Further Foggy Bottom Bamboozlement

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Reader Steve M. Galbraith takes strong exception to my characterization of the State Department as "siding with the rioters" yesterday. Galbraith points to this statement by State spokesman Sean McCormack:

Our response is to say that while we certainly don't agree with, support, or in some cases, we condemn the views that are aired in public that are published in media organizations around the world, we, at the same time, defend the right of those individuals to express their views. For us, freedom of expression is at the core of our democracy and it is something that we have shed blood and treasure around the world to defend and we will continue to do so. That said, there are other aspects to democracy, our democracy—democracies around the world—and that is to promote understanding, to promote respect for minority rights, to try to appreciate the differences that may exist among us.

You can read the rest, followed by a long colloquy with reporters in which McCormack more or less holds the line for press freedom, here.

There were at least three different statements from State Department officials yesterday (who knew Foggy Bottom had so many high-level flacks?), which collectively justify both the headline "U.S. defends press in cartoons offense" and the headline "US backs Muslims in European cartoon dispute." The one I referred to yesterday came from spokesman Kurtis Cooper:

These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims. We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression, but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.

McCormack's comment came later in the day, and the Washington Times suggests it "balanced" Cooper's statement. There's also this, from the impressively named State Department press officer Janelle Hironimus:

Inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is not acceptable. We call for tolerance and respect for all communities and for their religious beliefs and practices.

Rhetorically, what's important is where you place the however clause. If you say "We support freedom of the press but these cartoons are offensive," you're emphasizing the "offensive" part; if you say "These cartoons are offensive but we support freedom of the press," you're emphasizing the "freedom" part.

McCormack's three sentences do it both ways, which I don't think is a completely satisfying corrective to the other two statements. (Particularly Cooper's: Every time a government official says press freedom must be coupled with press responsibility, a copy of the constitution bursts into flames.) I'd also prefer to hear a government official say "We take no position on what a private publication does with its right to free expression, which is absolute and unqualified" than get into a lot of folderol about how they will shed (somebody's) blood to defend your right to speak.

Now my however clause: McCormack's statement, and his subsequent exchanges with the press, are a vast improvement on the earlier statements, and I'm glad to hear that the State Department is standing up for the right of Danish cartoonists to publish offensive cartoons, even if it's none of their business what Danish cartoonists do.

In related news, an art show (an "art" show!) at the Puck Building features an image of Jesus as an upside-down Osama bin Laden. Or an upside-down Jesus as Osama bin Laden. In any event, you can check it out rightside-up here.

NEXT: Brokeback to the Future

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  1. How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
    How politically correct could we be if we were eunuchs?
    Gonads are a small price to pay for worshipping Elisha Muhammed.

  2. The State Department has no business opining on matters of freedom of speech, or what constitutes views “offensive” to a particular “minority.” What did the State Department have to say about “Piss Christ” or other “offensive” art? What would the State Department have to say if someone overseas wrote an editorial calling radical Islam “monstrous”? What does the State Department have to say about me, right now, calling all religious thought delusional? What does the State Department think about me, right now, calling Islam a disgusting, life-hating set of irrational beliefs. Fuck the State Department.

  3. A reader at instapundit made a good point. If the State Department had come out strongly in favor of Denmark, there probably would have been huge demonstrations at U.S. embassies accross the world. This could have very well led to an embassy being stormed by an angry mobs, which would have left the marines defending it a choice of either risking another hostage drama ala Iran in 1979 or firing on crowds of Muslim demonstrators. Either situation would have been a disaster. As much as I am on Denmark’s side in this, I am not sure that the State Department can do much for the good. They probably did the right thing.

  4. It seems that State is taking this stance because it makes it that much easier to take stances against, say, The Last Temptation of Christ (or the Book of Daniel or what have you).

    Or, I suppose, they’re just jumping at the opportunity to put their thumb in the eye of the EU.

    Come to think of it, I have no fucking idea what State was thinking.

  5. I’d also prefer to hear a government official say “We take no position on what a private publication does with its right to free expression, which is absolute and unqualified” than get into a lot of folderol about how they will shed (somebody’s) blood to defend your right to speak.

