Blogs > Cliopatria > "Freedom" and the Jyllands Posten

Feb 6, 2006 3:03 am

"Freedom" and the Jyllands Posten

Grading undergraduate papers at UCLA, I was always amazed by the chasm between performance and expectation. The student who was supposed to turn in a well-argued five-page evaluation on the course reading, and who instead handed in five pages of blockquoted Wikipedia entries in random order? Shocked -- shocked! -- by his F. He threatened to appeal to the professor, to give me a bad evaluation, He was so spectacularly beside himself he could barely think of all the horrible things he was going to do to me. Raised in a culture of entitlement, students simply expect good grades for doing close to nothing.

Similarly, I was always struck by the absence of ROTC candidates among the members of the campus Republican club who held pro-war rallies by the student union. The liberals are dumb, man, and America has to be defended -- by, uh, somebody else. We are all entitled to safety, which somebody else should provide, 'cause that military stuff seems, like, way harsh and stuff. But don't get me wrong, I'm totally pro-military and stuff. Just not for, like, me.

And so now we have the Jyllands Posten, which published cartoons showing Arab men with hooked noses and beady eyes, and depicted Mohammed with a bomb in his turban. Because, hey man, freedom of the press. And the Muslims, who are all intolerant and stuff, got mad. Because they're against freedom and stuff, and why do consequences follow our decisions about what to publish?

To be clear: Violence in this context is idiotic, and violence against diplomatic sites is beyond intolerable. And I'm well aware of the pathology of Islamic extremism, and of the viciousness of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the Middle East.

But it does seem to me that the Jyllands Posten" controversy" is ultimately very much a product of the culture of entitlement: We have the freedom to publish whatever we want; you have the freedom to sit there and take it. How dare these people hold up signs with ugly messages merely because we depicted Mohammed as a pig? Totally anti-freedom, man. These Muslims are nuts.

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Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

I beat you to it, Mr. Luker. See the comment above yours.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/6/2006

Here's your evidence, Mr. Newman: "What those who support the Danish cartoonists, I presume, is to be able to publish such work without being accused of *starting* a war of civilizations."

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

Ah, here it is, I think:

"What those who support the Danish cartoonists want, I presume, is to be able to publish such work without being accused of *starting* a war of civilizations."

Am I right? Is this where I supposedly suggest that you refrain from speech? Apparently, I'll have to adhere to a *very* literal interpretation of words here, though where I come from we're a little more generous in our interpretations of impromptu speech. First, even if we interpret the statement quite literally, it does not imply a rejection of your *right* to make irrational arguments.

But let me clarify what I meant. The cartoonists want to live in a society in which they are not accused of making war on an entire civilization when they print their little cartoons; that is, they believe that the principles of an open society require that they not carry the weight of foreign policy and the standards of other cultures on their shoulders when they make their editorial decisions. That doesn't mean that they or I believe that those who believe they *should* be required to do so should refrain from speech.

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

I don't get it. Could you please point me to that part of my comments where I demand that you refrain from speech? You want me to defend the right to speech of someone with whom I disagree -- which, since you know me so well, you know I *never* do? I'll do it right here and now. I unequivocally and absolutely defend your right to make the comments you've made on this post. You can even compare me to a pig, picture me with devil's horns, and insult my mother if you wish. I am disagreeing with you, not telling you to "refrain from speech."

Seriously, I'd like to see you back up that "slander."

Ralph E. Luker - 2/6/2006

Mr. Newman, You're, at the same time, demanding that I refrain from speech and demanding the right to whatever speech you choose to make. When you _ever_ defend the speech rights of someone with whom you disagree, you'll have earned my respect.

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

And since you started the whole post off with the story of the adolescent undergrad who refused to accept the consequences of the work he did on his essay, could you please explain to me how that applies to the cartoonists? Yes, yes, yes, you denounce violence, I denounce violence, we all denounce violence. In that case, which consequences of their actions are the cartoonists failing to accept? Have they suggested somewhere that harsh criticism, protest, boycotts of their newspaper and its sponsors, are unacceptable? If not, what's the point in going on about accepting responsibility for their actions?

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

P.S. If you'll look at the devolution of the comments on this post, you'll note that it's extremely arguable who started the name-calling and sarcasm.

I have made several points which you haven't addressed -- one that I'm specifically interested in is your decision to take the "Danish cartoonists are assholes" position in this particular context. Is the meaning of your position at all informed by the context in which you articulate it? If so, how do you arrive at the decision to take the "adolescent provocateurs" line instead of the "support free speech" line.

