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Apr/15

28

PEN and Sword

hebdoCross-posted on the Corner

Pen International is an association of writers intended both to promote literature and to defend it.

In May, PEN America will be holding its annual gala, an event set to include the award to Charlie Hebdo of PEN America’s annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award, citing the French magazine’s “dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.”

PEN America added:

The day after the attack, the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine vowed to continue publication, releasing their next edition on time with a print run expanded from 40,000 to over eight million under the mantra ‘All is Forgiven,’ donating all proceeds to the families of the victims. The Charlie Hebdo attacks dealt a blow to the bedrock principle that no act of expression, no matter how provocative or offensive, can justify violence.

Indeed it did. PEN America also made the obvious point that it was not necessarily endorsing the cartoons, merely the right to publish them (without, it had no need to add, being murdered).

But, the Guardian reports:

Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi announced on Sunday that they had withdrawn from next month’s PEN American Center gala, citing objections to the literary and human rights organisation’s honouring of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo…. [Francine] Prose told the Associated Press that… she was in favour of “freedom of speech without limitations” and “deplored” the shootings at Charlie Hebdo

But….

…the award signified “admiration and respect” for its work and “I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo”.

Peter Carey (AFP reports) conceded that “A hideous crime was committed….

But

“All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

Salman Rushdie made the obvious point:

If PEN as a free-speech organisation can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organisation is not worth the name.

I’ll just take the opportunity to quote yet again from an article published in Jyllands-Posten in the aftermath of its publication of the original Mohammed cartoons, an article which included this phrase: “Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.”

The translation? “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”

Indeed there should not be.

Jyllands-Posten is singing a different tune these days, made all the bleaker by its bluntness.

As I noted in a post earlier this year, the newspaper declined to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons after the Paris murders, saying this:

“We have lived with the fear of a terrorist attack for nine years, and yes, that is the explanation why we do not reprint the cartoons, whether it be our own or Charlie Hebdo’s,” Jyllands-Posten said. “We are also aware that we therefore bow to violence and intimidation.”

That sad surrender makes it all the more important that PEN America took the stand that it has, and that it has stuck with it. As for authors actually attacking PEN America for standing up for the, yes, sometimes uncomfortable principle of free expression, well…

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Jan/15

8

Will Anything Change?

Hebdo 2Cross-posted on the Corner.

At the Financial Times, Europe editor Tony Barber’s initial response to the atrocity in Paris included this:

Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.

This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.

That text was later changed to (amongst other things) remove the words I have highlighted, but the stink of the suggestion (no, more than a suggestion) of self-censorship remains.

Meanwhile the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, “unequivocally condemned” the murders, but in a piece headed “Muslims Are Right To Be Angry”, he also attacked Charlie Hebdo’s sometimes very crude treatment of religious figures:

Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.” Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive. Muhammad isn’t sacred to me, either, but it would never occur to me to deliberately insult Muslims by trashing him.

For the most part though, the response to the slaughter in Paris has been impressive, moving beyond hashtags, to large demonstrations, to the republication of ‘offensive’ images, the latter vital if the point is to be made—as it must be—that, to quote again those words from Jyllands-Posten (sorry, Mr. Butler) all those years ago, “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”

But the real test will be to see if anything changes. Will the creeping reintroduction of blasphemy laws (dressed up in modern clothes, of course, ‘hate speech’, mustn’t give offense, that sort of thing) go into reverse, let alone the self-censorship that is (Butler must approve) such a feature of our times?

Writing in Time, Walter Olson had this to say:

The danger is not that there will be too little outpouring of solidarity, grief, and outrage in coming days. Of course there will be that. Demonstrations are already underway across France. The danger comes afterward, once the story passes and intellectuals and those who discuss and distribute their work decide how and whether to adjust themselves to a more intense climate of fear. At media outlets, among conference planners, at universities, there will be certain lawyers and risk managers and compliance experts and insurance buyers ready to advise the safer course, the course of silence.

And then there are the lawmakers. After years in which blasphemy laws were assumed to be a relic of the past, laws accomplishing much of the same effect are once again on the march in Europe, banning “defamation of religion,” insult to religious beliefs, or overly vigorous criticism of other people’s religions when defined as “hate speech.” This must go no further. One way we can honor Charb, Cabu, Wolinski, Tignous, and the others who were killed Wednesday is by lifting legal constraints on what their successors tomorrow can draw and write.

If I had to guess, those legal constraints will—after the briefest of pauses to honor those murdered for daring to express themselves—continue to tighten.

To take one example of the way things have been going in Europe, let’s look at what Britain’s Theresa May has planned for her countrymen should the Tories win the next election. Reason’s Brendan O’Neill (writing in November) can be our guide:

May wants to introduce “extremism disruption orders”, which, yes, are as terrifyingly authoritarian as they sound. Last month, May unveiled her ambition to “eliminate extremism in all its forms.” Whether you’re a neo-Nazi or an Islamist, or just someone who says things which betray, in May’s words, a lack of “respect for the rule of law” and “respect for minorities”, then you could be served with an extremism disruption order (EDO).

