Flemming Rose Against the Worldwide Suppression of Speech

"I am not willing to sacrifice freedom of expression on the altar of cultural diversity."


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Flemming Rose isn't going to watch the decline of free speech without a fight. In 2005, while an editor at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Rose commissioned twelve cartoons about Muhammad to encourage artists to overcome self-censorship. Extremists responded to the cartoons with attacks on western embassies and riots, resulting in the deaths of over 200 people.

Now Rose has written The Tyranny of Silence, a defense of his decision to publish the cartoons and a guide to unfettered expression in the 21st century. "I'm not willing to sacrifice freedom of expression on the altar of cultural diversity," he says.

As politicians across the world respond to the challenge of multiculturalism with censorship, campus speech codes, and the persecution of journalists, Rose explains why openness is the proper political response to a globalized world.

Rose is no rogue provocateur. He is one of the planet's most committed defenders of free speech, the open society, and enlightenment values of tolerance and human rights.

Edited by Todd Krainin. Cameras by Josh Swain and Mark McDaniel.


Nick Gillespie: Today we're interviewing Flemming Rose at the Cato Institute and the author most recently of The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate Over the Future of Free Speech. In 2005, while an editor at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, Rose commissioned a series of cartoons about the prophet Mohammed as an exercise to stop self-censorship. Eventually, terrorists and extremists responded to the cartoons with violence, attacks on western embassies and riots creating a death toll that reached at least 200 according to the New York Times. Rose is no rogue provocateur. He is one of the planet's most committed and articulate defenders of free speech, the open society and enlightenment values of tolerance and universal rights and that is why I'm particularly happy to have the opportunity to talk with him today. Flemming Rose, welcome.

Flemming Rose: Thank you for those nice words, Nick. It's wonderful to be here.

Nick Gillespie: Let's take the pulse of free speech in the decade since the Mohammed cartoons came out. Since then, we've seen any number of violent reprisals against free speech, probably most catastrophically the gunning down of a good part of the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France, but we've also seen the continuing rise of hate speech laws in Europe and a stultifying climate rise on U.S. campuses and other college campuses. Are things good for free speech generally right now or not?

Flemming Rose: If we take the long-term historical view, yes, free speech is in better shape than in the 17th century or the 18th century or even the beginning of the 20th century. No doubt about that, but if we look in a shorter-term perspective, let's say the past 20, 30 years, I think free speech is in worse shape. Free speech is in bad standing. You can see it when you check out statistics. Freedom House puts out a report every year; Reporters Without Borders in Europe do the same thing in other institutions and the trend is the same all over. For the past approximately 10 years, freedom of the press and freedom of speech is in decline and I think that is the new thing. We know China. We know Cuba. We know North Korea, Russia, where things usually are in bad shape, but the new trend is the freedom of expression is in decline even in western Europe.

Nick Gillespie: What forms does it take, say, in Western Europe? Are reporters being, if not put in jail, are there legal actions against them or is it a chilled atmosphere where people just don't talk about certain things?

Flemming Rose: It's both. I mean, just to give you an indication, in the first half of 2015, France, of all countries in the world, was the most dangerous place to live for a journalist.

Nick Gillespie: Meaning that he would get arrested or you would get beaten up?

Flemming Rose: You would get beaten up or being gunned down. That's, of course, not the case anymore, but a couple of years ago, I interviewed the most famous French cartoonist Plantu, who works for Le Monde and I asked him, when was the last time a cartoonist was killed in Europe and he couldn't recall. The only name he came up with was a Palestinian cartoonist who was killed in London in 1987, either by the Mossad or the PLO, but even Honoré Daumier, the most famous French cartoonist who worked in the 19th century, he was sent to jail several times but he came out and he continued mocking the king. He was not killed. He was not physically threatened.

Nick Gillespie: Where are the threats coming from? Are they exclusively coming out of religious intolerance? Is it Islamic Jihadists? It is broader than that?