But I forgot. Your whole point was apparently that the press can be assholes and you denounce violence. Keep speaking the truth to power, man!

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

Yeah, dude, just exercising my right to be a spoiled adolescent asshole in the "culture of entitlement." Rock on!

Chris Bray - 2/6/2006

Suddenly this has devolved into a Freeper rant: Double dittos, Mr. Newman!

You guys should maybe try reading the posts you comment on.

Grant W Jones - 2/6/2006

Indeed, Mr. Newman, they seem unable to distinguish between thought, speech, and action.

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

Mr. Luker and Mr. Bray continue to ignore points they don't wish to address.

Grant W Jones - 2/6/2006

So you do agree, not surprising. In the quest for "allies" the West should abandon its basic values.

This War of Cultures i.e. values, has been going on for some time. You appear to advocate slow surrender. I will not surrender my basic freedoms to appease medieval barbarians. That is THEIR choice.

"A democracy cannot survive long without freedom of expression, the freedom to argue, to dissent, even to insult and offend. It is a freedom sorely lacking in the Islamic world, and without it Islam will remain unassailed in its dogmatic, fanatical, medieval fortress; ossified, totalitarian and intolerant. Without this fundamental freedom, Islam will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality; originality and truth."

"Unless, we show some solidarity, unashamed, noisy, public solidarity with the Danish cartoonists, then the forces that are trying to impose on the Free West a totalitarian ideology will have won; the Islamization of Europe will have begun in earnest. Do not apologize."

"This raises another more general problem: the inability of the West to defend itself intellectually and culturally."

Ibn Warraq,1518,398853,00.html

Why can't the West defend itself intellectually and culturally? Because our intellectuals are so marinaded in cultural relativism and guilt they will surrender basic liberties to The Other.

You may now return to your usual schedule of attacking George Bush for the horrible threat he poses to free speech.

However, don't forget to clean up after the elephant in the living room.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/6/2006

Mr. Jones and Mr. Newman continue to repeat points with which no one has disagreed.

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

But Mr. Luker, are you really suggesting that the artistic freedoms we exercise in our open society should be subject to the constraints of international diplomacy and foreign policy?

Who wants a war of civilizations? What those who support the Danish cartoonists want, I presume, is to be able to publish such work without being accused of *starting* a war of civilizations. And does your logic work in the opposite direction? Can we accuse the Arab cartoonists who print horribly anti-Semitic and other anti-infidel cartoons of fanning the flames of a war of civilizations?

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

Exactly, Mr. Jones. See my comment above.

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

It's interesting here that the cartoons about Christ that Mr. Bray hypothesizes to make some "point" are more akin to the fake cartoons that a group of Muslims included in their dossier of grievances against the Danish cartoonists. The actual cartoons as published, while certainly offensive to Muslims, were only moderately offensive by the standards of our open society, and they attempt to make legitimate, if insufficiently nuanced, points (but that's a feature of most political cartoons). You seem to be suggesting, Mr. Bray, that the press should self-censor in this case according to the standards of Islam.

And I remember "Piss Christ" as well. Remember how the Christians rioted in the streets and burned down museums after that incident? And I remember how all the newspaper editorials called Serrano an adolescent asshole who was interested only in needless provocation and specious "shock value." [Irony alert -- just to head the irony-challenged off at the pass.]

Ralph E. Luker - 2/6/2006

I agree that, if one prefers carefully targetted attacks on the sources of terrorist violence, rather than a war of civilizations against 1.3 billion people, prudential cartoonists and journalists will avoid offending potential allies. And, by the way, if you want a war of civilizations, are you prepared to kill 1/3, convert 1/3, and expatriate 1/3? That's the historic ambition, as I recall.

Grant W Jones - 2/6/2006

He also clearly implied that the Western press should engage in self-censorship or "take it."

Do you agree with that?

Ralph E. Luker - 2/6/2006

Grant, You don't seem to bother to _read_ before you attack. Chris agreed that the Danish newspapers had the right to publish the cartoons _and_ that the burning of the Danish embassies was unacceptable. Do you disagree with either of those points?

Grant W Jones - 2/6/2006

I'm an atheist. Spin again.

Grant W Jones - 2/6/2006

Ever hear of "Piss Christ?" See below.

Grant W Jones - 2/6/2006

"Another person died at the weekend when flames forced him to jump from the burning Danish consulate in Beirut."

More than holding up signs is occuring.

When did those Christian mobs riot, murder and burn when "Piss Christ" was publicly displayed?

