We, and by “we” I include any fellow traveler who believes that free expression battles bad ideas more effectively than suppression, are in conflict with people who are willing to wage war, to murder the innocent, to prevent you from seeing this cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed.
If freedom means anything, it means the right to speak your mind without fear of violence. We, me and Frank and anyone else who feels that this right is essential – myself, I think it's the very basis of civilization – we cannot permit this to stand.
Last week we got a new audiotape from Osama bin Laden on the subject of freedom of speech. (He's not in favor of it.) You can read his remarks in their entirety here, but in short form, Islam forbids depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, and bin Laden's really ticked off about the publication of cartoons like the one above that do, in fact, depict the Prophet.
If you have time after availing yourself of bin Laden's wisdom, you could take a gander at Das Kapital (a primitive, pseudo-scientific theory of economics and history) or the Communist Manifesto (more of the same, but blessedly shorter.) Or you can entertain yourself with Hitler's Mein Kampf or Mao's Little Red Book, or investigate one of the classic works of blood libel with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Or, if you like (and they're universally better reads, let me tell you) you can read Madison and Hamilton's Federalist Papers, or the Anti-Federalist Papers, or Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, or Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian, or even the best comic you've never heard of, Pibgorn.
Of course, you needn't take my word for which of these texts are worthwhile and which are tedious or in error: go read 'em. They're online and available to anyone who lives in a society where the internet is not censored ....
If you didn't actually click through on the link to bin Laden (and please do – when you can go to the source on controversial subjects, you should – trust, but verify, to quote either Runyon or Reagan) – if you didn't click through, here's what he said, on the subject of the evil cartoon:
“Although our tragedy in your killing of our women and children is a very great one, it paled when you went overboard in your unbelief and freed yourselves of the etiquettes of dispute and fighting and went to the extent of publishing these insulting drawings. This is the greater and more serious tragedy, and reckoning for it will be more severe.”
OK, here are some more of the insulting cartoons.
I won't bother directly critiquing bin Laden's words. The only transaction with bin Laden that really interests me is the one that ends with him dead, and besides, an American critiquing Osama bin Laden is sort of like an American critiquing Hitler: not in fact a sign of great virtue, bravery, or perception. But I should say that I am not anti-Muslim, any more than I'm anti-Christian or anti-Scientologist or anti-Jew or anti any other particular religion. I think all codified religions are essentially superstitions, and Islam is no more foolish than any other at the level of pure theology.
I am, however, very much anti-Islam as this religion has come to be expressed in Iran, in Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia, in Syria, in Egypt, in Libya, in a myriad of locations around the globe. There's nothing intemperate about such a statement of opposition; I'm not advocating any one specific step to deal with these cultures, as much as I'm strongly advocating a specific attitude on our part, on behalf of those for whom freedom of speech is not merely a figure of speech: this is a conflict we have to win.
I am thoroughly fed up with the American media in general and all the cowards in particular who've run from this subject – including feminists and multicultural leftists for whom I might otherwise have considerable sympathy. Though deeply offensive to Muslims, these cartoons are important pieces of political expression. The fact that they're deeply offensive to some is both unfortunate – and meaningless: “offensive” speech is always the speech that's easiest to attack, the place where it's easiest for the enemies of free expression to move the line.
There needs to be a hard, bright line on this principle, and we must defend it to the death – because without it we are not civilized; at best we're the decadent remnants of a culture that once aspired to civilization. There are acts that ought not to be permitted (and some sorts of speech, fire in the movie theater and so on, are acts) – but speech itself, the right to take and argue a position without fear, is the core of all liberty, and the principle means whereby error can be discovered and corrected.
If this means permitting ignorant assholes to use the word “nigger” or “kike” or “fag” or what have you, if it means permitting the KKK to march in Skokie, if it means sick individuals get to post online about their rape fantasies, if it means the guys at NAMBLA, the North American Man Boy Love Association, get to publish the website I just linked to – and particularly if you're one of the people whose lives have been touched by these bigots, rapists, pedophiles: shit, folks, I'm really sorry.
