Sunday, February 05, 2006
I've been following Hugh Hewitt's running commentary about the Danish cartoons, and I'm getting less and less happy.
To be sure I'm not misunderstood: he's quite clear that he's not questioning the principle of freedom of the press, nor calling for censorship or hate-speech prosecutions or anything of the kind. It goes without saying that he knows the rioters are the villains here. But he does very much seem to be saying that we all - cartoonists included - should censor ourselves when it comes to anything related to Islam, for the good of the war effort. We should consider whether our speech makes life easier or harder for our allies in the Muslim world, and behave accordingly.
I can see the virtue of this kind of thinking when it comes to the State Department, and by extension the government as a whole. But it betrays a profound - and revealing - confusion of categories to suggest that the press - that cartoonists - should think this way.
Someone, I forget who, suggested that publishing those cartoons was like publishing racist cartoons about African-Americans in the wake of the Watts riots. But that's not right at all. A far better analogy would be to suggest that, in World War II, we should have refrained from publishing cartoons mocking and insulting our Japanese enemies for fear of offending Americans of Japanese descent, of whom a goodly number served their country with great honor on the field of battle. (Ditto of course for Italians and Germans.) Is that really where Hewitt wants to go?
The New York Times managed to get a variety of quotes from a variety of press notables - Nicholas Lemann, for instance - who should know better, saying, in so many words, that the cartoonists were trying to start a riot, and a riot is what they got. But the cartoons were, more than anything else, about how cartoonists fear that they'll get death threats if they draw cartoons critical of Islam. (Of the twelve cartoons, two are very explicitly about this fear - one shows the cartoonist cowering as he draws - while two are simply depictions of Muhammad without any particular point, and two are criticisms of the paper itself for going through the exercise.) If they got a riot, then all they did is make their point very vividly. And the point they were making is right at the heart of what free speech and a free society is all about.
Did they set out to offend? Maybe. Because, you know, their point was that people in Europe are terrified of offending Muslims. Is there a way to make that point . . . inoffensively?
I'm afraid Hewitt's argument boils down to saying that the cartoonists' fear is their small contribution to the War on Terrorism. That would be the first time in history that a war was won by internalizing fear of the enemy. It is particularly amusing to read Hewitt defending his position by asking, "what would Churchill do."
But it's also - and although this point may pack the least punch, I think it's actually the most important one - an absolutely mad contribution for cartoonists to make. Diplomats have many weapons at their disposal; cartoonists pretty much have to make do with ridicule. It is a strange thing indeed to tell someone that the best contribution they can make to the war effort is to unilaterally disarm. Unless that someone is, objectively speaking, on the other side.
Which, I worry, is something close to what Hewitt thinks. That is to say: he's all for a free press. But he's also all for a sensitive press - generally, and not just in regard to Islam. He's one of the new breed of politically correct conservatives, much like our President; he doesn't want cartoonists offending Catholics or Evangelical Protestants or Jews or African-Americans or whatever, anymore than he wants them to offend Muslims. This is one approach to how to make a "multi-cultural" society work: adopt a book of etiquette that anathematizes offense. But this particular slope is incredibly slippery, and at the bottom lies a society where we're no longer lying only because we no longer would recognize the truth if we saw it.