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Night of the 16-Stone Transvestite Hitler, or, Welcome to Mel Aviv!

Scubai-Dubai To-Do

I long since abandoned any desire to make this a primarily political weblog, but I can't resist the opportunity to use that title.

Concerning the transfer of some port operations from the British-owned P&O to state-owned Dubai Ports World: while the transaction obviously deserves scrutiny -- and while it should have been obvious to someone in the Administration that a lot of prominent persons were going to object to the appearance of the thing if they were not clued in to the decision before it was announced -- one has to wonder how serious the security risks are when even N[o particular friend to the]P[resident]R[adio] can broadcast this actively reassuring report from the Port of Newark.

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And if I'm going to comment on one current event, I might as well comment on two: let us now speak of the dreaded Danish cartoons.   

As I have indicated elsewhere recently, I am inclined to be an absolutist when it comes to matters of free speech and free expression, let it gore whose ox it may.  On that score, I quote approvingly this weekend commentary from Colby Cosh:

What I want to know is, how come our other constitutional freedoms are never hogtied and thrown onto the psychoanalyst's couch like this?  No one ever seems to ask what ugly or antisocial purposes might sometimes be promoted by the exercise of our voting rights, our mobility rights, our equality rights, or our rights to due process of the law.  When it comes to some individual rights -- for instance, the right of a witness not to self-incriminate at a criminal trial -- it is practically only bad people and instances of evil conduct that are ostensibly protected.  But these rights have, for the most part, well-understood purposes; we know that to preserve liberal democracy, there are good reasons for these rules to be upheld absolutely and universally.

But let anyone exercise freedom of the press, or freedom of speech, and suddenly his motives are interrogated -- suddenly the 'right' is only available to the well-meaning, which is to be defined none too broadly.

Those who have made what little effort it takes to track down and actually view the offending drawings will perhaps have observed that a reader stumbling upon them in their original context most likely wouldn't even have known that the sketches were supposed to be depictions of the Prophet if the editors of Jyllands-Posten hadn't said that that is what they were.  Absent a more specific description, the pictures would likely have been taken for nothing more than generic caricatures of run-of-the-mill radical clerics of the Ayatollah Khomeini school.  The most infamous of the cartoons -- the humorless, bearded fellow with the Boris Badenov-style bomb in his turban -- could just as easily have been drawn wearing spectacles and labeled "Zawahiri," and no one would have been the wiser.  You see what you want to see.

Flemming Rose, the Danish editor who made the decision to run the cartoons in the first place, offered his own more than somewhat persuasive apologia for the cartoons in Sunday's Washington Post.

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There, that's done.  Apolitical musings will resume in short order.

Comments

david giacalone

George, There is no doubt about the right to publish those cartoons. Doesn't the question for most of us come down to whether it was irresponsible, unwise or otherwise inappropriate to do so?

I might have the right to hurl a taunt in a tavern at a loudmouth bully who is ruining our evening, but doing it in a situation where a fight is likely to break out that will cause damage and injury to my companions and others, makes exercising that right rather unwise.

A college newspaper editor who chooses to run the cartoons of the Prophet might have the right to do so, but if doing it puts his college community at risk for a target of violence, the wisdom of that choice again becomes suspect. Before doing it, shouldn't a responsible editor ask "What is to be gained?"

I'm sure you've taught your children the difference between the right to speak up and the responsibility, at times, not to do so. And, you self-censor often.

When exercising the free speech right is likely to lead to violence or great offense to others, I would hope that there would at least be a balancing of interests -- what is the benefit from exercising the right, and what are the probable ill effects? Saying the benefit is proving the existence of the right is not particularly useful.

When I read Flemming Rose's explanation for publishing the cartoons, I had the feeling of hearing excuses made after the fact for a rash action (or a publicity stunt).

If we all said whatever we had the urge to say (or publish), this would be a much uglier world. Responsibilies belong in the calculus whenever deciding to exercise a "right."

p.s. I'm not sure at all why it is relevant to you that we "most likely wouldn't even have known that the sketches were supposed to be depictions of the Prophet if the editors of Jyllands-Posten hadn't said that that is what they were." The editors did tell the world. If I handed you a sketch of an ugly, fat woman with no caption as to who it was, you probably would not be insulted, but might point out what a poor artist I was, and that you had no idea who it was. If I captioned the sketch "George's Mother", you might not think it looks like her, but you'd be more likely to want to punch me in the nose.

George Wallace

David, a thoughtful and good-faith comment such as yours deserves a response.

I am all for courtesy, all for prudence and all for the "self-censorship" in which we each of us engage to get through our lives minimizing our friction with others.

Confrontation for confrontation's sake? Causing offense just to call attention to oneself or to create a sensation? I don't think these are particularly laudable motives, and you are correct that I would I try to avoid them in my own life, as should we all.

