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The Hazzn's Tish

Or: A Cantorial Student's Dispatches from his Outpost in Manhattan

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Toontown

I haven't yet said anything about the Muhammad cartoon controversy because everything that's occurred to me has been stated clearly and effectively by someone else. Something has been festering in the back of my mind (eew) for a few weeks now, but I've only recently figured out what it is.

When much of the Muslim world began to protest the Danish cartoons, newspapers all over Europe republished them, usually claiming that their actions were taken in defense of freedom of expression.* This is nonsense. If they had published the cartoons despite their own governments' protests, that would be a move for freedom of expression. When a newspaper prints something in defiance of someone else's government, it's just an attempt to be inflamatory. And really, how hard is it to enrage a radical fundamentalist?

Shooting fish in a barrel unsportsmanlike, unchallenging and, when you think about it, kind of stupid.

* This is ironic by itself, as many European countries do not have such a legally protected right. David Irving's status as a criminal is contingent entirely on the fact that publicly stating an opinion can get you sent to jail in Austria, and made somewhat more shocking by the fact that he was tried and sentenced after publicly retracting and renouncing his own denial of the Holocaust.

11 Comments:

Blogger fleurdelis28 said...

Not disagreeing, but does the fact that it started with someone who couldn't find anyone willing to illustrate his book because of fear of reprisal (assuming that was the case) change anything? I mean, Europe has had a filmmaker stabbed to death with a manifesto for the content of his films -- government is not the only force of censorship. (Though we do self-censor all the time to avoid annoying people; it's obviously a matter of degree. Countries where everyone exercises their free expression all the time tend not to work too well.)

Thursday, February 23, 2006 9:00:00 PM  
Blogger Lawrence said...

Depends on what you mean by it when you talk about how it started.

Nobody made a fuss (relatively speaking) when the cartoons were initially published, even though they were printed in an Egyptian newspaper back in October. The riots don't seem to have started until certain governments took notice and started shouting.

Thursday, February 23, 2006 10:08:00 PM  
Blogger fleurdelis28 said...

The major protests were definitely government creations. But once people in your country are picketing public buildings with signs saying "Sever the hand that drew!" (though that was in England, where the cartoons weren't really published) and people in other countries are insisting that governments apologize for the actions of independent newspapers and offering gold on the head of the cartoonists, I'm not sure it's unreasonable to feel that freedom of expression in under attack in a meaningful way -- whether because you fear the government will be pressured into buckling, or because you fear censorship by fear of violence.

This doesn't preclude the possibility that the newspapers were out of line in this particular instance -- but I don't think the only threat to free speech is one's national government.

Also, I recall reading that Europe tends to think of rights in more universal terms than Americans do. So we believe that everyone should have freedom to speak, but not necessarily that that freedom needs to take the exact shape described in our First Amendment -- while Europeans may feel that free speech is free speech is free speech, a sort of Platonic innate idea that's out there somewhere and applies to everyone, and that an attack on the idea is an attack against everyone who believes in it.

Friday, February 24, 2006 1:19:00 AM  
Blogger fleurdelis28 said...

Interestingly, at one point the Times posted an editorial stating that it was not publishing the cartoons because, while it might have been acceptable in other circumstances, to do so in the current environment would be wrong. Someone wrote a counter column, arguing that the editor had it exactly backwards -- that to publish the cartoons in normal circumstances would be wrong because they had little inherent value, but that it was important to publish them now because they were the subject of controversy. (I think the second writer's argument was that readers needed to see the cartoons in order to really understand what was going on -- which I was incredulous about but, having seen them, now think is a fair point -- and that therefore the choice not to publish was not justifiable except as a way of caving to outside pressure.) I didn't entirely have an answer for either side.

Friday, February 24, 2006 1:23:00 AM  
Blogger Lawrence said...

But if we define an attack on freedom of expression as the threat or attempt to punish those who express views we don't like, where does that leave the countries where denying the Holocaust is a jailable offense?

I obviously don't wish to compare the two on moral grounds, if only because the proposed consequences are so different. Still, I can't help but see the notion that one can quash an idea by hurting those who espouse it to be a hopelessly primitive theory of government. Has it ever worked?

Friday, February 24, 2006 12:19:00 PM  
Blogger fleurdelis28 said...

I have reservations about the laws banning Holocaust denial, too, though I can possibly fit them into a weird subcategory of "don't tell us that we didn't commit horrible atrocities". But given the choice, I'd allow free speech to the Holocaust deniers rather than take it away from anyone else.

Still, I can't help but see the notion that one can quash an idea by hurting those who espouse it to be a hopelessly primitive theory of government. Has it ever worked?

