muslim religion, not mentioning at all the element of racism involved). Throughout Europe and North America, there is a great outcry supporting free speech; the cartoons are republished widely, as a statement of support for free speech and of solidarity with the Danish newspaper against the would-be censors of the Arab and Muslim world, who are said not to share, or even understand, the Western values of freedom and tolerance.

Meanwhile, the historian David Irving is sentenced to 3 years of jail in Austria for denying the Holocaust. Irving is a vicious ultra-right-wing provocateur, and basically an apologist for Hitler and the Nazi regime. (I do not know the extent to which Irving has made specifically anti-Jewish statements; but I would argue that his very denial of the factuality of the Holocaust is itself already anti-Semitic). But all the people who denounced various Arab and Muslim governments and peoples for their protests against the Danish cartoons are strangely silent about this quite similar case. I do not see newspapers all over the West reprinting Irving’s speeches and articles in solidarity with his free speech rights. I do not see anyone saying that this conviction indicates that Europeans and Christians are incapable of sharing, or understanding, the values of freedom and tolerance.

I do believe in free speech as a universal value. I do believe that we need to support the right of free speech even for racists, and even for people who make provocative statements with the deliberate intent of stirring up violence and trouble. (Speech is itself an action, of course, and it will always be necessary to draw a line somewhere; but I am in favor of extending things as far as possible in the direction of regulating and limiting speech-acts as little as possible). What I don’t like is the double standard according to which some hateful speech (like that of the Danish cartoons) is more worthy than other hateful speech (like Irving’s). Anybody who says that “however much I am in favor of the right to freely express one’s opinion, one cannot allow the denial of the Holocaust to hide behind overly generous freedom of expression” ought to take a similarly stringent line with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. And anybody who defends (as I do) that newspaper’s right to publish its scurrilous trash ought similarly to defend David Irving’s right to publish his scurrilous trash. As Warren Ellis put it the other day, “The test of free speech always lays in that which is hardest to defend. It really would be nice if maggots like these didn’t make the rest of us work so hard.”

5 Responses to “Free Speech”

  1. Kirby Olson says:

    I didn’t see that the Danish cartoons were published by a right-wing journal, nor did I know that they were racist. I thought at least some of them were mild or even kind of sweet. I think most people think of the journal as a liberal one since we think of Danes as liberals for the most part. But all of those liberal countries have their die-hards. They probably provide a bit of balance.

    Most of Europe has these amazingly dumb hate speech laws to try to silence the die-hards. 3 years of silence is…!

    That’s a bit long for just being stupid. People should have the right to be stupid. It’s almost stupid for them not to have this right.

    At least Turkey caved in and let Orhan Pamuk off on a technicality.

    This morning I was watching the Three Stooges. Moe was playing Hitler. Larry and Curly and he were about to join the Fuhrer for dinner and Larry grabbed the turkey and said, “Let’s carve up Turkey!”

    I can imagine Turks getting all upset. The Three Stooges were Jewish, I’m told.

    Stupidity has no frontiers.

  2. Carl Freedman says:

    Hi Steve–

    You begin by asking “if I can get this straight.” I would answer, yes and no. You’ve got the basic principle straight enough: namely, the defense of free speech as a universal value. But I don’t think you have the facts here quite straight. There is indeed a double standard at work, but–for the most part–it’s almost the exact opposite of what you assume.

    Except for the Austrian government itself, nearly everyone, including prominent Holocaust scholars, has condemned the stupid, repressive prosecution and incarceration of David Irving: a long-time neo-Nazi who is best left to the silent contempt he deserves. If invoking the criminal law against him can have any political effect at all, it will only be to give a boost to his cause of fascism, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust denial (a point, by the way, of which one doubts the Austrian authorities could be entirely unaware).

    But, when we turn from the Irving case to that of the Danish cartoons,we find the public discussion dominated not by the defense of free speech–which, most of the time, is given, at best, a perfunctory grunt of grudging approval–but by ponderous lectures on the importance of being oh-so-“sensitive” to the feelings of religious believers: not a notion that I suspect of having much appeal for you, Steve, but one that currently unites the right-wing Christian cultists of the Bush Administration (which deplored the cartoons without defending the right to publish them) with the more despicably soft-headed sort of “progressive” multicultists. Yet neither they nor the Bushies seem quite as bad, right now, as the media, mainsteam *and* “alternative”. Your assumption that the cartoons have been “republished widely” is, unfortunately, very wide of the mark. They were republished in a tiny handful of brave (and, yes, largely right-wing) European newspapers but (unlike Irving’s arguments) have been mainly suppressed on the Continent and almost (if not quite) *completely* suppressed in Britain and the US–despite their urgent, obvious news value. Of course, it’s hardly unusual for the press bosses to suppress news that disturbs their ideological agenda. But it is rare, and maybe unique, for our leading newspapers–The NY Times, The Washington Post, and the rest–to do so in such an *open* and obviously craven fashion, without even a real pretence of trying to cover the news. As one who has read (and valuably commented on) some of my own recent writing on the timidity and cowardice of the mainstream American media, you will not suspect me of expecting much from these bozos. But I admit that the extreme cowardice of their failure to cover this story properly–not to mention their concomitant failure to make even the most rudimentary gesture of solidarity with their Danish colleagues–did surpise even me.



  3. Carl —
    Well, it depends. The cartoons are quite easy to find on the Web (but then again, Irving’s writings are too). It is true that the major media in the UK/US have not reprinted the cartoons. And I do deplore the hand-wringing ‘we ought not to disrespect any religion’ rhetoric as much as you do.

    But.. I have still encountered more of the ‘look how this shows that Muslims do not value freedom the way we, the enlightened Westerners do’ more than anything else in the way of commentary. And except for a few progressive blogs and publications, there has been almost no discussion of how the Danish cartoons were racist, and how they in fact depicted Arabs in a way that replicates how Jews were depicted in racist cartoons and drawings of a century ago.

  4. Carl Freedman says:

    Hi Steve–

    Well, I’m sure we can agree that vile foolishness of many different sorts has attended the cartoon controversy. And it’s true that, when I spoke of the media suppression of the cartoons, I was thinking of print and television–I suppose that just about anything can be found on the Web. To what extent the cartoons, or some of them, are actually racist–as opposed to expressing an entirely admirable contempt for Islam (or any other Western religion)–is indeed an important question. My impression is that the cartoons that could most plausibly be accused of racism were in fact those that were *never* published in Denmark or anyplace else in Europe, but were distributed throughout the Middle East by right-wing Islamists. But, since our wonderful “free” press refuses to let us see and judge for ourselves, I can’t really say.

    In other news, I gotta get back to writing a talk I’m supposed to give in a month at the conference about Chip Delany in Buffalo. Any chance you’ll be there?



  5. Kirby Olson says:

    I’m hoping to hear your take on Al Zaqiri (sp) and his take on the Oscars. Also, your take on the Oscars.

    Maybe you should give out Shaviros.

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