Strikingly, EDOs will target even individuals who do not espouse or promote violence, which is already a crime in the U.K. As May says, “The problem that we have had is this distinction of saying we will only go after you if you are an extremist that directly supports violence. [This] has left the field open for extremists who know how not to step over the line.” How telling that a leading British politician should be snotty about “this distinction” between speech and violence, between words and actions, which isn’t actually some glitch in the legal system, as she seems to think, but rather is the foundation stone on which every free, democratic society ought to be built.

Once served with an EDO, you will be banned from publishing on the Internet, speaking in a public forum, or appearing on TV. To say something online, including just tweeting or posting on Facebook, you will need the permission of the police…..What sort of people might find themselves branded “extremists” and thus forbidden from speaking in public? Anyone, really. The definition of extremist being bandied about by May and her colleagues is so sweeping that pretty much all individuals with outré or edgy views could potentially find themselves served with an EDO and no longer allowed to make any public utterance without government approval.

Both secularists and Christians understand where this could lead.

The Daily Telegraph reported:

Keith Porteous Wood, director of the [National Secular Society], said secularists might have to think twice before criticising Christianity or Islam. He said secularists risk being branded Islamophobic and racist because of their high profile campaigns against the advance of Sharia law in the UK….

Simon Calvert, Deputy Director of the Christian Institute, said traditionalist evangelicals who criticise gay marriage or even argue that all religions are not the same could find themselves accused of extremism….

“Hand a judge a file of a thousand Twitter postings accusing this atheist or that evangelical of ‘spreading hatred’ and they could easily rule that an EDO is needed….”

Freedom of expression is no longer a ‘European value’, not even in Britain, a nation where that right was once a source of pride. That’s not going to change. There will be more ‘blasphemy’ laws, not fewer. In fact, I would not be surprised if there is a politician somewhere already preparing the argument that the murders in Paris could have been prevented if only Charlie Hebdo had been kept under a tighter rein.

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Jan/15

8

Charlie Hebdo

hebdoCross-posted on the Corner.

The revolting terrorist assault on Charlie Hebdo today is designed to intimidate for the future as much as to ‘punish’ for the past.

And I suspect that it has, to some degree, been encouraged by opinion in Europe that has gone along with the idea that, when it comes to Islam, certain things must not be written, said or shown.

Here’s part of something I posted on the Corner in 2007. It concerned the earlier decision by the editor of Charlie Hebdo to republish the Danish Mohammed cartoons . He was quoted (in part) by the Wall Street Journal as follows:

I invited my colleagues from the daily and weekly press to republish the Danish cartoons, too. Most of them published some of them; only L’Express did in full. Before publication, I was pressured not to go ahead and summoned to the Hôtel Matignon to see the prime minister’s chief of staff; I refused to go. The next day, summary proceedings were initiated by the Grand Mosque of Paris and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France to stop this issue of Charlie Hebdo from hitting newsstands. The government encouraged them, but their suit was dismissed.”

As I noted at the time, “The government encouraged them.”

And in a piece the previous year, I wrote this:

Jacques Chirac was quick to condemn the republication of the Danish cartoons in Charlie Hebdo, an iconoclastic French weekly, as an “overt provocation“, but was able to leave the dirty work to others. The French Council of Muslims, a body set up with official support, is reported to be organizing the prosecution of poor Charlie, quite for what remains unclear, but doubtless the Council’s lawyers will be able to find something useful in France’s laws against “hate speech” or any number of other offenses dreamt up by the enforcers of multiculturalism.

Responsibility (moral and legal) for today’s murders lies unequivocally with the criminals who butchered the innocent, but it’s hard not to think that they went about their killings knowing that intimidation has been shown to work.

I concluded that piece, which mainly concerned the reaction elsewhere in Europe to the stance taken by the Danes, as follows:

Denmark, and its tradition of free speech, has been left to twist in the wind, trashed, abused, and betrayed. An article published in Jyllands-Posten (yes, them again) on Friday revealed clear frustration over the way that the country is being treated. It’s in Danish only, but one phrase (“Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.”) stands out, and it deserves to be translated and repeated again, and again, and again: “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”

If only.

And to the victims today, slaughtered for the ‘crime’ of free expression, RIP.

This is a terrible day.

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Feb/11

2

Profiles in Cowardice

Cross-posted on the Corner:

Via the Daily Telegraph:

Baroness Ashton is under fire after the EU failed to agree on a statement condemning attacks on religious minorities in the Islamic world because it is not politically correct to use the word “Christian”.

