A Free Speech Test for the President
September 22, 2012 - 5:40 am
There is nothing “natural” about a 7th century outlook on freedom of speech. Human societies all over the world have evolved over the last several hundred years to recognize the value of freedom of speech — except the Muslim world. And the president refuses to acknowledge that the act of taking offense itself is extreme, regardless of whether such outrage reflects religious belief or not.
The “extremists” he speaks of are not only the ordinary Egyptians who rioted in front of our embassy, they also include the president of Egypt, who has called on President Obama “to put an end” to the film. They also include the dozens of Islamic clerics across the Middle East who have called for the death of anyone associated with the making of Innocence of Muslims. If the president thinks it’s “natural” for Islamic clerics to call for the death of American citizens because they exercised their right of free speech, one wonders if he is capable of drawing a line in the sand and defending that right to any meaningful degree.
There will no doubt be protestors at the gallery displaying Serrano’s execrable work. They will be outraged, and it is hoped they will express their feelings in a peaceful manner. But Barack Obama, if he acknowledges the protest, should use his remarks to remind us of the value of freedom of expression and not get caught up in a controversy over what is or isn’t offensive. Value judgements on the efficacy of artwork are not in his job description.
Because in the end, this is not an American problem — it is a Muslim problem. There is a studied refusal in the Muslim world to accept the concept that American society allows speech that is considered offensive by some such as the “Piss Christ” photo and anti-Islam film. Their deliberate indifference to our values and traditions allows them to demand that we accede to and accept their values and traditions, substituting their notions of freedom with ours.
President Obama, if he is going to comment at all on the Serrano work on display in New York City, should say what he should have been saying all along about Innocence of Muslims: Freedom of speech is an inviolable right, a natural right that exists in nature, and no film, no photo, no words will cause an American retreat on defending that right.
It’s a test the president has failed once already. Can he get it right a second time?