An interesting discussion of sorts, in the form of a series of commentaries, has been taking place on Slate
recently. Geoffrey Wheatcroft
, Christopher Hitchens
, Reza Aslan
, and Michael Kinsley
have each written articles about the Cartoon Controversy
The odd thing is, that in spite of each article's seemingly unique perspective (how can Hitchens and Aslan agree on this?), they all basically agree with each other about the circumstances and origins of this controversy and about the circumstances that would replace this unpleasant reality in a posited ideal world shaped by each of their noble principles.
All the commentary and "disagreement" about who was "to blame" and what is the "right" or the "shameful" position to hold vis-a-vis this free-speech vs. religious sensitivity debate seems to me to be oddly, artificially polarized. Basically, everyone understands what has happened and why. It isn't that complicated. But everyone, or at least each of these 4 in Slate
, seem to ignore a certain part of the big picture in order to give themselves a position to defend. What actually needs to be debated, if it matters now that the damage is done, is what should be done in the face both of this particular series of events and the perpetual danger that similar controversies will erupt now that it has been exposed as a very real possibility, even likelihood.
Framing this as a choice between the freedom of the press or
pragmatic religious sensitivity is, I would say, kind of silly. No one worth listening to in Western countries is advocating the restriction of the freedom of the press to comment, even aggressively or offensively, on any issue, religious or otherwise. Just as no one is advocating the position that it would be a really great idea to intentionally infuriate 1.2 billion people who tend to inhabit countries with whom we are engaged in all sorts of delicate disaster-prevention diplomatic dances. But dealing with this issue as a problem does not require "deciding" on the "solution". This controversy represents a conflict of values that cannot be "decided", no matter what you may wish to hear President Bush declare. The public position that anyone takes will not "resolve" the matter, or allow us to say that we've avoided "capitulation".
The simple fact is that we will stick to "our principles". Freedom of speech is not going anywhere. There will be no Executive Orders against cartoonists, the Constitution will remain intact, and even European countries that have less secure freedom of speech laws will continue to allow newspapers to print controversial images. Similarly, people around the Western world will not all start thinking of new ways to infuriate hundreds of millions of other people.
As for "what should have been done", of course the Danish paper should have been allowed
to publish the cartoons, but they should have been smart enough to realize it was kind of a dumb thing to do. Also, the autocratic regimes who are using the controversy as an excuse to seize control or burnish their Islamic credentials should have been smart enough to realize the damage that encouraging the protests would do to national images, world opinion, etc.
No absolute principles are actually at stake. For all the posturing about the importance of whatever principles support your view of whether x or y was a "good thing to do" or a "bad thing to do", the only thing that matters, in a global public space where absolute principles and values will always be the subject of intense disagreement
, is what the pragmatic thing is to do. Basically, no one is being pragmatic because they are all too busy being Universalists, as if a Universal solution to this "problem" is possible. As if a month or two down the road the conflict between free speech and religio-cultural sensitivity will be "won" or "lost" by one side or the other.
Pluralism, folks! This is what pluralism means. And we, in the West, who do not share the absolutism of the embassy arsonists and the autocratic opportunists should not conclude that the solution is the destruction of the culture that sometimes gives rise to such intolerant and extreme behavior. Pluralism requires that we not decide that whole cultures, parts of which we fundamentally disagree with, are too barbaric to exist. Nations and regimes--perhaps (when there is damn good cause for it), but not whole cultures and religions. Imagining that the freedom of expression we value so deeply is somehow threatened
by a few buildings being burned down is hyperdramatic.
We have many interests in the world, including the Muslim world. Economic interests, energy interests, nonproliferation interests, security interests, etc. Fantasizing that the greatest threat in the world is to our right to draw whatever cartoons we want is childish. Reza Aslan is right to say he's angry about the stupidity of publishing something so counterproductive. Michael Kinsley is right to demand that we not get wishy washy about our freedoms (though I would disagree that we are). Christopher Hitchens is right to demand a right to criticize all religions, or even religion in general. And Geoffrey Wheatcroft is right to say that the violent protests are stupidly reinforcing the image put forth in the cartoons of violence and intolerance. They're all right, but at first glance it seems like they can't all be right.
But they are all
"right", because they all agree about the abstract principles--freedom of speech is good, violence is bad, keep the barbaric theocratic stuff to a minimum, bigotry is bad, etc. But as far as the pragmatism goes, especially for those who are hyperventilating about the vanishing of freedom of speech in the West, they each seem to ignore that this controversy is not about abstract principles. It is about cartoons, and local causes, and sectarianism, and perceived victimhood, and religion, and freedom, and culture, and yet the controversy is also
about the response to the controversy itself
To Hitchens, Kinsley, and Wheatcroft: I agree with all your principles, but I still haven't heard anything convincing about the value of publishing those cartoons in this environment. It was counterproductive politically and, as such, a stupid thing to do. Saying it was a stupid thing to do is not the same as restricting the right to do it.
To Hitchens alone: What good does it do to say that "negotiations" cannot be begun until the threat of violence is put to rest? Has the threat of potential violence ever
been put to rest? This seems like an overblown attempt to hold the entire
Muslim world, even all
Muslims, accountable for what extremists do. Are you responsible for Pat Buchanan's bigotry? How about Pat Robertson's? As a fellow Westerner, is his call for violence your fault? I claim zero affiliation with his ilk, and I'm sure that more than a billion Muslims worldwide would decry the violent protests.
Even Reza Aslan, who has the most pragmatic approach to decrying the publication and the violent response, says he is offended by the cartoons "because they fly in the face of the tireless efforts of so many civic and religious leaders—both Muslim and non-Muslim—to promote unity and assimilation rather than hatred and discord; because they play into the hands of those who preach extremism; because they are fodder for the clash-of-civilizations mentality that pits East against West. For all of that I blame Jyllands-Posten." So it's all the cartoonists' fault? That doesn't make much sense to me, either. Clearly this was an orchestrated global event. Cartoonists are not that
influential, even when they're being openly inflammatory.
It is not just the publication of the cartoons that idestructiveve and deserving of blame. Also, the response by protesters, the flippy-floppy Bush response, reactionary right-wing responses, and overblown debates about the abstract clash between Freedom and Religion are all "to blame". It isn't the initial source of hatred and discord that is ultimately "to blame". That gives cartoonists, frankly, far too much credit for being influential.
The cartoons have given the world a reference point, a proxy for the larger debate over greater and greater European and American involvement in the Muslim world (and vice-versa). There are some good and many really bad reasons for that involvement, but these protests are a partial culmination of a few of the short story arcs that come out of that broader unstable situation. Instead of lamenting our freedoms that have never really been challenged, we ought to be engaged in a much more serious debate about that broader involvement and its underpinning theories. Instead of talking about how barbaric the protesters are, or how insensitive making fun of someone else'religionon is, we should be talking more about the long story arc--and not just on electoral-cycle high points or on the Bush administration's PR terms.
Much like the problem of global warming
, this is a debate of much larger scale than any one country or any one political party (or, certainly, any one politician). If we started taking the bigger picture seriously and debated it as carefully as we are overdebating the cartoon controversy, we just might start to make the free expressions we value so much worth something above and beyond their role in meticulously staking out the nodes of ideological conflict (or inciting it unnecessarily). If we understood American foreign policy in as much detail as we understand the burning of the Danish flag and the clever incitements by weak and exploitative autocratic regimes, something having to do with our involvement in the region might improve.