Flemming Rose: It's far broader than that and I think fundamentally it has all to do with our ability to manage diversity in a world that is getting increasingly globalized and I think the debate of free speech is going on in a qualitatively new situation driven by migration, the fact that people move across borders in numbers at a speed never seen before in the history of mankind. The consequence being that almost every society in the world right now is getting more and more diverse in terms of culture and religion. That's one factor.

The second factor is the digital technology. The fact that what is being published somewhere is being published everywhere and people can react to speech across cultures, but in a situation where speech loses context and can be manipulated and exploited and political and so that's what happened to me.

Nick Gillespie: Because it was a series of Danish imams who took the cartoons, added cartoons that never appeared or were never commissioned by you and toward the Middle East and stoked anger.

Flemming Rose: And deleted the context. I mean, even in some western countries, the context got lost in the translation.

Nick Gillespie: And I guess what you're saying with the French cartoonist in the 19th century, it was at least a Frenchman mocking the French king. It wasn't somebody from Syria. It wasn't somebody from Africa or America.

Flemming Rose: Yes, yes. And I would say that this has a put a huge pressure on everybody to manage diversity and it turns out that we in the west are not very equipped to deal with that. I think you are a little bit better at it in the United States but in Europe, we have in the 20th century tried to build a sustainable peace through the creation of homogeneous nation states after World War I and after World War II. After World War I, we created a lot of new states.

Nick Gillespie: Like Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia—

Flemming Rose: The Baltic States, a dissolution of four empires, the creation of new states.

Nick Gillespie: And those were all kind of predicated, not accurately always, but with the idea that they were creating, well, Czechoslovakians, they're all the same, they will get along with each other.

Flemming Rose: It was Wilson's principle of the right to self-determination of a nation. There were still minorities living on different territories and after World War II, there was a huge huge population swaps, basically in eastern Europe, Germans, Ukrainians, Poles, Romanians, Hungarians. They were moved across borders in order to create more homogeneous nations and that has been a kind of dirty secret of Europe because of fascism, because of Nazism. National identity has been a kind of suspicious thing.

Nick Gillespie: In a European context this helps explain why after World War II when Turks started moving into Germany to work. It was not even a question that they would be offered German citizenship.

Flemming Rose: Yeah. A job.

Nick Gillespie: They were migrants.

Flemming Rose: And jobs. And they came to work and to make a living.

Nick Gillespie: But they would never be German because Germany is for Germans.

Flemming Rose: Exactly. Diversity is difficult. Diversity is painful. Of ethnicity, religion, and culture and also of opinions and because of our historical legacy in western Europe, we have been told that we should celebrate diversity and I think that's great. I'm married to an immigrant myself. I've traveled around the world and I think diversity is a great thing, but it's kind of becoming not okay to admit that it's difficult because if you say that, you are racist, you are xenophobic and so on and so forth, and I don't think that's necessarily the case. It's just very difficult.

Nick Gillespie: You're Danish, you grew up in Denmark, you go back centuries or generations and then a new person comes and you're uncomfortable with something about them and is that not xenophobic? Is it not racist or what is a way— How can you have an open conversation that doesn't immediately get taken up to the 10th degree where everybody is ready to pull a knife?

Flemming Rose: I think the United States has for decades been a melting pot, a composition of very different people coming from different cultures and therefore what it means to be an American is a quiet narrow definition. You have to accept a few basic rules in order to get a sense that you belong when you get citizenship and even though you speak the language with an accent, people will not look strange at you and think you are an outsider.

In Denmark, it's very different. Denmark and most European nation states, they were homogenous nation states for centuries and diversity is something that you have to learn. One thing is to be proud that you provide 1% of GDP to the U.N. Development Programs and, oh, we do everything for the third world, we support and fight poverty.

Another thing is to have a neighbor next door who belongs to a different culture and has a different religion and maybe speaks a different language from the outset.

