Freedom of Expression

The great British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, “Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.”

The cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten raise the most important question of our times: freedom of expression. Are we in the west going to cave into pressure from societies with a medieval mindset, or are we going to defend our most precious freedom — freedom of expression, a freedom for which thousands of people sacrificed their lives?
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On the world stage, should we really apologize for Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe? Mozart, Beethoven and Bach? Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Breughel, Ter Borch? Galileo, Huygens, Copernicus, Newton and
Darwin? Penicillin and computers? The Olympic Games and Football? Human rights and parliamentary democracy? The west is the source of the liberating ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights and cultural freedom. It is the west that has raised the status of women, fought against slavery, defended freedom of enquiry, expression and conscience. No, the west needs no lectures on the superior virtue of societies who keep their women in subjection, cut off their clitorises, stone them to death for alleged adultery, throw acid on their faces, or deny the human rights of those considered to belong to lower castes.

Democracy in a Cartoon,” by Ibn Warraq, Der Spiegel, February 3, 2006

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

U.S. Constitution: First Amendment
Eugene Volokh looks at the hypocrisy of the Boston Globe in dealing with offensive religious images:

Yet where in those editorials are the admonitions about the need for “respect” of religious groups? The condemnations of the juxtaposition of bodily excretions with religious figures as “schoolboy prank[s]”? The denunciations of the art as undermining the “ultimate Enlightenment value” of “tolerance”? The condemnations of the artists, and of those NEA and museum decisionmakers who used their discretion to judge the work artistically excellent, as “obtuse”? And, of course, the suggestion thatthe works are “no less hurtful to most [Christians] than Nazi caricatures of Jews or Ku Klux Klan caricatures of blacks are to those victims of intolerance”?

Why the difference?

The Boston Globe on Speech Offensive to Different Religious Groups,” by Eugene Volokh, The Volokh Conspiracy, February 4, 2006
This reminds us of something we read a few years back; “Catholic guy: Who’s the establishment here?,” by Chuck Williams, guest commentary in the St. Paul Legal Ledger, October 19, 1999:

The appropriate answer to would-be censors is to say, “if you don’t like it, don’t look at it.” Or just don’t read it, or just don’t listen to it. The reason that retort doesn’t work here is that the Catholic guy isn’t complaining that anybody’s forcing Catholics to look at Dung on the Virgin. He’s complaining that Catholics are being forced to pay for it. He’s saying, go ahead and Dung on the Virgin anywhere you like. Just do it on your own dime, or on your fellow Catholic-bashers’ dime. Just don’t do it on the taxpayers’ dime.

But to the wine and cheese crowd on the museum board, them are fighting words. OK, I admit I don’t understand that reaction. But I’d still just shrug my shoulders if the board didn’t go on to add farce to insult by assuming the ridiculous pose of a courageous little community being set upon by the heavy hand of the establishment.

That’s just too silly to go unremarked. Because it’s as clear as a jar of pee that it’s the Catholic guy who’s being stomped and insulted here – and by people who make more money in a day than he does in a week. The museum board members are wealthy, powerful, socially and politically connected, and like lots of this country, and certainly much of the media, not too fond of the Catholic Church. They’re the establishment, if anyone is, not the Catholic Church, with whatever pitiful, tenuous hold it may still have on 1999 American culture.

I mean, like another friend of mine once said, if you want to be counterculture, be a Catholic.

So here’s what I’m saying. Picture the wine and cheese crowd gathering at some Brooklyn Museum of Art benefit. Then quick cut to somebody, anybody, in 1999 New York, who still gets up early to go to church, kneel in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary and pray. Which depicts a smug and intolerant establishment?

Well, if you picked the devout Catholic on his knees before the Virgin, you’re not alone. But I still don’t get it.

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Posted in: U.S. Constitution

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