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Op-Ed

Would You Like Havarti With Those Freedom Fries?

Embassies have been torched, several people have died, ignorance flows from all corners—all for a few cartoons less intelligible than your average “Cathy” strip.

And then the Vatican weighed in on the Danish cartoon freakshow that is now literally burning up Eurasia. “The right to freedom of thought and expression,” said the little city-state that could, “cannot entail the right to offend the religious sentiment of believers.”

Cannot? Really? Uh, screw you, New Pope!

Who’d have thought World War III, the war between secular societies and theocratic ones, would have come to a roiling boil over a dinky Danish newspaper?

But last week, bat-shit crazy theists of all stripes, international policy suckjobbers, NGO lifers, and European and American publicist-trained politicians and their dumb-eyed lackeys together hit a wall with the international incident.

Instead of blaming imams who toured the Arab world with inflammatory material of unknown origin, instead of say, keeping their mouths shut, the only way politicos could find to weasel out of their troubles was by trashing the international free press.

(Certain disclaimers should apply here: Is the international free press really free? Anyone who’s worked for a newspaper publisher would have a good chuckle over that. Yet still.)

Because there is a war on, Western politicians—undoubtedly because of animalistic impulses from their reptile brains—began to replicate the sort of thinking that motivated the Sedition Act of 1918. Except, somehow, this time, it’s in reverse.

Now no one must speak badly of his enemy.

This is pretty funny in America, for sure, where a majority of the citizenry doesn’t particularly want to even be at war with an enemy.

People have revealed themselves to be, in varying degrees, psychotic, venal, petty, superstitious, medieval, opportunistic, and very, very stupid.Even the rah-rah-kill Bush administration, the Bush administration of the Axis of Evil, the pro-torture Bush, the Let’s Roll! Action Figure Bush and the Mission Accomplished, No Really! Bush, seemed to morph into the wussy-handholding (yet secretly bomb-friendly!) Clinton administration—and not at all in a good way. Before President Bush’s extremely odd borrowing of the classically liberal verbiage of “addiction to oil,” and his pledge of Best Friends Forever with Iran in his fifth annual talking points run-down, or State of the Union, as it was once called, the State Department took a wacky we-feel-your-pain stance on the Danish cartoon fracas currently burning up Europe.

“So while we share the offense that Muslims have taken at these images,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, “we at the same time vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view.”

Mr. McCormack, who spent his 9/11 hunkered down in the U.S.’s situation room with the big boys, has long been in a position of offering congratulations to free speech champions, such as Chinese journalist Jiang Weiping and Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, both of whom recently escaped nasty fates. “We urge the Chinese government to release all those held for exercising their fundamental rights to free speech,” Mr. McCormack once said.

Yet now he’s been pulled out of his cubbyhole to say that “Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images.”

Hey, is that the rhetoric of a government that knows it has no control whatsoever over the kind of brutal folks who kidnapped Christian Science Monitor reporter Jill Carroll nearly a month ago?

 

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Part of the problem is that the cartoons in question are so bad as to be unintelligible, so their defenders and their offendees stake their position solely on their principles. Seriously: Does the image of Muhammad—drawn by an as-yet unnamed U.S. resident, incidentally—with a bomb in his turban mean that all Muslims are terrorists? Is it a commentary on the tragedy that Muhammad’s religion has given rise to Wahhabism? Or is it a reference to a racist Western conflation of Arabs and terrorists?

Who could tell? The cartoons sucked, mostly. (See for yourself. One of ‘em is pretty good.) And they weren’t even statements of fact: They can’t be considered subject to defamation tests, because they weren’t really describing much more of anything than your average nonsensical “Family Circus.”

Still, as the politicos roiled in their PR game, the press was happy to join in.

“You want to make sure that you are sensitive to the cultural sensitivities,” Mike Days, the editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, told Editor & Publisher last week.

Sure you do. Wait, why?

It was Mr. Days’s decision that, in the reporting of the news in his paper, verbal descriptions could suffice for reproductions of cartoons that first ran last September in Jyllands-Posten, a small Danish paper. (Denmark, as it happens, was tied for first place in 2005 on the Reporters Without Borders list of countries with the freest press.) The Washington Post said, more explicitly, that it “chose not to reprint the images on grounds they would give offense.”

Those cartoons, most of which depict Muhammad, were a riff on a competing Danish newspaper’s story about the difficulties of finding an illustrator for a children’s book about Muhammad; they were drawn by a dozen different artists, at the request of an editor. (Which means that at least a dozen Danish artists were willing to violate the Islamic proscription against depicting Muhammad, which rather undermines the original story.)

Still, why was it supposedly so hard to get cartoonists to illustrate this book? Well, there was the murder of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam in late 2004 by radical Muslim Mohammed Bouyeri—and the 2004 attack on a lecturer in Copenhagen by five fellows who opposed the reading of the Qur’an to non-Muslims. And the 2002 assassination of Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn by a leftist concerned about Mr. Fortuyn’s anti-Muslim politics. There’s certainly a chilling effect with political violence in that part of the world—after all, Denmark only had 14 murders by handgun from 1998 to 2000.