Are they actually trying to ban the idea, though, or just to show the West that they won't be messed with? Then sense I'm getting is that they feel that the idea is just a way of insulting them, and clearly they haven't made a sufficient show of strength, or people would respect them more. They fact that demonstrating potential for violence is not the best way of winning respect in the West may be the big point they're missing there.

Friday, February 24, 2006 4:37:00 PM  
Blogger Lawrence said...

Are they actually trying to ban the idea, though, or just to show the West that they won't be messed with?

I'm not so concerned here with what they're trying to do as how the other side perceives what they're trying to do. By claiming to be republishing the cartoons in the name of freedom of expression, the European journalists seem to be announcing that they do indeed see an attempt by a foreign power to silence an idea.

The sense I'm getting is that they feel that the idea is just a way of insulting them . . .

It's not?

. . . and clearly they haven't made a sufficient show of strength, or people would respect them more.

I do realize that most of this hooplah is all about differing standards of what makes a society respectable, but didn't the Muslim countries demand apologies and retractions before they started burning embassies?

Friday, February 24, 2006 4:57:00 PM  
Blogger fleurdelis28 said...

The sense I'm getting is that they feel that the idea is just a way of insulting them . . .

It's not?


What idea are we talking about? Free speech does not exist to provide a pretext for insulting Muslims (which sounds like a silly clarification, but seems to be an actual point of contention among some people). If the idea is "reproducing these cartoons," it probably (largely) does. If the idea is "depicting Mohammed in any way," then I suspect it probably doesn't, and that seems to have been the wavelength about half of the cartoonists (if not the newspaper publishing them) were on.

didn't the Muslim countries demand apologies and retractions

From whom, though? Denmark? From what I hear there are all sorts of Danish government policies that Muslims could legitimately object to and that I might object to, too, but I'm in pretty firm agreement with them that a government can neither apologize for nor rein in a newspaper it does not run. If the angry crowds were burning copies of the publishing newspapers and boycotting the specific companies who advertised in them, it would in my mind be a whole different ball game.

Monday, February 27, 2006 11:54:00 PM  
Blogger Lawrence said...

What idea are we talking about?

Reproducing the cartoons in response to protests.

From whom, though? Denmark?

As you and many others have pointed out, there appears to be a lack of understanding between the two parties. Many people in the Middle East and elsewhere simply cannot conceive of a newspaper whose output is not monitored and restricted by one government or another. As such, they were (in their own minds) lodging their protests with the appropriate authorities.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006 12:10:00 AM  
Blogger fleurdelis28 said...

As such, they were (in their own minds) lodging their protests with the appropriate authorities.

I think that may win for euphemism of the year.

After reading a number of Middle-East sources, I can't help but wonder whether the problem is less an inability to conceive of an independent newspaper and more an inability to conceive of anything done in the West as being anything other than a carefully premeditated Zionist conspiracy. I mean, many of the more violent protestors and clerics seem never to have seen the cartoons, or been aware of their number or provenance. I wonder whether you could have generated a large part of the response just on rumor.

And Europe, for all that I think they are dealing with a problem that is in substantial part of their own creation, seems to feel like their civilization is under siege and if they don't take a stand then Islamic violence really will overwhelm their society and censor the presses and subject everyone to sharia out of fear of reprisal. I worry when Europe worries about whether minorities adequately fit in, but I don't think they see themselves as sitting back shooting fish in a barrel. There was a sense in the French papers I was reading that Britain's delining to print the cartoons was sort of a betrayal of the cause, leaving the Continent to fight alone against a massive onslaught on civilization and human rights. (There was also an interesting letter, I think to the Times, asserting that when the BBC discusses religion, they present the backstory of Islam as factual and the backstorys of all other religions as claims by their adherents (as in, "Mohammed was given the Koran by Allah in..." as opposed to "According to Christians, Jesus..."), and always refer to Mohammed by whatever the appropriate Muslim honorific is. While this is not an onslaught against civilization in any way, if true it IS really weird.)

Tuesday, February 28, 2006 11:55:00 AM  
Blogger Lawrence said...

After reading a number of Middle-East sources, I can't help but wonder whether the problem is less an inability to conceive of an independent newspaper and more an inability to conceive of anything done in the West as being anything other than a carefully premeditated Zionist conspiracy.

Same difference. Either way, the reaction seems to have been geared toward stopping things like this (the publication of materials offensive to Islam) from happening again, and ideally a retraction of and apology for the cartoons.

Thursday, March 02, 2006 11:52:00 PM  

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