Further Foggy Bottom Bamboozlement


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.