A meeting of EU foreign ministers failed to agree on a condemnation of sectarian attacks over the Christmas period that targeted Christians in Egypt and Iraq. Talks ended angrily when Italy accused Lady Ashton, the EU’s foreign minister, of “excessive” political correctness because she refused to name any specific religious group as a victim of attacks.

Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, demanded an EU response on the persecution of Christians after a New Year suicide bombing at a Coptic church in northern Egypt in which 23 people were killed. The Egyptian bombing followed attacks in Baghdad and fears, expressed by the Vatican, of persecution leading to a Christian exodus from the Middle East. Mr Frattini, backed by France, said it pointless to issue statements defending religious tolerance without any references to the specific minority, Christians, that was under attack

Frattini is quite correct (Ashton’s stance is grotesque), but he shouldn’t be surprised. A creature of Tony Blair’s Labour party, Ashton, picked for her current job by a secretive cabal, is a poster girl for post-democratic Europe, as incompetent as she is craven as she is malign.

Curiously Frattini then goes on to pin the blame on “secularism,” when the real issue is clearly an unwillingness to risk giving “offense” to Muslim hardliners, something that Frattini knows a thing or two about himself.

I wrote about it at the time, but here is Frattini back in 2006 (back then he was the EU’s commissioner for “justice, freedom and security”), speaking to the Daily Telegraph in the wake of the Danish Mohammed cartoons:

Plans for a European press charter committing the media to “prudence” when reporting on Islam and other religions, were unveiled yesterday.

Franco Frattini, the European Union commissioner for justice, freedom and security, revealed the idea for a code of conduct in an interview with The Daily Telegraph. Mr Frattini, a former Italian foreign minister, said the EU faced the “very real problem” of trying to reconcile “two fundamental freedoms, the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion”.

Millions of European Muslims felt “humiliated” by the publication of cartoons of Mohammed, he added, calling on journalists and media chiefs to accept that “the exercising of a right is always the assumption of a responsibility”. He appealed to European media to agree to “self-regulate”.

Accepting such self-regulation would send an important political message to the Muslim world, Mr Frattini said. By agreeing to a charter “the press will give the Muslim world the message: we are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression, we can and we are ready to self-regulate that right”, he said.

Clearly Baroness Ashton was paying attention.

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Mar/10

21

Blasphemy Laws (By Other Means)

Here’s a story from the London Times on how the Britain’s libel laws may be used to do their bit in stamping down free speech:

UP TO 95,000 descendants of the prophet Muhammad are planning to bring a libel action in Britain over “blasphemous” cartoons of the founder of Islam, even though they were published in the Danish press.

The defamation case is being prepared by Faisal Yamani, a Saudi lawyer acting for the descendants, who live in the Middle East, north Africa and as far afield as Australia.

Mark Stephens, a British lawyer who has seen a “pre-action” letter sent by Yamani to 10 Danish newspapers, said it “specifically says” he will launch proceedings in London.

Yamani is expected to justify the action by claiming that the cartoons, including one of Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban, were accessible in Britain on the internet…

…Stephens said the descendants could argue that the cartoons — which first appeared in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2005, sparking violent protests around the world — were a direct slur on them.

“Direct descendants of the prophet have a particular place within Muslim society . . . By effectively criticising and making fun of the prophet you are, by implication, holding them up to scandal, contempt and public ridicule,” he said. “So it may be that they will suffer some kind of damage among their own community. The question is, is that defamatory in English law?”

 

Good Grief

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Feb/10

27

Craven

Well, this story (via The Daily Telegraph) is depressing:

A Danish newspaper on Friday became the first in the country to apologise for offending Muslims by printing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb-shaped turban, rekindling a heated debate about free speech. Politiken said its apology was part of a settlement with a Saudi lawyer representing eight Muslim groups in the Middle East and Australia…Politiken was among several Danish newspapers that reprinted the cartoon in 2008 after police uncovered an alleged plot to kill its creator, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard.

In a statement, Politiken said it “recognises and deplores” that Muslims were offended by the caricature. “We apologise to anyone who was offended by our decision to reprint the cartoon drawing,” it said. Toeger Seidenfaden, the paper’s editor, told The Associated Press that the paper was apologising for the offence caused by the cartoon – not the decision to reprint it.

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Dec/09

31

Last-minute holiday cheer

If anyone is looking for a final holiday treat, I highly recommend the animated movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I review here.  Don’t think that you need to have a child in tow to see it; its satire of the urbane modern personality is hilarious; the dialogue is marvelously witty; and the soundtrack pulses with energy.  If you need a message, evolutionary biologists will cheer its moral that one’s nature is inbred.
 
I adore cartoons and every other type of animated film, because they display the human imagination at its apex of creativity, liberated from such unnecessary drags as gravity and every other law of the universe.  And they show the director’s knowledge of human expressiveness, since his actors do nothing by instinct.  He must explicitly command every pregnant pause, every ironic arch of an eyebrow.   We live in an age of great animators, one of many things to feel optimistic  about.

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