    Of course it’s none our f’n business what newspapers in Denmark print, but it’s hard to say that out of one side of your mouth when you’re blathering about remaking Muslim culture uma wide out the other.

    That’s right all you wannabe democrats in Muslim land! When Americans talk about western style democracy, part of what they’re talkin’ about is makin’ fun of the Prophet in print! …and worse, party people, much, much worse! Let’s get ready to Rumblllllllllllle!

  6. The State Department was thinking: “Here’s an easy way to publicly show our support for the people with all that oil.” It’s just plain posturing. Who would you rather piss off, Denmark, or the Muslims?

    The dumb move was to make any reference to the responsibility of the press — it should have been simply an argument relating to religious sensitivity or cultural differences, not another shot at the press using the “shouting fire in a crowded theater” argument. Or was that more the “public decency” angle? Oh, no, it’s more of a “Hate Crime” thing, isn’t it?

    With all these attacks on First Amendment issues, it’s hard to keep up.

  7. I am not sure that the State Department can do much for the good

    They could have shut up and let this pass us by without getting involved for once. Why does the government have to have a public opinion on everything?

  8. They could have shut up and let this pass us by without getting involved for once. Why does the government have to have a public opinion on everything?

    Because we are the big kid on the block. I am sure there was tremendous pressure on the State Department to say something and saying nothing would have been taken as a tacit endorsement and caused just as many problems as endorsing it.

    Ken,

    The problem is that the Bush administration has bought into the PC idea that it can only be leaders and not entire societies that go mad once in a while. You see this idea when people talk about the “Nazis” as opposed to the “Germans” as if the Nazis came down from Mars and occupied Germany. The fact is that there were lots of Nazis and the Nazis and holocaust enjoyed the support of or implicit endorsement of millions of people in Europe. One of the most important books of the last twenty years is “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”. The book shows how no one was ever forced to take part in the holocaust but did so willingly and there was widespread knowledge of and complicity in the holocaust. This is relevant today, not because the Germans are in danger of repeating their performance, but because it shows that large sections of society can embrace totalitarian and genocidal ideologies and not just tribal Africans but advanced westerners like the Germans. People are not just sheep lead by Nietzschean supermen.

    This is what is happening in the Islamic world. It is not just a few crazies. A significant percentage of Muslims in the world have embraced a fundamentalist interpretation of the religion that endorses terrorism and killing of non-believers. Few of them may actually act on it, but that is only because they don’t have the means just yet and don’t have the courage to get themselves killed or jailed by more powerful western governments. That does not mean that they don’t offer support for people who do and wouldn’t raise up if they thought they had a chance of succeeding. People like the guy in England holding the sign saying, “People who defame Islam should be beheaded” mean it. They are here to kill us the first chance they get. No amount of Democracy is going to change that. That is Bush’s mistake; he is at heart a Christian do-gooder who thinks that he can save people. Bush doesn’t recognize that some people just can’t be saved and that some societies occasionally take leave of their senses. Giving Democracy to fanatics is not going to make them less fanatic. That doesn’t mean that Democracy isn’t a good thing and worth pursuing for the benefit of those in the society who are not fanatics. What it does mean is that you can’t just run to Baghdad and kill the leaders and expect everything to be okay. You have got to eliminate the fanatics from the society.

  9. If you want to fight back, try this:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/90809509@N00/95628234/

  10. One of the deplorable things from all this was the arrest by the Jordanian government of the editors of the Jordanian paper who printed some of the cartoons and asked that Muslims be reasonable.

    Will any Western governments condemn this I wonder?

  11. I now read that Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria have been trashed. Deplorable isn’t really the word.

  12. This type of hysteria is not unique to the Moslims. It is common everywhere in my opinion.

    If one spends an entire life being told that a certain thing is wrong and that those that do this certain thing deserve a severe punishment is it any wonder that when the certain thing occurs one freaks out and demands severe punishment.

    For example: many people have been instructed that the word nigger is a ‘magic word’ that is so horrible that if anyone utters it (other than black rapper?s apparently) they deserve to be beaten, arrested, re-educated and condemned by society. What would happen if this ‘magic word’ was used in a cartoon in the U.S.? What would the State Dept. say?

