I’m paraphrasing Davy Crockett with that headline, and I use it because it’s one of those days when you want to pack up and find someplace that’s not completely insane. I’m reading stories and reactions to the completely random outburst of anger-expression by a couple of folks in Texas. You have to wonder if these guys really did their due diligence in planning to shoot up a place in Texas – you’re gonna get a cap popped in your ass. Or as Kevin Williamson put it in a great line, “Texas is where terrorists go to get out-gunned at an art show.”
Because there are more guns in the US than people in all the individual European countries, I’m not as worried about an armed assault by radical Islamists as I could be. What worries me is the Left’s reaction. It’s the one that, while not new, really came into focus again after the Charlie Hebdo massacre: that the victims should have known better than to be provocative and bring this response on themselves.
First, it makes me laugh to hear this coming from our Progressive intelligentsia which has championed provocation in art and pop culture for decades as brave and edgy. Big L said it best: “You got somethin’ to say, then cough it out. Cuz’ niggas be wantin’ beef, but when you pull out the heat they ready to talk it out. What is there to talk about? You was just frontin’, now it ain’t nothin’… ain’t that somethin’?”
In other words, they laughed and smirked at Piss Christ and The Book of Mormon. They nodded approvingly at The Last Temptation of Christ and the Virgin Mary in dung and every joke and jab about Christianity and Judaism on Family Guy or wherever because they felt safe to do so. Their fake rebel posturing as trailblazers was all good until someone with a gun called them on it. Now, being provocative is “taking it too far” and “irresponsible” and “can’t we just have a discussion about the limits of free speech?” And they weren’t even the ones putting their necks out this time.
Last month Gary Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comics, wrote about “free speech fanaticism” and “punching downward” in response to the massacre in Paris. The “punching downward” part reveals the problem with the Left’s response to radical Islam’s attacks on free speech: that this is all to be interpreted through the prisms of inequality and privilege, and not according to standards and principles. I’m not saying privilege should never be considered. Certainly, any group or individual should not be kicked when they’re down. But in America, Muslims are not down. If they are, it’s a funny kind of “down” that millions gladly make their way over to get.
Trudeau says, “Traditionally, satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable. Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful. Great French satirists like Molière and Daumier always punched up, holding up the self-satisfied and hypocritical to ridicule.” It’s easy to forget when your vantage point is the US, but freedom of speech – not allowed at the sufferance of the state but assumed unalienable and protected constitutionally – is the little guy in this world.
Offensive speech cannot be blamed for individuals’ reactions. Those individuals have to be held responsible for them. If people die as a result of a riot or an armed assault over being offended, the original non-violent act – however offensive or provocative – is not at fault. The perpetrators of violence are at fault.
I don’t hold any special privilege and I hear offensive things every day – attacks on and slanders of the character of people who think like me, share my values, share my tastes, etc. Welcome to America. We have the free market of ideas, and if you come across rotten product, you move on and find something better. If you can’t move on, you try to persuade the seller to improve. Or, you do it better and compete for market share. That’s our culture. If you want to live here, that’s how we do things.
Trudeau continues, “Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny—it’s just mean.” I suppose he has the good, law-abiding peaceful American Muslim in mind and it’s unfortunate that so much evil is done in their religion’s name. But, let’s be clear, drawing Mohammed is not directed at them. It’s directed at these guys who say we can’t (NSFW):
Another gay man thrown off a tower.
Frankly, I don’t care how underprivileged these guys are. Their actions and behavior are wrong and disgusting and mockery is the least we can throw at them.
“What free speech absolutists have failed to acknowledge is that because one has the right to offend a group does not mean that one must,” Trudeau says. This is simply not true. I’m a free speech absolutist and I read a lot of other free speech absolutists – I haven’t seen or heard a single one say that free speech comes without responsibility. Just the opposite in fact. What’s not appreciated here, I think, is that Pamela Geller and associates are not the aggressors in this battle. The Islamists who can’t tolerate criticism and initiate violence are. Say what you will about the good or bad taste of the Mohammed cartoon contest in Texas, shooting it up is in no way justifiable. As Jon Stewart understands and said “I can’t believe we have to reiterate this.”
I can’t either. It’s so maddeningly backwards that Geller is getting more criticism for organizing the contest than the guys who came with AK 47s to kill as many people as they could. In more stable times, and absent the spread of violent jihad, there would be less of an impulse to mock Islam, as was done in The Message. But as things are now, Islam is fair game. Just like every other religion.
