Western civilization’s creed is free thought and expression, the lubricant of everything from democracy to human rights.
Even a simpleton in the West accepts that protecting free expression is not the easy task of ensuring the right to read Homer’s Iliad or do the New York Times crossword puzzle. It entails instead the unpleasant duty of allowing offensive expression.
Westerners fight against pornography, blasphemy, or hate speech in the arena of ideas by writing and speaking out against such foul expression. They are free to sue, picket, boycott, and pressure sponsors of unwelcome speech. But Westerners cannot return to the Middle Ages to murder those whose ideas they don’t like.
“Parody” and “satire” are, respectively, Greek and Latin words. In antiquity the non-Western tradition simply did not produce authors quite like the vicious Aristophanes, Petronius, and Juvenal, who unapologetically trashed the society around them. If the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo loses the millennia-old right to ridicule Islam from within a democracy, then there is no longer a West, at least as we know it.
Unfortunately, when we look to prominent defenders of the Western faith in free speech, we find too often offenders.
Start with Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League. He recently made a series of silly statements about the terrorist attack in Paris. The gist was that the slain Charlie Hebdo staffers were nearly as much to blame for their deaths as were their killers, given their gratuitous blasphemy against the Islamic religion.
Does Donohue believe that satirists who poke fun at Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Judaism — and there are many, including the editors of Charlie Hebdo — are in similar mortal danger worldwide? Would Donohue wish such crass artists and writers to be? Do atheists find Donohue’s wink-and-nod apology for the radical Islamic killers offensive to the ideals of the secular Enlightenment? If so, should they assault Donohue for his de facto attack on unfettered free speech?
Cowardice also explains the failure to defend Western free expression. The New York Daily News recently ran a photo of editor Stephane Charbonnier, who was killed in the attack, holding an issue of Charlie Hebdo, but with the obnoxious cover-page cartoon caricaturing Islam pixelated out.
Would the Daily News — usually proud of its often lurid and graphic tabloid covers — extend such an exemption to Mormons’ displeasure over the Broadway play The Book of Mormon, which trashed their religion? Is it careful not to repeat blasphemies against Christianity or Buddhism?
Of course not. The editors assume that aggrieved Mormons will not storm their Manhattan offices with assault weapons. The Western media loudly proclaims its courage in taking on everyone from the Tea Party to gun owners, but it goes silent when the offended have a bad habit of lopping off heads rather than just arguing back.
We expect the president of the United States to be the foremost defender of the Western faith of free expression. Unfortunately, Barack Obama — who has a habit of weighing in on everything from his own resemblance to Trayvon Martin to the likely Final Four — has been utterly confused about free speech.
In 2009, during the Iranian Green Revolution, Obama kept quiet when millions of Iranians hit the streets to demand freedom from theocracy. Obama, who once made a last-minute trip to Denmark to lobby for Chicago to host the Olympics, was the sole major Western leader absent from a huge rally in Paris to reiterate the West’s commitment to free expression. Sports are one thing; defending free speech from radical Islam is quite another.
So far Obama has remained mum about the remarkable Cairo speech of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who called on imams and Islamic clerics to speak out against terrorist violence in their midst and to inculcate greater tolerance among Muslims. In Obama’s own 2009 Cairo speech, he invited the illiberal Muslim Brotherhood to attend in order to hear mostly half-true claims about the historical glories of Islam, while Obama cited Western colonialism, globalization, and the Cold War as understandable incitements to Muslims.
After the September 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Obama wrongly blamed filmmaker Nakoula Nakoula for sparking the violence by posting an anti-Islamic video. Obama chose to go before the United Nations to attack Nakoula (who was conveniently jailed by a federal judge for a minor probation violation): “The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam.”
Actually, Mr. President, the future belongs to civilized men and women who do not murder satirists who choose while in the West to ridicule any religion they please. Islam wins no special exemption.
The issue is not whether the late editors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were obnoxious or clever, self-destructive, or courageous — but only whether Westerners reserve the right on their own soil to express themselves as they please.
Too bad so many of our leaders do not understand that.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals. You can reach him by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.