Several weeks ago I wrote about how some cartoons of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper became an international incident. At stake is much more than some cartoons; this matter has become a test case for the continued viability of freedom of speech in Western countries. And now The Economist has written about the story in a way that reveals the biases and false assumptions so prevalent in the public discourse today.
Instead of seeing the cartoon controversy as another threat to freedom of speech in the West, it places the onus all on Danish racism and xenophobia.
It characterizes the printing of the cartoons as “a schoolboy prank.” Not as a trial balloon to see if free speech still existed in Europe. Not as an attempt to defend it against attack. And in the wake of protests, “the paper insists that it meant no offence: it was merely protesting against the self-censorship of some cartoonists who had refused to illustrate a children’s book about Muhammad for fear of reprisals.” Using the word "insist" implies defensiveness: The Economist seems fairly sure that the paper was up to some racist no-good. But its journalistic integrity requires it to note that they "insist" the contrary.
The story also reports that “Louise Arbour, the United Nations human-rights commissioner, said she was ‘alarmed’ by such an ‘unacceptable disregard for the beliefs of others’” and adds: “The cartoons were even condemned by many in Denmark’s liberal-minded intelligentsia, not because they favour censorship but because they see the drawings as part of an increasingly xenophobic tone that has infected all Danish dealings with foreigners.” Do you consider yourself liberal-minded? Then you better pile on and condemn these cartoons, along with all the right-thinking folks.
The Economist quotes Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, a former Danish foreign minister: "We have a right to speak our minds, not an obligation to do so," he says. What on earth does that mean? We are not forced to say what we think? There are circumstances in which speaking our minds is not called for? That is true on an individual level. But if on a society-wide basis the Danes are prevented from saying what they think for fear of reprisal or even of giving offense to some group, then they no longer actually have the right to speak their minds.
Even worse is what The Economist does to the Danish Prime Minister: “Mr Fogh Rasmussen has tried to defuse the row mostly by ignoring it.” It also accuses him of “dithering.” How viciously unfair. In fact, the Prime Minister didn’t ignore the problem or dither. He stood up stoutly for freedom of speech, saying: "This is a matter of principle. I won’t meet with them because it is so crystal clear what principles Danish democracy is built upon that there is no reason to do so.” He added: “I will never accept that respect for a religious stance leads to the curtailment of criticism, humour and satire in the press.” The matter, he said, was beyond his authority: “As prime minister I have no tool whatsoever to take actions against the media and I don’t want that kind of tool.”
The Economist just happened not to notice that he said all that? Or did it all just not fit their paradigm? They were, after all, much more concerned with the Muslims whose feelings may have been hurt by the cartoons: “For many Muslims, this is too little, too late….the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a 57-strong group of countries, has also announced a boycott of "Images of the Middle East", an exhibition due to be held in Denmark this summer. What should have been a celebration of Denmark’s cultural links with the Islamic world now looks like falling victim to Danish free speech.”
Not "falling victim to Islamic intransigence and inability to accept the parameters of a free society."
And so the readers of The Economist, and most Westerners in general who get their news solely from such sources, continue on blissfully ignorant of just how severely threatened their free societies really are.