I am persuaded in my own mind, though, as you are not, that the original Jyllands-Posten publication of the cartoons was not driven by disreputable purposes. These cartoons were not published "because we can," but to call attention to a larger, substantive issue of the day.

Politeness and courtesy may suggest we hold our tongue in day to day discourse with our fellows. Prudence will often suggest that we should be quiet when our words are likely to provoke a bully to violence. But when it is important news that the ostensibly offended party is a bully and is trying to get his/her/their way by resort to low and violent methods, I submit that it is entirely fair for a news outlet to call the bully's bluff and to meet the bully's sticks and stones with words or pictures or any other non-violent expression.

Today, again in the Washington Post, the seemingly unlikely team of William Bennett and Alan Dershowitz comes down unequivocally in favor of past and future publication of the cartoons. They note that the Boston Globe has made essentially your argument:

The Boston Globe, speaking for many other outlets, editorialized: '[N]ewspapers ought to refrain from publishing offensive caricatures of Mohammed in the name of the ultimate Enlightenment value: tolerance.'

Dershowitz and Bennett counter with a variant on my own point: that a policy of never criticizing members of certain groups because those members are prepared to hurt you is not an expression of tolerance -- in itself a high and worthy value -- but is instead a submission to the intolerance of the other.

When they were first published, the cartoons provoked little in the way of reaction. My point in saying that a person coming to them not knowing that they are meant to portray the Prophet would have a hard time figuring it out is to emphasize they are not scurrilous on their face: whoever it is that is being portrayed is not shown devouring babies, sodomizing farm animals, kicking puppies. Whoever is being portrayed in these cartoons is being shown no more disrespect than political cartoonists show to everyone they depict, be they living or dead, real or imagined, sacred or profane. These are just not particularly extraordinary, obviously incendiary, cartoons.

The cartoons were essentially unknown outside of Denmark and would have remained so -- and thereby would have remained so trivial that there would be no legitimate "news" rationale for anyone else to republish them -- but for their active dissemination over many months by those who, unlike Jyllands-Posten I believe, actively wished that people should take offense and hoped to rile up displays of violence.

Messrs. Bennett and Dershowitz again:

What has happened? To put it simply, radical Islamists have won a war of intimidation. They have cowed the major news media from showing these cartoons. The mainstream press has capitulated to the Islamists -- their threats more than their sensibilities. One did not see Catholics claiming the right to mayhem in the wake of the republished depiction of the Virgin Mary covered in cow dung, any more than one saw a rejuvenated Jewish Defense League take to the street or blow up an office when Ariel Sharon was depicted as Hitler or when the Israeli army was depicted as murdering the baby Jesus.

So far as we can tell, a new, twin policy from the mainstream media has been promulgated: (a) If a group is strong enough in its reaction to a story or caricature, the press will refrain from printing that story or caricature, and (b) if the group is pandered to by the mainstream media, the media then will go through elaborate contortions and defenses to justify its abdication of duty. At bottom, this is an unacceptable form of not-so-benign bigotry, representing a higher expectation from Christians and Jews than from Muslims.

That double standard, in which "some are more equal than others" when it comes to being spared offense, was exactly the thing that the original publication was meant to highlight.

Certainly there can be good faith disagreement over whether that perceived double standard is real, but it seems to me that a journalist who believes that the double standard exists and that it is itself an unhealthy development can and should call attention to it. That one Danish paper did so in a manner that was less than utterly polite perhaps opens that paper to criticism for its methods, but it certainly does not justify threats of violence against the citizenry of entire nations, demands for government intervention, or any of the other unseemly responses that are now on display.

So, as enlightened people do every day, it appears you and I will have to -- respectfully and courteously, of course -- disagree.

david giacalone

Thanks for a most respectful and thoughtful response, George. I'm not sure that the double standard exists -- each incident is very fact-specific. I am certainly not in any way justifying the violent threats and demonstrations -- those reactions are wrong no matter how tame or outlandish the cartoons were. Were I to seek enlightenment on this topic, or any other, it is very unlikely that I would turn to either Mr. Bennett or Mr. Dershowitz, who are far more suited to showboating than to thoughtful analysis.

Since the cartoons say nothing that could not have been said (much better) with words, and they would predictably offend even moderate Muslims (who would not dream of reacting with violence), their original publication makes little sense to me. Re-publishing makes even less sense. No matter how shocking or tame, republishing in the USA adds little to the discussion -- Muslims will still be offended; all but extremists will condemn the violent reactions; and, more people are very likely to be victims of violence at the hands of extremists.

Thanks for exchanging ideas, Mr. W.

p.s. By the way, when I used the Facial Recognition demo at MyHeritage recently, the celebrity who most looked like a 2005 picture of myself was Salman Rushdie. When I tried it a couple days later, Colin Powell was my supposed look-alike. Might this affect my position on these issues?

Ski Dubai

Do you think that Dubai will continue to prosper at such a rapdi pace?

What happens if the economy hits the wall?

Cheers,

Masood

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