Chris Bray - 2/6/2006

I totally agree. Did you hear about the cartoons the New York Times is running, tomorrow? Jesus Christ covered in shit; pissing in a child's mouth; being forcibly sodomized by a gang of stevedores; and so on. Great stuff! Musn't "self-censor" because some images might be "verboten" to people of religious faith!

To be clear, and say this yet again, I believe the newspaper had a right to publish the cartoons, and I think violence in response was intolerable. Your argument is typically premised on a false dichotomy and simpler-than-real categories.

Anyway, it's always a pleasure to see a self-described conservative coming out firmly in favor of nasty attacks on religious faith. Religious faith is totally radical and left wing.

Or do Muslims not count as people of faith?

Grant W Jones - 2/6/2006

How dare the Danish paper not exercise self-censorship? They must know by now that publishing anything not to the liking of Mohammadan mobs is verboten, or they must "take it." "It" being throat cutting on the steet in broad daylight ala Van Gogh, and stuff. When will these Dhimmis learn?

Chris Bray - 2/6/2006

Given that my very first post condemned violence and attacks on embassies, I have no idea why you still think I haven't answered this question. I'm willing to cop to banality -- it's a blog post, and I didn't agonize over it until I was ready to dispense a shiny pearl. In any case, enough. I warmly invite you to walk away regarding this post as a banal one.

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

I'll repeat a question you haven't really answered. What consequences for their actions are the Danish cartoonists unwilling to face? Have they or their defenders suggested that they shouldn't be, and didn't expect to be, harshly criticized? I'm still confused about whether you're counting the threats and embassy burnings as "consequences" of their "actions" that they must take responsibility for...

You make a rather banal point, Mr. Bray. The press -- gasp! horror! -- sometimes behave like adolescent assholes. What I'm interested in is why you chose to make that particular point in this particular context. You're an historian; surely you understand the importance of context.

In most controversies of this sort, people generally tend to emphasize one of the following statements: 1)the press/artist/group, etc. has a right to speak, even when their speech is deeply offensive; 2) the press/artist/group, etc. is sometimes irresponsible and needlessly provocative and their right to speak does not preclude others from harshly criticizing and protesting such speech.

Both statements are true. It seems to me that which statement one chooses to focus on in any specific instance is partly a function of how serious a threat to free expression one considers the harsh responses to be.

When Salman Rushdie has a fatwa issued against him for "The Satanic Verses," I can say "I support his right to offend, even in deliberately provocative fashion," or I can say "Rushdie is an asshole and he needs to face the consequences of his actions." It's clear to me which statement I would choose in that particular context.

I'm just wondering why you chose the equivalent of statement 2 in a context in which one of the bedrock principles of liberal democracy is being threatened by some who advocate or commit violence in order to reject that principle and deny to others its "entitlements."

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

Those kinds of odious depictions *are* permitted in the U.S., or were you under the impression they are against the law?

Louis Nelson Proyect - 2/6/2006

Chris Bray - 2/6/2006

Sharon eating Palestinian babies...Naw, that one sounds okay. And I thought the Rushdie fatwa was cool! Wish they'd nailed him, though. Oh well, maybe next time.


Anyway, I think you have a good point, here, about "whether this is the first time [I]'ve bothered to call them on their assholean tendencies." I'm going to open an immediate review of my hundreds of blog posts, and hundreds of pieces of journalism, so that I can provide you with a complete list of everything I've ever condemned. Hope I remembered to log all the dates!

John Reed Tarver - 2/6/2006

Of course, Chris Bray's formulation is correct. Our own press a few decades ago, particularly the motion picture industry, regularly depicted our African American citizens as chicken-stealing, watermelon eating mental defectives, and it did so quite effectively. We do not now permit that sort of ill treatment toward African Americans, a protection we do not extend to our Muslem citizens. To defend the rights of the Danish press is to evade the issue. Our federal officilas should condemn such incivility.

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

Mr. Bray,

Who among the defenders of the cartoonists have suggested that those who wish to protest the cartoons mustn't complain "too harshly"? Harsh complaint is one of the time-honored responses to offensive speech in an open society. Harsh complaint which expresses a contempt for the principles of an open society ("Freedom go to hell") or a threat of violence ("Behead the insulters of Islam")is anti-liberal and deserves as much criticism as the "asshole" cartoonists.

And why do you say that the Danish cartoonists "apparently" didn't understand the "consequences" of their actions? Have they said as much? Should they have been able to predict the burning of embassies, and should that have deterred them?

If your point is simply that the Danish cartoonists are assholes, that's all well and good, but -- as I pointed out before -- lots of those adolescent provocateurs in the press are assholes. I'm just curious as to whether this is the first time you've bothered to call them on their assholean tendencies. I'll ask again, would you call the "Sharon eating Palestinian babies" cartoonist an asshole as well?

And what about Salman Rushdie? What would you say to him? "Hey, Salman baby, grow up. Actions: Consequences. Freedom doesn't mean the absence of costs for behavior." What about Theo Van Gogh?

As for the Arab-European League, they're assholes.

That's how it works in our "culture of entitlement." We're entitled to call each other -- and each other's beloved religious figures --assholes. We may be assholes for doing so, but the bigger assholes, to my mind, are the assholes who wish to deny us that "entitlement" altogether.

Chris Bray - 2/6/2006

Sorry: I should have said, "depicting Mohammed with devil's horns." Sloppy, yes.

Second, you argue that burning embassies is an intolerably harsh response, but I'm not sure what you're arguing with, here, since I said that very thing in my original post.

But the point is that the culture of easy liberty can easily grow into a culture of entitlement when that freedom is unbalanced by a sense of fairness or reponsibility. This is not an argument for censorship; it's an argument for calling assholes assholes, and for declining to regard assholes as innocent martyrs -- even while defending their right to be assholes. The juveniles in this scenario drew and published those cartoons, apparently without anticipating the response. Actions: Consequences. Freedom doesn't mean "the absence of costs for behavior."

Incidentally, for those of you with a taste for culture wars, the Arab-European League has now begun its own "Freedom of Speech Campaign." First cartoon: Hitler and Anne Frank in bed, having just had sex. Free speech! Can't complain too harshly, or you're against open society.

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

Mr. Luker, my point may have been unclear and inelegant, but I was in no way accusing Mr. Bray of burning down embassies. My formulation was meant to mimic Mr. Bray's own formulation, which was as follows:

"But it does seem to me that the Jyllands Posten 'controversy' is ultimately very much a product of the culture of entitlement: We have the freedom to publish whatever we want; you have the freedom to sit there and take it."

I merely reworked that formulation and advanced my own interpretation of the controversy; in each case, the "we" presumably refers to the Danish cartoonists and other beneficiaries of the "culture of enlightenment" (or the "culture of freedom" in my reworking) and the "you" refers to those who are offended by their cartoons. My point may have been confusing, but it was *not* a slanderous misaccusation.

Of course the depictions -- especially of Mohammed with a bomb as a turban -- are offensive to Muslims. But is there any indication that the cartoonists themselves or those who defend them didn't understand their offensiveness? No, I don't expect Muslims to appreciate them. I do expect Muslims living in liberal democracies to voice their disapproval loudly -- without threatening or supporting violence against those who have offended them.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/6/2006

Umm, Mr. Newman, when you ask Chris Bray "... which of those cartoons depicted Mohammed as a pig?" I wonder why you undercut the literal force of your question by subsequently saying "When your protests include burning down embassies, ..." etc. Sergeant Bray has burned down no embassies that I know of. If you intend to have serious conversation, I'd think you'd want to avoid slanderous misaccusations.
The fact is that depicting Mohammed (which will offend some Muslims in any case) with a bomb for a turban will offend 1.3 billion Muslims. Unless you are bent on having an all out war of civilization, unless you don't wish to have allies among Muslims, you'll recognize that such caricatures are imprudent. You may be free to publish them (and I think you are), but surely you don't expect Muslims to appreciate your offensive behavior.

Christopher Newman - 2/6/2006

Ummm, Chris, which of those cartoons depicted Mohammed as a pig? Or have you not done your research on this one?

And I must say that your argument here strikes me as rather juvenile in its own way. You say the Danish cartoons are the product of the culture of entitlement. I might say they're the product of a culture of liberty: We have the freedom to publish whatever we want; you have the freedom to protest loudly, debate vigorously, publish your own offensive speech in response, and organize boycotts. When your protests include burning down embassies, threatening violence, and carrying signs that say "Freedom go to hell" and "Behead the insulters of Islam," then forgive me if I consider *some* among you to be anti-freedom.

Are you really surprised by members of the press being deliberatly "provocative"? Is this the first time it's occurred to you to complain about those adolescent provocateurs in the media and the "culture of entitlement" that so disconcerts you? Is the cartoon of Sharon eating Palestinian babies a product of the same "culture of entitlement"? How about, say, The Satanic Verses?