The American Left used to champion free expression. We were lectured — correctly — that the price of being repulsed by occasional crude talk and art was worth paying. Only that way could Americans ensure our daily right to criticize those with greater power and influence whom we found wrong and objectionable.
When 1950s comedian Lenny Bruce titillated his audiences with the f-word and crude sex talk, liberals came to his defense. They reminded us that vulgar speech is not a crime: The First Amendment was not just designed to protect uplifting expression, but also rarer blasphemous and indecent speech.
For liberals, the burning of a flag on campus and the full-frontal nudity of Penthouse magazine were also First Amendment issues.
When artist Andres Serrano photographed a crucifix in a jar with his own urine (“Piss Christ”), the avant-garde Left not only protected Serrano’s constitutional right to offend millions, but also saw no problem in the U.S. government’s subsidizing the talentless Serrano’s sophomoric obnoxiousness.
But the worldview of the Left is self-contradictory. One of its pet doctrines is multiculturalism — or the idea that non-Western cultures cannot be judged critically by our own inherently biased Western standards.
Female circumcision or honor killings in the Muslim world don’t merit our attention in the way that a woman’s right to free abortion pills from her Catholic employer does in the West. When it comes to the Middle East, we neither criticize strongly enough the region’s sexism, homophobia, or racism, nor do we defend without qualification our own notions of free expression as inherently superior to the habitual censorship abroad.
Fear plays a role, too. Championing the right of Andres Serrano to show his degrading pictures of Christ wins liberal laurels. Protecting novelist Salman Rushdie’s caricatures of Islam might earn death.
The Obama administration went to great lengths to blast an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian for posting on the Internet a juvenile movie trailer ridiculing Islam which offended Muslims. After riots across the Middle East and the murder of the U.S. ambassador in Libya, American officials did not wish to concede that radical Islam hates the United States — and hates it even when Barack Obama is president. The administration did not want to admit that its own lax security standards, not a film trailer, led to the horrific murders in Libya; neither did it want to admit in an election year that its Middle East reset policy is in shambles.
No obnoxious American in the last half-century — not Larry Flynt, not Daniel Ellsberg — has warranted so much condemnation for his antics from the president of the United States, the secretary of state, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as one crackpot preacher in Florida and an inept Coptic film producer have received.
Outraged Arab Americans in Dearborn, Mich., demonstrated in favor of anti-blasphemy laws last week. They demanded an end to any expression that they find religiously offensive — and thereby proved to be embarrassingly clueless as to why many in their communities left their own homelands to come to America in the first place.
The new Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, recently lectured the U.S. on its decadence and wants a global ban on the caricaturing of Islam. He, too, forgot that he once fled to the United States to be educated and employed and to freely say things that would have gotten him killed in his native Egypt.
Another Egyptian immigrant, frequent CNN and MSNBC guest pundit Mona Eltahawy, recently spray-painted over a public anti-jihadist poster that she disliked. In her world, defacing public property is okay if by her own standards she judges it offensive. Eltahawy, like the Dearborn protesters, is oblivious to the fact that her self-appointed censorship would soon turn her adopted country into just the sort of intolerant society from which she, too, fled.
It is past time for U.S. officials to insist that our traditions and laws apply equally across the board, regardless of where we come from, or what we look like, or the anger and danger we incur from abroad.
Schools could do better by cutting back on their multicultural classes and reintroducing study of the U.S. Constitution. After all, immigrants are required to pass a basic test on the Constitution as part of winning citizenship.
“Speaking truth to power” is not Sandra Fluke grandstanding to ovations at the Democratic convention on behalf of government-supplied free contraception. It is instead our elected officials reminding rampaging Middle Eastern terrorists and bigots that they will not alter our Constitution — and had better not try.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected]. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.