Sunday, September 12, 2010

Freedom of Speech

The volume on the historical origins of freedom of speech was inspired, so to speak, by the Mohammed cartoons protests of 2006. As I write the conclusion to the volume, Americans are protesting the construction of the "Ground Zero mosque." There are also Koran burnings. Time to weigh in on these issues.

In both cases -- the Muslims and the Americans -- people are exercising their right to voice their opinions. What is remarkable, however, is the asymmetry in the reaction of the West's intellectual class to the two protests. The Muslims: well, they are "offended," and we have to respect their sensibilities. The Americans: well, they are intolerant and racist and Islamophobic to boot.

The Indian-born British writer Kenan Malik asserts that the protests of Muslims, starting with the Rushdie affair, have been politically motivated by the most conservative elements in the Islamic world. Speaking of himself as a young man before the Rushdie affair, in the 1980s, Malik writes that "radical" in a Muslim context meant someone who was a militant secularist, who challenged the power of the mosques. The Rushdie affair, however, took place at a time when the left, disenchanted with secularism, began buying into the multicultural politics of ethnic particularism. The result has been the undermining of "progressive trends" within Muslim communities and the strengthening of the hand of religious fundamentalists.

He also blames journalists, who like to find the most extreme figure to quote. Thus, the fundamentalists have become the "real Muslims," in contrast to the vast numbers who have come to the West in order to live a better life and to escape from the fundamentalist politics that Middle Eastern rulers manipulate to keep themselves in power.

Such an assessment is what many of us have suspected. He doesn't go so far as to label the confrontation between the West and Islamic fundamentalism a continuation of the confrontation of world powers of the Cold War, though I think there is an element of that.

Such politics aside, what interests me is the reaction of Western intellectuals at this time. As I have said before, free speech is in crisis, precisely because the Western intellectual class is no longer is confident of its own principles. Should I say that they are pusillanimous? Since the 18th century progress has been defined by eroding the values that people most cherish, staring with religion. It was a sign of "open-mindedness" to be "tolerant" of attacks on one's pieties. Art -- painting, theater, movies, etc. -- has become a principle vehicle for spreading open-mindedness. When Catholics in New York protested in 1999 against paintings by Chris Ofili, freedom of speech was naturally invoked by the ACLU and others, and the exhibition went on.

As Kenan Malik points out, however, you cannot find a theater director in Europe today who would put on a performance of Voltaire's Mahomet. Random House, "publishing giant," backed out of publishing The Jewel of Medina, a romantic tale about Aisha, the Prophet's youngest wife. (By the way, it was a university professor who alerted Random House about the "offensive to Muslims" nature of the novel.) When a museum in Holland decides to remove an exhibition of photos of gay men wearing masks of Mohammed, the left-wing Dutch newspaper praises the museum for its "great professionalism." Imagine that response had the Brooklyn Museum canceled its exhibit of Chris Ofili's paintings!

One might think that intellectuals and the media have tied themselves in knots over free speech because they are uncomfortable with dissent. (See Rousseau's general will.) Maybe it is more the case that they are uncomfortable with dissent from their opinions. Ordinary Americans, however, are showing that freedom of speech isn't limited to the ruling class. (I love the superiority of this site, showing "the most ignorant Ground Zero mosque signs." Note that ignorance is not defined; it is simply assumed that the sentiments are signs of ignorance. Compare the signs with the picture above: I don't think Americans can be said to have a corner on "ignorance.")

(People have complimented me for the images on this blog. For the subject of freedom of speech, however, I have really been challenged, since the relevant images are generally so unattractive and don't fit with those on other postings. Thus, I chose here the opposite sentiment and the picture at the top by artist Nancy Glazier.)

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