Civil Liberties

Defending the Project of Free Inquiry


One of my first and most disappointing attempts at writing in the Editorial Voice of the Los Angeles Times–an act roughly as improbable as Christopher Hitchens taking over L'Osservatore Romano–was a February 2006 editorial about the Danish Mohammed-cartoon controversy, under the headline "The Freedom to Blaspheme." While I was relieved that the finished product contained none of my colleagues' desire to criticize the Jyllands-Posten newspaper for being "irresponsible," and I was happy to make some libertianish points about how "a private newspaper's editorial judgment is not the government's business" and that judging news content "by the standard of how much offense it gives" is "a surefire path toward self-censorship," there was a hostage note embedded in the penultimate sentence:

For our part, The Times has not reprinted these insensitive images, even as a means of shedding light on the controversy in Europe.

Behind those 23 words was a long and passionate argument about free expression and journalistic responsibility, one that I obviously lost.

Even though it meant depriving their customers of a chance to see and judge for themselves what all the fuss was about, America's newsrooms almost unanimously refused to reprint even a single one of the 12 allegedly offensive cartoons (which you can view at the far-out radical site Wikipedia, for starters). As Tim Cavanaugh aptly put it later, most readers would have looked at the images, "which are at about the artistic level of Asterix," and be "dumbfounded that anybody could commit murder over them." That, Cavanaugh said, "is the story." And it's one U.S. newspapers refused to tell.

Though I never expected the L.A. Times newsroom to show either backbone or a basic respect for readers, I held out higher hopes for the autonomous Editorial Page, where I worked. My three-pronged argument in the ensuing discussion was essentially utilitarian: 1) If the newsroom shirks its duty, all the more reason why we should pick up the slack. 2) The Prophet Mohammed actually lived. He isn't some Noah's Ark-type fable that requires suspension of disbelief; they were writing biographies of the guy before the first millenium. It is unconscionable that–under murderous duress!–those in the free speechin' business would suddenly cede the authority to depict a really existing historical figure to a loud minority's religious preferences. If the Church of Scientology tomorrow declared all depictions of L. Ron Hubbard verboten, and backed up the prohibition with just enough car-burning and death-threats to keep people on their toes, would the L.A. Times and 99 percent of American newspapers comply with the command? As Tim Cavanaugh pointed out in 2006, and as you can see at the Mohammed Image Archive, there is a rich tradition of Muslim depictions of the Prophet. What's more–and this point can never be stressed enough–three of the images that enraged Muslims to the point of killing 10 people were never published in any Danish newspaper. Their exact provenance is unknown, but they were circulated and popularized by the outrage-ginning Imams themselves. The most offended were arguably the biggest offenders.

And 3) by reprinting one of the cartoons, we would be demonstrating solidarity not with the sentiments contained within it, but with the foundational notion that people ought to be able to publish stuff like that (and worse), period, let alone without fear of having their heads lopped off.

Terrorism and self-censorship are both self-fulfilling prophecies. If you allow yourself to be terrorized, then everything looks scary, the ground is softened for restricting freedom, and the bad guys win. When nearly every respectable news outlet decides at the same time that a certain piece of content is just too offensive, too irresponsible, too dangerous to publish, then the next time around you can go ahead and take out the "nearly." The always-booming anti-defamation industry is nothing if not hyper-attuned to tactical retreats by the target media. When squeaky wheels get grease, they squeak louder next time, ennobled by the self-censorious ways of what Reason contributor Jonathan Rauch famously described as the "kindly inquisitors."

If, on the other hand, those of us committed to speech-expansion and the broader project of liberalism do not reward bullies, do not give in to the fear that crude cartooning is a dog whistle for suicide bombers, and instead spread the risk far beyond a handful of moderately spineful European newspapers and a couple of children's-show animators, the prophecy loses traction in an instant, and maybe starts heading in the other direction. If people who threaten violence on cartoonists are treated not with fear but with outright mockery, and produce as a direct result of their actions not a cowed and silent respect for their fervor but an epidemic of giggling and a global WTF, maybe they'll be less incentivized to repeat the threat next time around. Meanwhile, the rest of us, with our now-broader parameters of acceptable discourse, will be able to get on with the tasks of modernity and prosperity, a process that the great science writer Matt Ridley has described as relying above all else on "ideas having sex." (Look for an excerpt from Ridley's new book on that topic in the July issue of Reason.) Ideas can't have sex if they're wearing chastity–or suicide–belts. As Rauch wrote in the intro of a book you should buy and read today,

A very dangerous principle is now being established as a social right: Thou shalt not hurt others with words. This principle is a menace–and not just to civil liberties. At bottom it threatens liberal inquiry–that is, science itself.

As a person first, American second, journalist third, and libertarian fourth, I feel quadruply duty-bound to expand the legal and societal scope of free inquiry, especially within the places I call home: North America and Europe. As Spiked-Online writer (and Reason contributor) Brendan O'Neill (who is against "Draw Mohammed Day") correctly points out, "it is not barbarians at the gates but institutions inside the gates that have denigrated Enlightenment values." It was Canadian do-gooders who hauled magazine editor Ezra Levant on human rights violation charges for reprinting eight of the original Danish cartoons, a process Levant wrote about for Reason last year. It is French would-be truth-tellers who have made denial of the Armenian genocide a crime. The West has largely gone wobbly on speech, and confronting that is a core part of our magazine's mission.

At the L.A. Times these arguments lost out to one main consideration: We don't know what sets these people off, so who are we to play with fire by gratuitously inflaming them with crudely provocative art? Or in the case of Comedy Central these days, with something so offense-less as discussion about the controversy?

This well-intended paternalism is where the argument gets a bit personal for me. What kind of undifferentiated mass of simmering, modernity-hating humans have we allowed ourselves to believe the world's billion-plus Muslims have become? I've known three Muslims well in my lifetime. The first was a semi-notorious, trenchcoat-wearing ethnic Albanian Macedonian video pirate, with a frequently illegal smile and a heart of gold. He was fond of upbraiding Americans like me for failing to appreciate the genius that is Giant Sand. The second was that dude's best friend, yet 100% different–a practicing Muslim and chain-smoking teetotaler, who also looked like Nick Cave even more than he insisted on listening to the ultra-violent "O'Malley's Bar" over and over again. Had about a thousand college degrees, spoke even more languages, and talked almost exclusively in the dialect of Pulp Fiction. The third was an assholish Bosnian refugee who stayed with me for a while, making fantastical claims about his family's influence back home while hatching unreasonable plots about becoming the next Bill Gates. He ended up emigrating to the States, and becoming a successful software guy. Each was totally different than the other, richly profane, thoroughly versed in pop culture. That is to say, they were individuals, each with their own agency (even during the hardship of war), and downright enthusiastic about the rough give-and-take between cultures, religions, nationalities, and music fanbases. I would no more consider protecting their delicate sensibilities from images of the Prophet than they would refrain from calling me and other Americans dull-witted beasts.

We are having an Everyone Draw Mohammed Contest tomorrow not to gratuitously insult my old pals or any other practitioners of a richly diverse religion, we are doing it as a simple declaration that depiction and caricaturization is within the bounds of acceptable discourse, that nobody owns the images of historical figures, and that free-speech backsliding in the West ultimately threatens all of us much more than isolated acts of semi-suicidal bravado from the pathologically aggrieved. I refuse to believe we are sharing the planet with 1 billion sleeper agents, ready to be activated by a cartoonist's pen.

Tune in tomorrow to see what we come up with.

Note: Due to past experience and the limitations of managerial time, comments on this post are closed. Send concerns/reaction to matt-dot-welch-at-reason-dot-com.