Stop Breaking Down

One of the cartoons which my local newspaper has refused to print shows two veiled women, their staring round eyes, all that can be seen of their faces, expressing alarm, while a bearded man, apparently the Prophet, with a bar obscuring his eyes, his features otherwise visible, radiates a chilling and furious certainty. It is a pretty good cartoon: it raises the question of who is blinded, and to what, and who has been silenced, and how. It does this with remarkable economy, and with compassionate if mirthless wit. As economical if mirthless jokes go, it isn’t a patch on the one represented by the editors, academics and politicians who claim that reproducing that cartoon is a mistake more or less equivalent to threatening to murder whoever drew it.

This claim generally involves what someone once called the Mucius Scaevola school of argument—there is an awful lot of on the one hand, on the other hand. On the one hand, bad to provoke and offend, on the other, bad to threaten murder and commit arson, to seek to destroy liberty of expression, to impose one’s taboos on everyone, everywhere, with threats of massive violence. Sometimes the claim is not so even-handed: the recklessness and cruelty of the first act was frivolous and inexcusably stupid, whereas the second act was moved by powerful principle and honest moral passion. In the New York Times, the reliably contemptible Stanley Fish opined that insofar as a commitment to free speech, ‘an abstract principle’, is a moral commitment, one that differs from the sterner morality of those who wish to murder heretic and blasphemers, “the difference…is to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of the liberal editors.”

It is not always clear—it is rarely clear—precisely what Fish is arguing; the sneering itself usually seems to be the point. In the Guardian, Ronald Dworkin argued that “The British media were right, on balance, not to republish the Danish cartoons…the public does not have a right to read or see whatever it wants no matter what the cost…”. But Dworkin boldly alleges that it would be improper for a government to suppress the republication of the cartoons: we have a right to see them. It is not wholly clear how we are to exercise these rights when editors, in Dworkin’s view prudently, bend to the threats of murderous mobs, but an ability to consider things separately when they are inextricably connected is the wag’s definition of the legal mind.

Fish, hilariously, is a professor of law, as is, less hilariously, Dworkin. The New York Times and the Guardian are newspapers. The Chinese, who possess neither academic freedom, nor a free press, nor the rule of law, nonetheless possess a useful proverb: never smash your own rice bowl.

From February, 2006