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Two — but only two — cheers for blasphemy

Murder is wrong, and the murder of journalists cuts especially close to the bone for anyone in the industry. So I certainly sympathize with Jonathan Chait's impulse to offer a full-throated defense of publishing blasphemous anti-Muslim cartoons as a positive good.

"The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism," he writes, and "one cannot defend the right without defending the practice."

Stirring words, but the truth is that the murders in Paris this week — and the larger context of violence and blasphemy being played out in Europe between extremists, Islamophobes, and provocateurs — have created terrible incentives and a perverse debate. When we find ourselves feeling the need to valorize the courage of scabrous, offensive cartoons in order to affirm the right of their publication, we are operating in a framework made by terrorists.

Which isn't to say, today of all days, that we shouldn't be affirming that right. But both the circumstances and the likely consequences of this debate are thoroughly regrettable. The joy of free speech is that we're not supposed to have to cheer everything that's said.

Rights that shouldn't be exercised

My biggest doubt is that Chait's general principle is defensible. It's clearly one's legal right, as an American, to go around flinging offensive racial slurs at black people or to stage a neo-Nazi march through a Jewish town in Illinois. Many foreign countries take a narrower view of such things, but I think the United States has this correct. Still, while I want to live in a world where people can use racial slurs, I would have absolutely no problem with a world in which nobody did. Free speech is a right, but politeness is a virtue.

The legal right to free speech requires that people's right to speak freely be respected legally. That means no legal sanction for publishing racist cartoons if you choose to publish them, and it means that the law must protect you from acts of retaliatory violence. But defense of the right does not in the slightest bit entail defense of the practice. You shouldn't publish racist cartoons! That's not free speech, that's politeness and common human decency.

The Jay Carney Problem

Back in 2012, when Jay Carney was asked about Charlie Hebdo's planned publication of anti-Muslim cartoons, he offered the following formula which Chait criticizes:

Well, we are aware that a French magazine published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the Prophet Muhammad, and obviously, we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this. We know that these images will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory. But we’ve spoken repeatedly about the importance of upholding the freedom of expression that is enshrined in our Constitution.

In other words, we don’t question the right of something like this to be published; we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it. And I think that that’s our view about the video that was produced in this country and has caused so much offense in the Muslim world.

Contra Chait, this strikes me as an eminently sensible thing to say. The problem isn't with anything Carney said, it's with the fact that Jay Carney said it. White House press secretaries are not in the habit of commenting on French political cartoons. It arose as a subject of conversation precisely because there have been incidents of violence associated with offensive cartoon portrayals of the Prophet Mohammed in the past.

I am writing about this issue right now because innocent people were murdered in a Paris office, and political leaders around the world are discussing it for the very same reason. Carney goes out of his way to say that "intimidation and violence must be condemned" especially when used by people whose "goal is to undermine freedoms and liberties of open societies." But the very act of invoking "intelligence, calculation, civility, and decency" as reason to avoid publishing certain things in the context of violent threats naturally tends to suggest that you are, in fact, giving in to intimidation. It's a no-win conversation.

And that's because it's the wrong conversation. It's unfree speech that comes with implicit support from the government. Free speech is supposed to make Jay Carney's opinion on what's said completely irrelevant. This is, thus, the conversation that illiberal extremists want us to have: one where we admit that if the government isn't sanctioning speech, it's supporting it, and should be held accountable for it.

The downward spiral

Viewed in a vacuum, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons (or the Danish ones that preceded it) are hardly worthy of a stirring defense. They offer few ideas of value, contribute little to any important debates, and the world would likely have been a better place had everyone just been more polite in the first place.

But in the context of a world where publishers of cartoons mocking Mohammed have been threatened, harassed, and even killed, things look different.

Images that were once not much more than shock for its own sake now stand for something — for the legal right to blaspheme and to give offense. Unforgivable acts of slaughter imbue merely rude acts of publication with a glittering nobility. To blaspheme the Prophet transforms the publication of these cartoons from a pointless act to a courageous and even necessary one, while the observation that the world would do well without such provocations becomes a form of appeasement. And the infection quickly spreads.

Charlie Hebdo's cartoons sit ill with me, but the AP's decision to delete photos that display them sits even worse. When The Washington Examiner's Tim Carney observed that the AP's actions were contradicted by the organization's continued sale of an image of Andres Serrano's (in)famous "Piss Christ" sculpture, they responded by pulling the "Piss Christ" image, which is a further step into the illiberal darkness.


Ezra Klein wrote a wise post arguing that we shouldn't let murderers pretend their slaughter was about cartoons. And yet the question of meaning is not entirely one that we get to decide.

Cartoons depicting Mohammed in an unflattering light have become a flashpoint for free speech in Europe. Murdered cartoonists have become martyrs. People cannot, realistically, simply respond by resolving to be polite in the future.

But rather than exulting in this, we ought to find it regrettable. The fact of the matter is that racist and Islamophobic attitudes are a huge problem in the everyday lives of Europe's Muslim population. Far-right political parties are on the rise, and mainstream parties are moving to co-opt their agendas. Blasphemous, mocking images cause pain in marginalized communities. The elevation of such images to a point of high principle will increase the burdens on those minority groups. European Muslims find themselves crushed between the actions of a tiny group of killers and the necessary response of the majority society. Problems will increase for an already put-upon group of people.

Concern for the actual lives and welfare of mainstream Muslims has never been the priority of violent Islamist groups. The bloodshed on the streets of Paris and its consequences will just affirm that truth once again.

Correction: In addition to the statement correctly attributed to former White House Press Secretary Jay Carney above, an earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a paragraph from a Bruce Crumley column in Time magazine to Carney.

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