By the adjusted measures of this current economic slump, the German economy is doing unbelievably well—the Wall Street Journal, noting that the “economy grew 9% in the second quarter on an annualized basis and unemployment, at 7.6%, is well below U.S. levels,” calls Germany the “envy of Europe.” But despite provoking the envy of its economically sclerotic neighbors, Angela Merkel’s coalition government, which includes the libertarian-leaning, tax-cutting Free Democrats (FDP), is taking a battering in the polls, with the FDP hemorrhaging supporters.
But the typically uncontroversial Merkel, according to this dispatch from Reuters, is today “to honor Mohammad cartoonist [Kurt Westergaard] at a press award” ceremony in Berlin, something that might help lift her sagging popularity. The right-leaning tabloid Bild called her appearance at the awards ceremony the “bravest performance” of the Christian Democrat’s tenure as chancellor. Indeed, introducing the controversial Danish cartoonist Merkel declared that “"[We] are talking here about the freedom of opinion and of the press. It's about whether in a Western society with its values, he is allowed to publish his Mohammed cartoons in a newspaper or not.”
But before we heap too much praise upon Merkel for doing the obvious—defending the free speech rights of an elderly cartoonist—keep in mind that she couldn’t avoid qualifying her support of Westergaard with that ubiquitous nonsense line, repeated like a mantra by critics of Jyllands-Posten and Westergaard—about freedom of speech being freighted with certain “responsibilities.” Bizarrely, Merkel also condemned the Florida sociopath who will hold a Koran burning at his church to mark the anniversary of September 11th as "abhorrent." (Yesterday, the German police staged a series of raids on buildings associated with the neo-Nazi movement, though President Obama has yet to weigh in on the group’s anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.)
While German bloggers and newspaper columnists gasp and applaude Merkel’s “bravery”—FAZ breathlessly concluded it was "probably be the most explosive event of her chancellorship so far”—perhaps they might instead chin-stroke on a more obvious question: Why does a limited defense of free speech by the leader of a Western democracy provoke such astonishment from the press corps?