    I say nigger is just a word and this is just a cartoon. If you don’t like it, vote with your money and don’t buy the paper anymore.

  13. I’d just like to see these Muslims showing similar outrage when a group, claiming to be Muslim, beheads an innocent civilian journalist.

    These were CARTOONS (and not very good ones at that) and they generated more anger among the Muslim community than any of the awful acts that are being carried out in their name.

    It’s pretty sad when these Muslim “leaders” ask for something that they would never give to their people in their own countries.

  14. I think this is a good example of how extremists can distort a debate by staking out an absurdist position and then demanding that everyone meet them in the “middle.” It’s not like we haven’t seen that here. The whole Patriot Act is based on that strategy.

    The appropriate response for the Danes is, “We don’t censor; if you want to censor that’s your business; if you don’t like our policy don’t come here.” No apologies or explanations are necessary. As is often said in politics, if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

    When you have confidence in your core values, you are serene. This whole dustup shows that mainstream Islam feels insecure about the future of their faith and the West is uncertain about the future of press freedom. Self-censorship is inherently worse than state censorship because when the state censors you, you know where you stand at all times. You run it by the censor and the burden is on him. But a self-censor always errs towards caution because the burden is on him. Smart dictators know this.

  15. Self-censorship is inherently worse than state censorship because when the state censors you, you know where you stand at all times. You run it by the censor and the burden is on him. But a self-censor always errs towards caution because the burden is on him. Smart dictators know this.

    Interesting point, which I think is open to debate. It’s self-censorship when you don’t say “Let’s face it, the deceased was a real dick” at a funeral oration, and most people would agree that that’s the right thing to do.

    If you want to say, “Self-censorship that is done from fear of coercion rather than good taste is worse…” that’s probably more accurate. But then you run into the problem of what “good taste” is, who’s defining it, and what the punishments are for violating it. Wheels within wheels…

  16. This is what is happening in the Islamic world. It is not just a few crazies. A significant percentage of Muslims in the world have embraced a fundamentalist interpretation of the religion that endorses terrorism and killing of non-believers.

    If many of those going nuts over these cartoons are also among those who consider the killing of “non-believers” utterly deplorable (and I suspect that to be the case), then the Bush Administration, and those who support it, should face that fact.

  17. I’m reminded of the SNL parody rap album from a few years back: “The East Coast and the West Coast are both pretty good!” I think the song titles were “We’re Not Taking Sides Here” and stuff like that.

  18. If many of those going nuts over these cartoons are also among those who consider the killing of “non-believers” utterly deplorable (and I suspect that to be the case), then the Bush Administration, and those who support it, should face that fact.

    Ken, what evidence is there that that is true other than your own wishful thinking? Do the people in the streets of London have ever condem the London bombings? Not that I ever saw. Mostly, they either endorsed it or were complicit in it or just whined about the possibility that people might have dim view of Muslims as a result. Where in the West are Muslims standing up to extrmeists? I don’t see it. I mostly see a lot of victimhood and underhanded endorsement of extremism.

  19. Ken, what evidence is there that that is true other than your own wishful thinking?

    Do you know any Christians who think that abortion is wrong? I do. Do you know any Christians who think that abortion is wrong, and should be illegal, but who also think that anyone who bombs an abortion clinic is despicable and should be punished? Do you know any Christians who think that the government should censor print media because it offends their religious sensibilities? I’ve known a number of Christians who think all those things.

    I’ve also known a number of Muslims. I’ve known Muslims who think that terrorists are despicable and will be punished in hell. They also happen to think that the government shouldn’t tolerate ridicule of the Prophet in print. They’re much like those Christians who think that the media should be censored to protect their own religious sensibilities. They’re the same Muslim who think that terrorism… It’s not that hard to imagine, John.

    I’d post a response to the rest of your comment, but I don’t see how it relates to anything I wrote above. I’ll just add, once again, that it may very well be that the rest of the Muslim world doesn’t want “freedom of the press” if “freedom of the press” means that people get to make fun of the Prophet in print. …and that if that’s the reality, then the Bush Administration, and those who support it, should come to terms with that.

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