But it is literally the price of freedom. It's non-negotiable. So we hang bin Laden when we get our hands on him; I'm good with that. I'm not a pacifist (immoral philosophy, that, asserting that the lives of the innocent are unworthy of defense), and I'm only against the death penalty because I think it executes the innocent – not a concern I have with bin Laden. But until then, when bin Laden wants to explain himself, fine: the callow quality of his thinking does him and his cause more harm than good. And this is universally the case ... because I trust people. We're obnoxious and self-centered and looking out for numero uno – but in the long run enlightened self-interest is vastly more trustworthy than any other motivation. And so that opportunity for enlightenment, for the chance to weigh all sides of a dispute and come to a reasoned conclusion, is ultimately the difference between freedom and repression.
Which brings me back to Frank LoPinto. He and I don't agree about much, when it comes to the emotional issues of the day, and that's OK. On most of the subjects I've argued with him, he, or I, or both of us, are in the wrong. I respect the fierceness of his conviction (much prefer it, in fact, to people who can't be bothered, which is probably why I have so many conservative friends) – and the inevitability of error on my part, and his, doesn't bother me. Because in addition to the freedom to argue our positions, time is on our side. Maybe not my side, exactly – it's taken my hair, one eye, and my jump shot so far – but ours. On the side of all those of us who believe that the truth will set you free. Because here's the thing: the gap between me and Frank is much smaller than the gap between us, and any civilized man of 1908. We agree that interbreeding among the races is fine and that generations of welfare are bad. The idea that women should vote is not a subject of controversy for us. In the election to come, Frank's not voting for the black man or the white woman – but it's because they're Democrats, not because they're black and female, respectively; he and virtually every Republican I know would enthusiastically vote for Condoleeza Rice, who's both black and female, before they'd vote for any Democrat. And that's progress, yes it is, a social consensus arrived at through generations of partisans and ideologs hammering away at each other in the public arena.
So I've made the distinction between Islam and Islam-As-It's-Practiced in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Certainly there are Muslims who are fervent fans of freedom of expression; I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the people who want to go to war to keep cartoons of their Prophet from being published.
And sweet Jesus (who-was-just-a-man) ... for the life of me, I don't understand why liberals and particularly feminists aren't more up in arms about Islam-As-It's-Practiced in Iran and Saudi Arabia and so forth. OK, you hate Bush. Me too. But does this prevent us from noticing that in Iran they execute gays and sexually active women and apostates? That in Saudi Arabia religious police sent 15 girls back into a burning building, to die, because they weren't wearing their fucking headscarves? That in Holland Theo Van Gogh was murdered for making a film that criticized Islam? That in general women in Islamic countries are abused, uneducated, virtually enslaved by their male relatives, are sometimes murdered by those relatives if they're raped?
The clash of cultures we're presently enmeshed in is real, and it's critical we win it. Yes, we have our flaws as a culture, and it's healthy that we examine those flaws, argue them, and work to improve ourselves. But we're better than they are, better than the Saudis, the Iranians, the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Libyans. There are historical reasons for this, some of which have to do with us doing harm to them, and our ancestors doing harm to their ancestors; we're not angels and we're not blameless.
Not blameless: but better. Our culture is not merely different from theirs; it's superior. In the clash of cultures between fascist Germany, Imperial Japan, and communist Russia, America, for all our sins, was righteous. In the current conflict, for all our sins, we are again: we can argue our approach, our technique, how we persuade, who can be persuaded and who must be defeated. It may be that a military approach is counterproductive, as it would have been with the Soviet Union. That's an argument worth having. But for two generations Americans waged a Cold War with the Soviet Union, because the cost of a hot war was too great: at a minimum we can and should do the same again.
This is a winnable fight, and it's a fight we had better win.