A number of other papers in Europe, but so far only one in the U.S.—the New York Sun, which has editorial standards regarding Islam and Israel somewhere near those of the Jewish Telegraph—have published some or all of the cartoons.

In fact, the Americans have taken a pass, and in doing so, are missing out on a rare phenomenon—a meme spread in newsprint. (Hey, might sell papers, too!) On Feb. 3, the Irish Daily Star added to the stack of European papers republishing the cartoons. But, conspicuously, they printed just one of the cartoons, and just for the point of doing so: Their columnist Joe O’Shea wrote that it was done as “a stand for freedom of the press and democratic rights.”

Of course, the Irish Foreign Affairs office was quick to say that not everyone would “share Western points of view.”

You can’t take a god’s name in vain if you don’t take to it at all.Hey, it’s a good thing Mr. O’Shea wasn’t writing about, say, a Dutch medical ship, docked in Dublin to provide abortions in Ireland. Because, you know, not everyone shares Western points of view.

And while allegedly blanket Western points of view are up for dispute, the case of Islamic outrage at the Muhammad cartoons also refutes one of the U.S.’s greatest idiocies: the reaffirmation of the Roth test of obscenity in Miller v. California, which invokes “contemporary community standards” to judge obscenity. If a small Danish newspaper can so disastrously violate what is apparently the obscenity standard in Gaza, can there even be such a thing as a “community”?

At the end of last week, the Danish embassy in Damascus was burned down, along with the Swedish and Chilean embassies, for the three shared a building. Over the past few months, ambassadors have been recalled from Denmark: Tehran’s, Syria’s, Saudi Arabia’s. The Danish embassy in Jakarta was stormed on Sunday. People have, reports say, marched in the streets demanding—literally—heads and hands.

On Sunday, the Danish consulate in Beirut was burned—and the Austrian embassy and the Slovakian consulate, also in the same building.

And people—both Europeans, Americans, Christians, Muslims—have revealed themselves to be, in varying degrees, psychotic, venal, petty, superstitious, medieval, opportunistic, and very, very stupid.

 

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But hey, it’s been a great couple of weeks for mealy-mouthed dumb-assitude!

Bendt Bendtson, vice-prime minister of Denmark, told the Copenhagen Post, “I’ve got nothing against freedom of speech—it is important for us all—but if it can offend and hurt a lot of people, why use freedom of speech for that?” The paper wrote, “Bendtsen said Danish newspapers could possibly learn something from U.S. newspapers, which tended not to try to push the limits of what was permissible.”

They do, sadly, tend that way. But try Europe. “THE PRICE OF FREE SPEECH,” blared the Feb. 3 Daily Mail, which pointedly placed a photo of a crowd burning a Danish flag alongside two British National Party members leaving court after “being cleared of race-hate crimes”—apparently the two had called Asians “evil” and asylum-seekers “cockroaches.”

“The principle of freedom should be exercised in a spirit of tolerance, respect of beliefs, respect of religions, which is the very basis of secularism of our country,” chimed in Philippe Douste-Blazy, the former cardiologist, anti-euthanasia activist, and current French foreign minister.

Whereas the American Heritage Dictionary defines secularism as “a doctrine that rejects religion and religious considerations.” Not, you know, the exact opposite of that.

Poor U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has been humiliated by his greedy son and who had also spent much recent time trying to get former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter to keep his mouth shut in the press, just had to come out and say, “But of course freedom of speech is never absolute.”

In protest of the cartoons, Libya closed its embassy in Denmark. Stupid Libya, which not only controls its media, but even prohibits political parties, and backed Charles Taylor’s thrashing of Liberia—a land with essentially no electricity or water—and which still has no embassy in the U.S.

Bill Clinton—the real one, not the weird lizard-president who’s parroting him now and claiming to be his best friend—had to open his chunky mouth: “Appalling,” he said, calling the images “totally outrageous cartoons against Islam.” Well, whatever, he’s got a lot to make up for in the Islamic world: Khartoum, anyone? (And don’t think the Arab world doesn’t remember Rwanda, even if fewer than five percent of its populace is Muslim.)

Hey, look, it’s Vladimir Putin, now head of the Group of Eight! “Take Denmark, the situation with Islam there today, those disgusting cartoons offending religious feelings of Muslims. I can recall that the Danish leadership used to support some extremist movements, including anti-Russian movements, on that country’s territory. In fact, they are now encouraging those offending religious feelings. This inconsistency cannot lead to anything good.”

Still bitter! Oh, Vlad! “The government has no intention of raising the media’s social awareness by curbing free speech,” he told the journalists invited to the Kremlin for his sixth annual press conference on Jan. 31. (He also told them that Russia was full of spies. “You do know, don’t you,” he said, “that there are residencies in the diplomatic missions of every country. There are diplomats pure and simple and there are secret service officers.”)