Nick Gillespie: From a U.S. perspective, it's really a 20th century phenomenon. The term the "melting pot" comes from a play that was written in the 1890s. The Statue of Liberty which is now seen as an icon of immigration and refugees coming to the U.S. was actually sent by France in 1876. It's called Liberty Enlightening the World. It was about how France and U.S. were built on Enlightenment principles that had nothing to do with immigration, and it was, of course, a very ugly period in the 1920s. We went through a period of very xenophobic immigration laws. Before that, Asians, Chinese and Japanese were kept out by law, so it hasn't been as easy in the United States.

Flemming Rose: And it also underlines my point that this is something that you have to learn. It's not natural. I would say that most people, they have a natural instinct for freedom. You want to do your own thing and you don't want other people to interfere and stop you.

Nick Gillespie: And you're Danish so you've been to Germany and you still believe that most people want to be left to do whatever they want.

Flemming Rose: Yeah. [laughs] I belong to a different generation. I didn't fight in the Second World War, but the other thing is tolerance. The ability to live with things that you don't like is something that we have to learn.

Nick Gillespie: Where are we supposed to learn these values and what has happened that we're not kind of keeping up with that?

Flemming Rose: I think the concept of tolerance has been undermined. When I was exposed to the cartoon crisis, I was quite often being criticized as being xenophobic, racist, intolerant and so on, so I sat down and I spent some time trying to understand what I was talking about and I found out in fact that the concept of tolerance in the west has been turned on its head compared to the way it was understood when it came in the world after the war of religion in the 17th century .

It grew out of the religious wars when Catholics and Protestants and were killing one another for decades. At some point, people decided, okay, this has been going on for long enough. We have to work out a way to be able to live together even though we hate one another and we believe that the other faith is blasphemous, so edicts tolerance were adopted in different parts of Europe and it meant that in the beginning that Catholics and Protestants, they were living in the same country but in different towns. Later, they could live in the same town but in different parts of the town, and finally they lived in the same quarter and today they live in the same building without paying notice, but basically, that kind of religious tolerance implied that, 'yes, I hate the Protestant religion. I believe it's a threat to my way of life, to what I believe and to the political, social and cultural order of a Catholic society, but nevertheless, I'm not trying to ban it and I'm not going to use violence, intimidation, and threats to shut them up.'

Tolerance is not something, a demand that you put on the speaker. It's not a demand that you put on somebody who publishes a cartoon or writes a novel or paints a painting. It's on the one who watches a cartoon, watches a movie, reads a novel, that they don't tear it apart or they want to ban it or use violence against a cartoonist. That is what tolerance is about. Today, it means quite the opposite, that, yeah, you may have a right to say what you say, but if you're tolerant, you shut up.

Nick Gillespie: Where does the violence and where does the banning come from, because on the one hand, people will say, well, there's been an influx. Come on, let's stop being polite here. There's been an influx of Muslims from former European colonies or from parts of the world where our foreign policy has created problems, etc., but there's a ton of Muslims and as much as Catholics and Protestants disagreed with each other, at least they worship the same God whereas Muslims are against this completely. But then also in places like Europe, David Irving, the Holocaust denier was put in Austrian jail not because he was offending Muslims, he was offending people who had perpetrated the Holocaust by saying, so where is this is all heading or where is this coming from.

Flemming Rose: I think these are different issues. If we take Islam first, I do think that Islam finds itself in a state of crisis and I think it is paramount to Muslims in Europe where I live to work out a religious doctrine that is compatible with the secular multi-religious, multi-cultural society because the Jihadists and the people who are in favor of killing blasphemers or apostates, they find quotations in the Koran and that's why the Jihadists, they are quiet strong ideologically because they do make references based on earlier interpretations of the holy text.

Nick Gillespie: And they're not going to listen to a secular Westerner explain to them why their interpretation of the holy book is wrong. It really is to going to come from within the Islamic community.

