It’s a sad day when the New York Times, a bastion of free speech during Watergate and the publication of the Pentagon Papers , tarnishes its image by sort-of-excusing the Muslim attack on Pamela Geller’s exhibit of Muslim cartoons in Texas. And that sad day was yesterday.
In their Thursday op-ed, “Free speech vs. hate speech,” the Times, like many good liberal organs, has traded off its unwavering support for free speech against a misguided sympathy for the underdog. At least that’s the way I see it. Here are the first two paragraphs of the piece, evincing the boilerplate we’ve now come to expect on this issue since the Charlie Hebdo murders. The first bit pays lip-service to the First Amendment, and the second begins with the inevitable “but” that can mean only “they shouldn’t have riled up Muslims.”
There is no question that images ridiculing religion, however offensive they may be to believers, qualify as protected free speech in the United States and most Western democracies. There is also no question that however offensive the images, they do not justify murder, and that it is incumbent on leaders of all religious faiths to make this clear to their followers.
But it is equally clear that the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Tex., was not really about free speech. It was an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom.
They go on to point out that while Charlie Hebdo satirizes religion and politics, Pamela Geller is different because, well, she hates Muslims.
Charlie Hebdo is a publication whose stock in trade has always been graphic satires of politicians and religions, whether Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. By contrast, Pamela Geller, the anti-Islam campaigner behind the Texas event, has a long history of declarations and actions motivated purely by hatred for Muslims.
It’s not crystal clear to me that Geller hates Muslims; what is much clearer is that she hates Islam and its doctrines of subjugating women, killing gays and apostates, and so on. Yes, I deplore her political conservatism, dislike her belief in God, and even on religion she’s too strident for me, for her anti-Islam crusade sometimes takes ugly turns (like the battle against the Muslim center in lower Manhattan). She is clearly afraid of what will happen to the U.S. if too many believers in Islamic doctrine (yes, they call them “Muslims”) gain political or civil power. She may be misguided, but one cannot simply dismiss her, or try to muzzle her, simply because she’s motivated by intense dislike—hatred if you will—for Islam.
In fact, I hate the more extreme forms of Islam, too: it leads to demonization of half the population as well as gays, to murders of apostates and cartoonists, to schoolgirls being shot or maimed for trying to get an education, and so on. And a large proportion of “moderate” Muslims support these stands, though they don’t engage in violence themselves. How can you not hate what that religion has done to people, or not hate believers who stone people, shoot Christians and atheists, behead journalists, and engage in the multifarious thuggery of jihadism. The creation of cartoons, whether they be by Charlie Hebdo or Geller’s artists, is to stand up to that thuggery. Geller has that right, and there should be no “buts”. Did any of her cartoons demonize Muslims as people, like Der Stürmer did to Jews, or were they simply depiction of Muhammad? If the latter, why the double standard toward Charlie Hebdo and Geller? What the New York Times is doing here is simply flaunting their love of the supposed underdog. trying to look like nice liberal people.
So while Charlie Hebdo is lionized because it satirizes religion and politics, Geller is demonized because of her supposed hatred of Muslims themselves. But a cartoon of Muhammed does not express intent: it expresses a willingness to stand up against the doctrines of an extremist and oppressive religion. Who is the “hater” here? Geller, or the Muslims who stone adulterers and hang gays—and their “moderate” fellow Muslims who quietly approve of such actions?
And then the Times—to its shame—expresses sympathy for the feelings of those poor Muslims offended by the depiction of their Prophet (murder be upon him). In fact, they not only compare Geller’s actions to anti-Semitism (surely the Times knows the difference between hating Jews and hating Judaism!), but come this close to saying that, by being provocative, she brought the violence on herself:
Whether fighting against a planned mosque near ground zero, posting to her venomous blog Atlas Shrugs or organizing the event in Garland, Ms. Geller revels in assailing Islam in terms reminiscent of virulent racism or anti-Semitism. She achieved her provocative goal in Garland — the event was attacked by two Muslims who were shot to death by a traffic officer before they killed anyone.
Those two men were would-be murderers. But their thwarted attack, or the murderous rampage of the Charlie Hebdo killers, or even the greater threat posed by the barbaric killers of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, cannot justify blatantly Islamophobic provocations like the Garland event. These can serve only to exacerbate tensions and to give extremists more fuel.
