Roger’s Rules

Heading 'em off the pass department: Thoughts on the right to offend

Yesterday, I was speaking with a friend who has inside knowledge about the episode of Yale and the Danish cartoons–you know, the story of how Yale University Press, together with the Yale administration, insisted at the last minute that Jytte Klausen’s book The Cartoons that Shook the World be published without the cartoons and, indeed, without any depictions of Mohammed. John Donatich, director of the Yale University Press, and various members of the Yale Administration covered themselves with ignominy both in their original decision to censor Professor Klausen’s book and in their response to the almost universal criticism their decision occasioned. “We deplore this decision and its potential consequences,” wrote Cary Nelson, President of the AAUP in a blistering open letter titled “Academic Freedom Abridged at Yale Press,” which sums up the case nicely.

My friend speculated that Yale would seize upon Friday’s attack on Kurt Westergaard, the 75-year-old Danish illustrator who drew the most famous of the cartoons, to justify their despicable behavior last Fall. Yale spokesmen, many readers will remember, said that the chief reason they censored Professor Klausen’s book was because they feared Muslim violence if they included the representations of Mohammed. Not that such fears are groundless. They’re a touchy lot, these disciples of the religion of peace. Just recall what happened at the Westergaard homestead on Friday. “An axe-wielding Somali extremist,” read a story in the Times (the real one, not the New York knock-off), “broke into the home of Kurt Westergaard on Friday. . . by breaking a window.” Westergaard fled into a specially reinforced “panic room” while the intruder “shrieked about blood and revenge, as he smashed the axe in vain against the bathroom door.”

As I mentioned yesterday, the whole idea of having “panic rooms” in order fend off the Paynim Foe sticks in my craw. I don’t deny the prudence of having a bolt hole. If your neighborhood is infested by axe-wielding Somalis, I’d positively recommend one. But to make retreat into an article of policy when dealing with fanaticism is unwise, not to say cowardly and, in the end, counterproductive. (You hope by cowardice to avoid an unpleasant fate: generally, your cowardice guarantees that such a fate, which you might have avoided by stalwart resistance, befalls you.)

I have yet to see any response from Yale about the attack on Westeregaard, but I suspect my canny friend is correct. Yale will try to spin the attack on Kurt Westergaard to their advantage: “You see, we warned you about possible violence! This just shows we were right to bowdlerize The Cartoons the Shook the World.”

No it doesn’t. Yale did not publish the cartoons. Kurt Westergaard still found himself with one axe-wielding Muslim too many. Capitulation bought him no reprieve. Would there have been two or twenty axe-wielding Muslims on his doorstep had Yale published the cartoons and other depictions of their main man? Maybe. Who can say? As I noted about another episode of Muslim insanity,

the list of the things Muslims are offended by would take over a culture. They don’t like ice-cream that (used to be) distributed by Burger King because a decoration on the lid looked like (sort of) the Arabic script for “Allah.” They are offended by “pig-related items, including toys, porcelain figures, calendars and even a tissue box featuring Winnie the Pooh and Piglet” appearing in the workplace. They take umbrage at describing Islamic terrorism as, well, Islamic terrorism and have managed to persuade Gordon Brown to rename it “anti-Islamic activity.” But here’s the thing: one of the features of living in a modern, secular democracy is that there is always plenty of offense to go around. No Muslim is more offended by cartoons of their Prophet than I am by their barbaric reaction to the cartoons. But their reaction when offended is to torch an embassy, shoot a nun , or knife a filmmaker.

No, the issue here is existential nerve, i.e., courage plus that principled conviction that makes courage more than rashness. How are we doing in that department? I think that an editorial in Der Spiegel gets it right: “The West is Choked by Fear.”

Had the Muhammed cartoons been reprinted by the whole German press, then newspaper readers could have seen for themselves how excessively harmless the 12 cartoons were and how bizarre and pointless the whole debate had become. Instead, the assessment was left to “experts” who had in the past defended every criticism of the pope and the Church as well as every blasphemous piece of art in the name of freedom of opinion, but who, in the case of the Muhammad cartoons, suddenly held the view that one must take other people’s religious feelings into consideration.

But that argument was clearly just an excuse, a way of excusing the fact they had been silenced by fear. After all, a few things had happened in the time between the Rushdie affair and the caricatures debacle: 9/11, the London bombings, Madrid, Bali, Jakarta, Djerba — events which some commentators have also interpreted as a reaction by the Islamic world to its degradation and humiliation by the West. Against this threat, it seemed more reasonable and, above all, safer, to show respect to religious feelings rather than insist on the right to freedom of expression.

“Freedom of expression”? Remember that? It can only thrive in a free society in which the right to offend is cherished. The British comedian Rowan Atkinson got it exactly right. Commenting on proposed British legislation regarding “hate speech,” he keenly observed that the “right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended.” Exactly.