Of course, last August, the Russian foreign ministry declared it would no longer allow ABC to interview any Russian officials or agencies, because the American network had aired an interview with Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev, the numbskull who got 139 killed in Nalchik—most of them his own.

So, you know, who needs to curb the so-called free press any more than that?

Speaking of Mr. Basayev, on Feb. 1, a statement made on a website on his behalf denounced the Danish insult to Islam. Ain’t it nice to see him agree with Mr. Putin for once?

Back in September 2003, Zimbabwe crushed what was then the country’s only non-government-controlled newspaper. It was “another attempt to silence critical voices,” said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw at the time.

Except this time, somehow Mr. Straw is the one calling publication of the cartoons “gratuitously inflammatory.”

 

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Should people care about other people? Should people care about the beliefs of other people at all?

Elsewhere in greater Arabia this weekend, a passenger ferry caught fire and tipped down into the Red Sea, taking a thousand or so people with it, most of them Egyptian.

Though the religious nutters fight each other plenty, they know that the real enemy is the unbeliever. These are people who don’t know where they stop and your free will begins.“If I take out my concern about those drowned Egyptians and take a good look at it,” wrote John Derbyshire on the National Review’s blog, “it really is a pretty feeble, abstract sort of caring.”

Harsh. But. “It is, in my opinion,” he went on, “a very good thing, and a great step up for humanity, that religious and ethical teachers have trained us to give a passing thought to the sufferings of strangers in distant places.”

Gee, it sure is. But what about a passing thought to the craziness of other people? When what so many people believe is by any rational standard crazy—that depicting human beings is a major sin, or that you’ll go to a fiery pit if you don’t get sprinkled with water, or that witches float, or that bad thoughts are caused by an infestation of pissed-off alien spirits, or, you know, that your spiritual leader was reincarnated in some infant in Seattle—well, why should anyone give two shits about any of it?

For unbelievers, the world is a hell of warmed-over medieval superstitions.

In England, you can only be punished for blasphemy against the Church of England. (Knock yourself out on the other religions, sure.) Blasphemy is illegal in Finland, in the Netherlands, and in Massachusetts, where it is punishable by a fine of not more than $300 and not more than a year in prison.

None of these laws are enforced in those locations—but, neither did they ever take into account that unbelievers could not possibly commit blasphemy. You can’t take a god’s name in vain if you don’t take to it at all.

But the Catholics never got that, just like Muhammad never got it either. On this matter, the religious bonded against the non-religious early. “No Believer will help an un-Believer against a Believer,” says the Medina Charter. Back then, Jews and Muhammad’s gang might have gotten along just fine—but it was every infidel for himself. And today, though the religious nutters fight each other plenty, they know that the real enemy is the unbeliever. These are people who don’t know where they stop and your free will begins.

Similarly, countries don’t seem to have a clue how other countries work. Why else would Bahrain demand an apology over the cartoons from little old Queen Margrethe II of Denmark? If you have no clue that a constitutional monarch figurehead—even if she is the chain-smoking cutie 213th in line to the throne of England—doesn’t control her state’s media, then how are you even qualified to take part in geopolitical conversations for grown-ups?

Meanwhile, the press, the international embodiment of real secularism, is the one that bites it over a bunch of crappy, ill-advised cartoons. In South Africa, late on Friday night, the Johannesburg High Court granted a petition by an organization of Muslims to forbid newspapers from publishing the cartoons. Not that any of them even wanted to anyway.

 

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Last Thursday, Feb. 2, Donald Rumsfeld delivered a speech at the National Press Club to a group, according to Mr. Rumsfeld’s remarks, mainly composed of reporters and journalists. Congressional Quarterly published the transcript.

“[Inaudible] administration [inaudible] and [inaudible] this program with you. You are torturing people,” said an audience member.

“Anyway,” said the moderator, John Salant, the president of the National Press Club.

“You are signing off on torture,” said the audience member. “It’s happening.”

“Boo! Boo!” said another audience member.

“This world needs to wake up and stop this war, this criminal war,” said, presumably, the first audience member. “You are a war criminal!”

“Shut up!” said an audience member.

There was applause. “Well, we’ll count her as undecided,” Mr. Rumsfeld joked. It wasn’t his first time being shouted at.

“Secretary, I’m sorry,” Mr. Salant said, “that your First Amendment rights were not respected at a press club that is dedicated to the First Amendment.”

Shortly after that, another audience member questioned Mr. Rumsfeld’s reaction to a Tom Toles cartoon in the Washington Post. That cartoon depicted Mr. Rumsfeld describing the condition of a soldier with no arms and no legs as “battle hardened.”

“You know,” Mr. Rumsfeld told the journalists, “No one questions the right of a cartoonist to do what they want to do.”