Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Cartoon Wars

ISIS appears to have inspired its first terrorist attack in the United States: in Garland, Texas. This item may have slipped the attention of many people because as is so often the case today, much of the reporting and commentary has got caught up on other, supplementary issues.

The supplementary issues are first, that the attack targeted a competition set up to show images of what people thought Muhammad may have looked like. Then, there is the identity of the people who organized the exhibition and spoke at it.

Before coming to this, let us just return to that main issue. Since January, the idea that ISIS-like groups can inspire people to carry out murderous attacks in Paris and Copenhagen has come to be accepted. But that this can happen in Texas, of all places, could yet have an even worse "chilling effect" on free speech than the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. No European country has the constitutional commitment to free speech of the United States. And Texas is not stuck in the moral relativism and fearful multiculturalism of most European countries.

There will be a feeling, post-Garland, that if ISIS can strike in Texas, it can strike anyplace. The entire developed world is therefore a potential site for an attack from ISIS. Although no one will put his hands up and surrender, neither will anyone be likely to draw attention to himself by saying or doing anything that might displease such homicidal censors.

The presence of strong security forces clearly helps to prevent attacks, but it is worth remembering that ISIS will use the opportunity of such "failed" attacks to come up with other ways of operating, which they will judge more likely to succeed.

What is most striking, however, is how silent many of the usual defenders of free speech have been.

Undoubtedly this is partly to do with the idea, becoming ingrained, that if you draw Mohammed or publish such images, you have, in some way, got it coming to you. This is an appalling pass to have come to, but it is in just such way that censorship and self-censorship are allowed to embed themselves.

Very few people say that they will not draw a historical figure because they are scared. But attack by attack, the feeling is growing among the majority of the media and others who have declined to publish such images, that they have failed. So to hide that shame, they tell themselves there is something provocative and even irresponsible in challenging people who would challenge the freedom speech.

One might still get the support of those who cherish free speech if one were accidentally to publish a cartoon of Mohammed, but not if you did so deliberately, and in full knowledge of the consequences. But of course, it is precisely after facing the consequences of challenging these would-be censors that it is most important to keep on challenging them, so that people with Kalashnikov rifles do not make our customs and laws.

As people come up with ever more elaborate ways to justify what they probably know in their hearts to be contemptible, it becomes harder and harder for them to change course.

Then there is the other only-occasionally-spoken-about supplementary issue, which may well be at the root of the difference between the assaults in Europe and the response to the attempted Texas assault. The January massacre at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo undoubtedly woke up a portion of the general public in the West because the victims were cartoonists and editors at a "left-wing" magazine. That is, Charlie Hebdo stood for a type of robust secular, anti-establishment type of French politics, which a portion of the left worldwide could recognize as its own.

This stands in contrast to the comparative lack of solidarity after threats to the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in the wake of the 2005 Mohammed cartoons affair. To varying degrees, Jyllands-Posten was described as a "conservative" paper. In this context, unsure whether "conservative" meant anything from "establishment" all the way to "racist," there was often suspected to be some dark, ulterior motive for publishing cartoons of the founder of Islam
There is, however, no escaping such smears. Plenty of people proved willing, in the wake of the Paris attack, to smear the murdered cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo as far-right-wing or racist.

The organizers at the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, are not left-wing journalists but conservative activists; and because the Dutch politician Geert Wilders spoke at the opening of the exhibition, that added a layer of complexity for people who like labeling actions with political valences, rather than just seeing actions as apart from them. It seems clear, however, from the pattern of condemnations on one side and silence on the other, that a cartoonist may be worthy of defense if he is associated with a left-wing organization, but not if he is associated with a right-wing one.

Of course, this idea goes to one of the false presumptions of our time: ­that people on the political left are motivated by good intentions even when they do bad things, while people on the political right are motivated by bad intentions even when they do good things. So a cartoon promoted byCharlie Hebdo may be thought to be provocative in a constructive way, whereas one promoted by AFDI can only be thought if as being provocative in an unconstructive way. Whether people are willing to admit it or not, this is one of the main problems that underlies the reaction to the Texas attack.

Such a distinction is, needless to say, a colossal mistake. When people prefer to focus on the motives of the victims rather than on the motives of the attackers, they will ignore the single most important matter: that an art exhibition, or free speech, has been targeted. The rest is narcissism and slow-learning.

It does not matter if you are right wing or left wing. It does not matter if you are American, Danish, Dutch, Belgian or French, or whether you are from Texas or Copenhagen. These particularities may matter greatly and be endlessly interesting to people in the countries in question. But they matter not a jot to ISIS or their fellow-travellers. What these people are trying to do is to enforce Islamic blasphemy laws across the entire world.

That is all that matters. If we forget this or lose sight of it, not only will we lose free speech, we will lose, period.