Flemming Rose: Yes, and in fact, about a year ago, I had a conversation with Steve Bannon who's now part of the White House and that was in fact one of our disagreements because Bannon believes that we are at war with Islam while I'm saying, no, we are at war with violent Islamists in a hot war and we are in cold war with non-violent Islamists that do not believe in liberal Enlightenment values, but we need the leading Muslims on our side who stands up for secular democracy, freedom of expression, freedom of religious and we cannot win this battle without having them on our side to talk to their fellow Muslims.

Nick Gillespie: Just to follow up Bannon: does he believe in western Enlightenment values because he seems to be very much of a nationalist, that he wants to define America in much more narrow terms than historically we have been.

Flemming Rose: He believes that this is all— That the crisis of the west is due to the loss of a Christian identity. That this is the Judea-Christian civilization not being able to defend itself, so he believes in re-establishing the church. I mean, Christianity is still powerful in the United States but in Europe, it's on the wane and Europe is getting more and more—

Nick Gillespie: I always find it peculiar when Christians talk about a Judea-Christian heritage, especially in a European context. Europe spent a good part of the 20th century trying to get rid of the Jews, so it's odd to claim that now.

Flemming Rose: And that speaks to the other point that you talked about with David Irving. I talk about Islam and the challenge to Islam that they had to work out a new doctrine of blasphemy that doesn't imply that you have a right to kill blasphemers and other apostates and I also think that they believe that Koran is the relation of God to Muhammad and it put brakes on the right to discuss, to criticize and challenge religious dogma compared to Christianity and the Bible, so I believe they do face big challenges and it spills into Europe.

Nick Gillespie: Just to keep on Islam, but are you there, are you mostly describing kind of an Arab Islam or Middle Eastern Islam as opposed to Indonesia and Malaysia. They have problems, but it just doesn't seem to be as constraining an entity on identity.

Flemming Rose: But it's also a problem in Turkey.

Nick Gillespie: As somebody who knows very little about Islam, I tend to think of it in its traditional origin lands of the Middle East or of the Mediterranean, but most of the world's Muslims live elsewhere.

Flemming Rose: That is true.

Nick Gillespie: In the same way that Catholics in South America and North America and Asia have very different practices and really different belief systems.

Flemming Rose: But nevertheless, the Pope is the key, of course. He is based in the Vatican in Rome and it's the same with Islam because the Koran was written in Iraq.

Nick Gillespie: It emanates from there.

Flemming Rose: Yes, so the Arab world enjoys an authority that Indonesia doesn't when it comes to interpretations and tradition and you had the holy sites in Saudi Arabia and so on, but I get your point and I think it's true that there are parts of the world where you have Muslim majority in countries that do not have the same— Do not experience the same kind of pressure as they do in the Muslim Arab world. That is true.

Nick Gillespie: What's going on with the rise of speech codes to get rid of hate speech, to ban certain types of words, certain types of expression. Clearly that's not being driven by— It's not like Islamic people are calling the shots in Vienna, right?

Flemming Rose: No, that's true. And this goes back to my point about our lacking ability to manage diversity. I believe that if you celebrate diversity of culture, ethnicity, and religion. You will also have to welcome a growing diversity of speech and more different way, diverse ways of expressing yourself if you believe in what you say, but quite to the contrary, most European politicians believe that, yes, we celebrate diversity of culture, but it means that we need less diversity of speech which to me is very logical, and I'm not willing to sacrifice freedom of expression on the altar of cultural diversity. I think it's absurd, but that drives the push for new and new laws because most politicians in Europe believe that in order to save the social peace when we are getting more and more diverse, we need more and more bans. We need to speak more and more quietly. We need to be reluctant to express what we really believe or think about people who live their lives in a different way and I really think it's absurd and I don't get the logic, but nevertheless, that is the trend and for the past 10 years, there's been a push for expanding hate speech laws. There's been a push from the European Union to impose on every member state laws criminalizing denial of the Holocaust. It has led to reaction to eastern Europe. Yes, they passed these laws, but they also passed laws criminalizing denial of the crimes of communism and you have a law in Switzerland criminalizing denial of the Armenian genocide. You have Ukraine passing laws criminalizing criticism or mocking of Ukrainian freedom fighters in the 20th century and the most far-reaching example of in Russia where they criminalized criticism of the behavior of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, but it all goes back to the European memory laws criminalizing denial of the Holocaust and this belief that you protect memory through legislation about history is a very authoritarian idea. And it's been copied in Bangladesh. It's been copied in Rwanda. Most European countries have also criminalized what they call glorification of terror which is a way of criminalizing opinion.

