Shouting Fire in a Burning Embassy

Any discussion on the limits of free speech inevitably prompts someone to quote Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s "shouting fire in a theater" example. But what if the theater is actually burning? Doesn’t one have a duty to shout fire even if that causes panic? The test of responsible free speech is not whether the speech causes distress or division but whether the speech contains truth. Holmes didn’t say shouting fire in a theater is wrong; he condemned "falsely shouting fire in a theater."

Fanned by militant jihadists and their useful dupes in the West, smoke from radical Islam has been billowing over Europe for some time. Now that a few commentators, tired of living under the strictures of political correctness, are crying "fire" — that is, drawing attention to the fiery character of radical Islam and its leveraging attempts to subjugate and silence Europe — the cultural left, which has never taken an interest in "responsible free speech" before and normally celebrates western provocateurs, is suddenly demanding circumspection and censorship from writers and artists.

While some leftist intellectuals and journalists can see the wanton inconsistency in this stance, and realize that their stated commitment to fearless free speech and criticism of religion must extend to Islam or it will mean nothing, others on the left, many in this country, are engaging in acts of stunning self-censorship. Can anyone doubt the power of radical Islam to scare the West into shriveling up the area of free speech on a topic vital to its preservation when a large liberal entity like CNN is issuing cowardly explanations for not reporting certain things because to do so would hurt the feelings of radical Muslims?

The story on Wednesday about three editors and a reporter quitting the New York Press over its refusal to reprint the Danish cartoons is another astonishing measure of the extent to which the power of free speech can be circumscribed through western cravenness alone: here we have a proudly libertarian-leaning publication — an "alternative newspaper" no less — too PC to publish cartoons that look innocuous compared to the anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish caricatures that appear in the radical Islamic press (and by the way appear often in the bohemian American press of which I thought New York Press was a part).

It doesn’t take much for the left’s Voltairean Enlightment conceit about free speech to collapse, does it? Fight to the death for free speech? Liberals who have spent decades lecturing the hoi polloi on appreciating offensive art won’t even reprint a handful of cartoons so that their readers can judge whether the explosive reaction to them is rational or not.

And what happened to that other favorite conceit of the left, which came through the English utilitarians like John Stuart Mill during the Enlightenment, that unrestrained, robust free speech is essential to allowing the truth to percolate to the top? That provocative expressions of free speech often dislodge important truths? That’s collapsed too, and the reason is that the left’s interest in free speech is detached from truth. Though the hypocrisy seems surreal given their burbling rhetoric about free speech, many liberals prefer the suspension of free speech to the expression of certain unpleasant truths that they do not want to hear lest those truths upset their faux-pious ideology of mulitculturalism. What makes speech about radical Islam "irresponsible" to them is not that it is false but that it is true.

The Danish cartoonists, as their editor has noted in their defense, were doing what cartoonists do all the time: taking a truth and exaggerating it artistically. Was Mohammad a warrior? The jihadists who invoke his life as inspiration for their own warring say so. Repeatedly. If they depict him as a warrior, if they use their free speech to define Islam in militant terms, why is it irresponsible free speech for western writers and artists to echo them? To simply report the way in which many Muslims themselves define Islam as a religion of jihad?

Yes, journalism or art that takes Islam at its word is a form of shouting fire in a crowded world. But no one can plausibly say — especially when so many radical Muslims over the last two weeks have lived up to the stereotype of Islam as violent in frighteningly cartoonish ways that far eclipsed the stereotype contained in the cartoons themselves — that the smoke justifying these alerts exists and grows larger. Curtailing free speech or practing self-censorship on the topic of Islam will not make the smoke go away but will consign the West to the flames.

Satire, it is said, can never catch up to reality, and the events of the last few days would seem to confirm it: these satirical cartoons were but a partial reflection of the violence of radical Islam and its demands that the West practice the very religious tolerance it abhors. The reality of self-censorship that prompted the satire in the first place has also been confirmed and perhaps deepened. Knowing the weakness of the West, knowing that many westerners are too scared to speak, the jihadists figured that by torching embassies those few would had been crying fire would henceforth be silenced.