Can the West still win the race to produce the most insane reaction to the Danish cartoon flap? With Florida International University law professor Stanley Fish as our standard-bearer, all indications are positive. Some samples from his New York Times column yesterday:
[Jyllands-Post culture editor Flemming] Rose may think of himself…as being neutral with respect to religion—he is not speaking as a Jew or a Christian or an atheist—but in fact he is an adherent of the religion of letting it all hang out, the religion we call liberalism…
Strongly held faiths are exhibits in liberalism's museum; we appreciate them, and we congratulate ourselves for affording them a space, but should one of them ask of us more than we are prepared to give—ask for deference rather than mere respect—it will be met with the barrage of platitudinous arguments that for the last week have filled the pages of every newspaper in the country.
One of those arguments goes this way: It is hypocritical for Muslims to protest cartoons caricaturing Muhammad when cartoons vilifying the symbols of Christianity and Judaism are found everywhere in the media of many Arab countries. After all, what's the difference? The difference is that those who draw and publish such cartoons in Arab countries believe in their content; they believe that Jews and Christians follow false religions and are proper objects of hatred and obloquy.
But I would bet that the editors who have run the cartoons do not believe that Muslims are evil infidels who must either be converted or vanquished. They do not publish the offending cartoons in an effort to further some religious or political vision; they do it gratuitously, almost accidentally….
This is itself a morality—the morality of a withdrawal from morality in any strong, insistent form…
This is why calls for "dialogue," issued so frequently of late by the pundits with an unbearable smugness—you can just see them thinking, "What's wrong with these people?"—are unlikely to fall on receptive ears. The belief in the therapeutic and redemptive force of dialogue depends on the assumption (central to liberalism's theology) that, after all, no idea is worth fighting over to the death and that we can always reach a position of accommodation if only we will sit down and talk it out.
But a firm adherent of a comprehensive religion doesn't want dialogue about his beliefs; he wants those beliefs to prevail. Dialogue is not a tenet in his creed, and invoking it is unlikely to do anything but further persuade him that you have missed the point—as, indeed, you are pledged to do, so long as liberalism is the name of your faith.
I can't speak for liberalism, and I don't know what the standards of argument are at FIU these days, but the very tired gambit of yelling "Hey man, your belief in free speech/natural selection/free market economics/the big bang is just a religion too!" isn't worth the paper a verbal argument is printed on. What Fish calls "letting it all hang out" I call the principle that all topics are subject to discussion, that there are no taboos around what you can say, and that you shouldn't be afraid of any answers or any questions. This is not a religious belief; it's something that has been tested and proven to produce tangible results in many different situations over many hundreds of years. It is in fact the opposite of a religious belief, which is by definition based on faith, not apprehended through the senses, and not susceptible to confirmation or refutation through reason. Does Fish really believe it's just faith-based presumption to say that freedom of speech is better than its opposite? Does he really think the histories of science, politics, and medicine since the Enlightenment have not demonstrated—in actual, non-superstitious ways—the preferability of letting it all hang out?
If the article were just built on a dumb conceit, it might not be a big deal. But Fish's claim that the editors "do not publish the offending cartoons in an effort to further some religious or political vision" demonstrates that he also hasn't paid any attention to the ongoing discussion of Jyllands-Posten's politics, particularly to the debate over the paper's attitudes toward immigration. If Fish really thinks this is the result of wiseacre editors operating in a values-neutral environment, he should try reading The New York Times.
But the cartoon dustup was also informed by a principle of free expression, which gives a particular smell to Fish's claim that his "liberals" believe there is "no idea worth fighting over to the death." Right now, most of the cartoonists who drew the offending pictures are in hiding from mobs and assassins who want to "behead those who insult Islam." They are risking their lives over the principle that they can say what they want in a newspaper. Given the demonstrated history of Salman Rushdie and the Ayatollah Khomeini, we can assume that these illustrators should have known what they were getting into when they took on the taboos of radical Islam, and that they were either very courageous or very stupid to do so. It's characteristic of this ridiculous opinion piece that Fish gives the less charitable interpretation of the actions of the cartoonists, while barely containing his admiration for homicidal maniacs who want to destroy the very principle on which a free society, uncensored newspapers, and the tenure protections of Florida law professors are all founded.