Just to give you one example of how absurd it is because it relates to the United States—after 9/11, a Basque newspaper published on its front page a cartoon of the plane crashing into the twin towers and it read "we all dreamt about but Hamas did it." It was a factual error because it wasn't Hamas, and it's outrageous. It's offensive to me and to you, I suppose.

Nick Gillespie: To Hamas, even.

Flemming Rose: Yeah, to Hamas, yes, and he was convicted for glorification of terror and it was in fact confirmed by the European Court of Human Rights that it was okay to convict this cartoonist, so this is spreading and the most recent thing is the push within the European Union for criminalizing fake news and leading German politicians, Italians, even Danes, are talking about equating fake news with hate speech.

Nick Gillespie: And how did they go about defining fake news, because ultimately that means kind of licensing journalists or having some kind of verification process which puts the government in control or some government agency.

Flemming Rose: Basically it leads to a ministry of truth if you want to take it to it end because it's up to the government to decide what is fake news and what is not and I think it also undermines the mainstream media, the old media, because if they can publish, if they are not prosecuted for publishing fake news, they are in a way on the side of the government and it reminds me a little bit of the times in the Soviet Union where you had Pravda and Izvestia, government-sanctioned news that in the end, nobody believed they were lying about everything and the Samizdat, the unofficial, the underground press, no matter whether they fact checked or not, they were more reliable in the eyes of the public and it means that this would have the opposite effect because they say frankly—

Well, two factors: they want to defend themselves against Russian hackers and Russian trolls and so on. I understand that, but I just think it's the wrong way to go about it.

The other thing that they fear is the rising populist parties and they don't hide that this is the enemy that they are going after when they are going after fake news.

Nick Gillespie: And then that becomes a tremendous propaganda win for the populist parties and the trolls.

Flemming Rose: You couldn't dream of—

Nick Gillespie: You've lived in the Soviet Union?

Flemming Rose: Yes.

Nick Gillespie: Is it credible that Russia, that the government of Russia, is orchestrating these kind of soft power campaigns of influence that cross a line from simply kind of wanting Trump to win or wanting a particular candidate in England to win to crossing the line into something that is more like espionage or is that overblowing it?

Flemming Rose: I don't know, but I think Russia is trying to make its influence as we are trying to make— We're also hacking into Russian computers and the Chinese are hacking into computers.

Nick Gillespie: The United States has a stake in every election in the world and usually makes it known.

Flemming Rose: So it's a little bit hypocritical screaming and yelling about the Russians as if they are the only ones who are doing this. Do it yourself. So in a way—

Nick Gillespie: But we were only listening to Angela Merkel's phone calls because that was important.

Flemming Rose: But I think that the Russian digital is overblown. I think the main threat against the Enlightenment values and our liberal society comes from within and not from without, but it's very easy to point the finger at a scapegoat instead of looking at yourself.

Nick Gillespie: And, of course, you would say, well, Russian trolls so we have to control the press here. It actually speeds up our process of getting rid of Enlightenment values. Talk a little bit about the kind of a paradox that you were saying, and I think you're right, that the world is becoming more diverse. Every country is becoming basically more diverse. Europe is a more diverse place than it was a hundred years ago and yet at the same time, you would expect especially as the birthplace of the Enlightenment that people would be more comfortable with differences, with racial difference, ethical difference, religious difference, gender difference, but we're seeing this resurgence of nationalism. Is that being driven— And particularly within an open Europe now, because a hundred years ago, there was no unified concept of Europe other than that we knew we weren't Turkey, but other than that, all of the European countries were trying to kill each other. Now, we have this unanimity of Europe but within that, nationalism is on the rise. How do we get back to that kind of celebration of understanding of the Enlightenment where you can both be a citizen of the world and a citizen of your home country, your hometown, your family?