A less forgivable essay was written by Justin Raimondo in which he states,
“The editors (at National Review) are wrong that Geller doesn’t want terrorists to attack her demonstrations of hate: she revels in attacks, and this latest is her ultimate day in the sun. Listen to her speech at the Garland event, which glories in the ‘threats’ and the danger: she congratulates – and flatters – her audience by praising their ‘bravery.’ The frisson of violence hung in the air, and she wrapped herself around it like a mink stole.”
This is dripping with projection. Leftism/Progressivism has lost the war of ideas – the science is settled, if you will. (See: the 20th century.) But instead of going away, there is now just more brazen and naked power grabbing. The thought of defending a principle is further and further out of the Left’s purview, so it strikes Mr. Raimondo and others as impossible that Geller could possibly be doing so.
He provides more misrepresentation of the conservative position,
Geller’s whole career as a hate-monger has been depicted, in her own writings, as one long martyrdom, in which she has been “smeared” by the “pro-Muslim” media, which is complicit in the “creeping sharia” that is supposedly taking over America and the West. Anticipating the violence that was to come allowed her to depict herself as a brave “freedom fighter,” a species of extremist we haven’t seen anywhere else: a pro-Israeli suicide bomber.
National Review limns her own arguments that this is only about “free speech.” “Everything else is a smear,” as she said in her remarks to the Garland event. In a lengthy exchange with me on Twitter, National Review writer Charles Cooke refused to consider the content of her public pronouncements and indeed got quite huffy about it [Really? Raimondo sounds huffier], taking the Gellerite line that it’s a “free speech” issue – and we aren’t allowed to consider what she’s actually saying and doing.
I really don’t know where he got that you “aren’t allowed to consider what she’s actually saying and doing.” I thought he was doing precisely that. And he’s far from the only one. Again, notice the projection – defending Geller is to “take the line.” It can’t possibly be that one supports a common principle.
Would the editors of National Review defend a group of white supremacists – or angry conservatives, for that matter – who ventured into Baltimore screaming the “N-word”? Of course they wouldn’t! But what about “free speech”? Shouldn’t we ignore the “noxious” content and simply defend the principle of untrammeled expression?
Um…that’s right, of course they wouldn’t defend it. But they can defend the right to say it at the same time. That was the whole thing with Voltaire, right?
Most troubling of all, the attitudes expressed by Trudeau and Raimondo serve to push public opinion toward accepting laws that violate the First Amendment. Let’s consider Britain and China. In 1994 in Britain the following was added to the 1986 Public Order Act:
A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he — (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.
Of course, “alarm or distress” are completely subjective and can be twisted into anything. So, in 2006 this was added to the Act:
Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.
This is why the vigorous defense of the First Amendment is crucial. The above is written with the assumption that freedom of speech comes at the sufferance of the state, and therefore the state can write endless words describing the conditions and rules of acceptable speech. Compare that with the elegant simplicity, and clarity, of the First Amendment which is written in the negative because the right is assumed. The policing of good, bad, tasteful, disgusting, offensive and beautiful speech is up to We The People.
A step further down the line is China, where Article 293 of the Criminal Law says, among other things, that “making a commotion and causing serious disorder in a public place” are punishable by law. On the surface it sounds reasonable enough, and one interpretation says,
Whether causing a commotion at a bus station, port, airport, hospital, market, park, theater, exhibition hall, stadium or other public venue amounts to ‘causing serious disorder at a public venue’ shall be judged upon the totality of factors such as the type of public venue, the importance of the public event, the number of people at the venue, the time of the commotion, and the scope and degree to which the forum was impacted.
This gives the state way too much room for interpretation and indeed, the Chinese government has added the internet to that list of public venues. The definition of “commotion” has been expanded to rumors, lies and talking about sensitive political topics. Thoughts and words can land you in prison.
So, this is where we’ve lost the plot. We’re talking as if we have speech laws like those of Britain or China. But the First Amendment is clear: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…” There’s no negotiating there. Either our rights are protected, or they’re not and we can squabble over the specifics. The only exception is when speech clearly and directly causes violence or injury – and that was not the case in Garland, Texas. “Hate speech” likewise does not fall under that exception because no one is forced by opinions to react violently.
The more strident Muslims and our friends on the Left might consider taking a lesson from the Mormons (who daily commit the unspeakable crime of being the nicest people on Earth while believing some nutty things). In response to the Broadway musical Book of Mormon, which brutally mocks their religion, they chose to take out a series of classy, smart and simple ads in the show’s playbill:
That’s how a free society works.
By the way, Bosch Fawstin won the contest. Here is the winning cartoon: