Friday, February 10, 2006

Speech: Freedom's Stepchild

The Arab and Islamic violence regarding the Danish cartoons is indeed sobering, distressing, and saddening. For me, the most troubling aspect is how this is just another reminder of how truly rare is a conscientious, committed belief in freedom of expression. Yes, it almost goes without saying that most of the Islamic societies where the violence is occurring do not value such freedom, or have a real tradition (in modern times) of free speech. And it is disappointing, but not terribly surprising, that various Europeans (the British and the Danes themselves, among others) exhibit little or no commitment to this principle. Has anybody checked in with Cat Stevens (Yusef Islam) lately?

But here is yet another occasion where it does not pay to be too smug, as Americans. Our own government has been rather equivocal and mealy-mouthed. And as a people, the old "three fingers are pointing back at you" cliché applies, at least somewhat. Although it's been said (many times, many ways), it bears repeating: If you don't believe in protecting speech that offends you, then you don't believe in free speech. Americans are often guilty of this hypocrisy ourselves. We don't (usually) go rioting in the streets, but we're often ready to shut somebody up as soon as they piss us off. The Constitution and the courts often stand in the way, which is good, but the impulse to censor is there in the populace.

The First Amendment, and the principle it embodies, means nothing if it does not extend to ideas you hate. Nothing. That’s the whole point.

If you think it's ok for someone to sing "God Bless America" at a graduation ceremony, but not ok for some pathetic homophobes to spew their venom in the vicinity of a soldier's funeral, then you don't believe in free speech.

If you think it's ok for someone to show Ward and June Cleaver sharing a big smooch, but not ok for someone to show nasty, stomach-turning porn (stipulated: it's of adults, by adults, and for adults), then you don't believe in free speech.

And if you think it's ok for some pissant to mock Muhammad in a Danish cartoon, but it's not ok for some pissant to burn the American flag on the National Mall in D.C., then you don't believe in free speech.

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