Flemming Rose: Well, I think it has to do with the fact that Enlightenment values like reason, tolerance, free and independent individuals have been undermined for a very long time. It didn't start with Trump. In fact, the whole concept of post-modernism that anything goes, Islamic values are as good as the Enlightenment values and so on has led to this relativism and I think it has a lot to do with the value we provide to emotions, that if you feel something, if you can identify some kind of emotional attachment to whatever it is, then logical arguments, arguments of reason, they don't count in the same way.

I think it's in some way it's in reaction to globalization, that people feel sometimes disenfranchised, sometimes alienated. They don't know who they are. They have lost a sense of community and that is also important to individuals, and for a very long time, a healthy sense of national belonging was suspicious.

I mean, there are different kinds of nationalism. You can love your country without being xenophobic, but for a lot of people I think in western Europe, it was kind of suspicious so you see a reaction that is spilling over to the other end of the spectrum and then at the same time, you have this mass migration into Europe that makes people feel uncomfortable and we haven't been able for a long time to have an honest conversation about that and that has been exploited by these populist forces.

I would have prefered that the mainstream parties wouldn't have shied away from talking about this in a frank and clear manner instead of trying to suppress the issue, because people were having these feelings and experiences.

Nick Gillespie: Do you think that in a European context, will the European Union be a place where a kind of a more— Where the west can get out of a kind of a defensive crouch, a feeling that it is being embattled by all of these other forces, possibly also by economic competition which was probably driving some of this as well, but into a more confident and forward-looking embrace of this original understanding of Enlightenment universal and tolerance or institutions like the EU part of the problem?

Flemming Rose: They are part of the problem and part of the solution. For many years it worked the way you explained, that the European Union was a force of sound integration and collaboration, but I think more and more people feel alienated by Brussels. A lot of decisions that didn't have to be taken down there have been taken down there and it's far away. It's not close to your own community and the European Union is also a very comfortable scapegoat for national politicians so they don't have to blame themselves if they can blame Brussels, it's a lot easier, but it's just a fact of life now that the European Union is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy and we have to pay notice and I think one of the starting challenges with the European Integration Project was that it was not in any way— The end goal is not identified in a way. It was identified as a never-ending process of integration. Usually, when you have organization you have to solve a problem or manage a situation, but this was kind of a post-modern project that goes on and on and on and we never see some final point. Another thing is that the European Union for many years didn't have real growth.

Nick Gillespie: And I suspect that's huge and people will acknowledge it in the U.S., but the difference between averaging 2% economic growth of GDP each year versus 3% is massive and we're in if not quite a contraction, a flat lining that—

Flemming Rose: Well, 2% is a problem for you, but in Europe, that would be great.

Nick Gillespie: What are the projects that you're working for the Cato Institute? You've joined them and what can we look forward to from you going forward?

Flemming Rose: I'm going to write a book for Cato about free speech in a multi-cultural society for undergraduates, young men and women, a short book 15-20,000 words, to explain the basics of this and hopefully I will do a video and audios so it can be included somewhere in—

Nick Gillespie: In the last free university.

Flemming Rose: Exactly.

Nick Gillespie: We will leave it there. I want to thank you very much for talking to us. We have been talking with Flemming Rose. He's the Danish journalist, now with the Cato Institute, the author most recently of The Tyranny of Silence and a wonderful incarnation of universal values particularly for tolerance, pluralism and free expression. Thank you again for talking to us, Flemming.

Flemming Rose: Nice to be here.

Nick Gillespie: For Reason TV, I'm Nick Gillespie.

[end of recording]


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