Note: “blatant Islamophobic provocations.” I don’t think Geller’s goal was to provoke a murderous attack. Perhaps verbal attacks, but of course that’s Charlie Hebdo’s goal, too, for the reaction to its mockery of all religions was absolutely predictable. Charlie Hebdo existed to mock and provoke. By all means, says the Times, let’s not publish cartoons of the prophet, for whatever one’s motivation, it will “serve only to exacerbate tensions and to give extremists more fuel.” That goes for both Geller and Charlie Hebdo. What is the newspaper saying here? Apparently, that we should keep our hands off religion, at least those faiths whose adherents become murderous when offended.
Their final paragraph leaves me no doubt that that’s indeed what the Times is saying. DO NOT PROVOKE HATRED AND VIOLENCE BY SATIRIZING RELIGION:
Some of those who draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad may earnestly believe that they are striking a blow for freedom of expression, though it is hard to see how that goal is advanced by inflicting deliberate anguish on millions of devout Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism. As for the Garland event, to pretend that it was motivated by anything other than hate is simply hogwash.
And so the New York Times goes down the Leftist rabbit hole. But one could turn the trope on other faiths as well. “It is hard to see how Andres Serrano advances freedom of speech by putting a crucifix in a glass of his own urine, inflicting deliberate anguish on millions of devout Catholics.” And why anger millions of Republicans who don’t oppose abortion by mocking the Party’s stand on abortion? Perhaps those “devout Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism” might examine their views to see if they secretly sympathize with the terrorist’s aims, and, if not, to do something about adhering to a faith so delicate that everyone’s knickers get twisted when they see a picture of Muhammad.
Yes, you op-ed writers, Geller’s exhibit did advance the freedom of speech, and in two ways. First, it made fun of a faith whose adherents become deeply offended—and sometimes murderous—when they see a goddam cartoon of their Prophet. The deep offense and riots are not a rare event. Such reactions surely deserve mockery and contempt, not the tut-tutting of the Times. it’s just a cartoon! And indeed, “millions of devout Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism” are nevertheless deeply offended by such cartoons, and support other invidious beliefs (see the survey data here and here). It’s time that we realize that millions of Muslims who aren’t violent are nevertheless, in their everyday life, throwing Enlightenment values under the bus.
Second, by showing that we have the right to mock religion without interference, Geller is also striking a blow for freedom of expression. Much of what she has to say about Islam is sensible. Some of it may not be. But that doesn’t matter. If we are to have a democratic public discourse aimed at winnowing the true from the false, we must allow all speech, and not be too quick to dismiss criticism of one’s cherished values as “hate speech.”. As I always say, every controversial statement is somebody else’s “hate speech.” How sad that the New York Times doesn’t see that.
UPDATE: Just as I pressed the “publish” button on the above, I got an email from reader Cindy calling my attention to a good new piece by David Frum in The Atlantic, “The right to blaspheme.” It, too, takes the NYT editorial to task for failing to understand the difference between “affront to people and dissent from doctrine.” An excerpt:
We owe equality and respect to persons. Ideas and beliefs have to prove their worth. Pamela Geller, the organizer of the Garland, Texas, “Draw Muhammad” contest, attracts criticism because she so often pushes up to and over the line separating criticism of ideas from vilification of groups of people. She’s an uncomfortable person to defend. But that’s often true of the people who test the rights that define a free society.
. . . When vigilantes try to enforce the tenets of a faith by violence, then it becomes a civic obligation to stand up to them. And if the people doing the standing up are not in every way nice people—if they express other views that are ugly and prejudiced by any standard—then the more shame on all the rest of us for leaving the job to them.
How sad that this obvious lesson has to be taught over and over again in these days of identity politics.
See also a piece in Politico by Rich Lowry, “Why won’t Pamela Geller shut up?” An excerpt:
Yet scurrilous, scatological and, yes, hateful speech and cartoons — many of them involving religion — have featured in Anglo-American history going back centuries. They are part of the warp and woof of a free society. In this context, a drawing of Muhammad is mild.
The only reason it seems different is that there is a small class of Muslim radicals willing to kill over it. Which is exactly why Pamela Geller’s event wasn’t purposeless.
The event was placing a stake in contested ground, in a way it wouldn’t have if it had offended Quakers or Roman Catholics, who don’t massacre people who insult them. It was a statement of defiance, of an unwillingness to abide by the rules of fanatics. . .
For better or worse, we live in a society in which nothing is sacred. If we are to accept the assassin’s veto, the only exception (for now) will be depictions of Muhammad, which would be perverse. A free society can’t let the parameters of its speech be set by murderous extremists.
Give her this: Pamela Geller understands that, whereas her scolds don’t. Some of them can’t even tell the difference between her and her would-be killers.
And, apparently, the New York Times doesn’t grasp the consequences of letting assassins have vetos.