What are the limits of free expression. At a recent conference Salman Rushdie and Nobel Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel agreed that laws against blasphemy are problematic, thorny and surprisingly, subject to some form of revisionism. In this information age, the internet is revealing that major events cannot be contained within a single frame of reference; all events are a vast and expanding work of collage. The Gaza flotilla tragedy showed there was no single image or story to define the event. Rather, a shifting array of contradictory images and stories. Our experience of world events is now mediated almost entirely by various kinds of pastiche that is being continually reorganized. Free expression itself will become a form of personal collage in a search for ultimate authenticity, in the absence of iconic images of defining moments.
“We are in danger of losing the battle for freedom of speech,” Mr. Rushdie said. It is being recast as a Western imposition, not a universal human right. Respect is being redefined as agreement, and censorship disguised as a virtuous defence of diversity. His own fatwa, he said, was “a rejection of the idea of fiction as a form” and “the beginning of something that was going to spread around the world.” Freedom of expression and imagination “is now very much back in question, and is strongly under attack by religious authorities and religious armies of different sorts, and not only Islam,” Mr. Rushdie said.” ( Joseph Brean, National Post )
“It would be very inappropriate to think of any system of ideas as something that should be protected from debate,” Mr. Rushdie said. “This is in a way at the heart of the free-speech argument, that you should by all means protect individuals against discrimination by reason of whatever their belief system may be. But the beliefs themselves are open for debate, criticism, satire, and all kinds of disrespectful remarks.”
As an example, he mentioned a cartoon he had just seen of Mohammad reading a newspaper, by Jonathan Shapiro in the Mail and Guardian of Johannesburg.The cartoon depicts Muhammad lying on a couch and complaining to a psychologist that “other prophets have followers with a sense of humour”. The problem is that the war of cartoons, could turn into war on the streets; much like the war of the posters between the two world wars in Europe.
”Today represents a terrible blot on the justice system of South Africa. The publishing of an offensive cartoon of Muhammad (saw) by the reckless and irresponsible Mail and Guardian on behalf of its cartoonist, Zapiro and the comments made by them since display a well thought out action that was meant to hit Muslims where it hurts most. Additionally, this was part of an international collective of sick people who ran the Facebook page, “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day”, a collective that the M&G and Zapiro actively chose to be a part of and have since been completely unapologetic of. In fact they are proud of the “upholding of freedom of speech”
Muslims are reminded by none other than Allah about these type of people: “Hatred has already appeared from their mouths, but what their breasts conceal is far worse. Indeed We have made plain to you the Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses) if you understand.” (Aal Imraan: 118)” ( www.pureislam.co )
Mr. Wiesel agreed to a point that religious defamation should not be illegal. He said religion is like money and love. “It all depends what you do with it,” he said. It can and should be noble, but it can also be a vehicle for fanaticism. He said the sole exception should be Holocaust denial, which must be banned. And the sole exception to that exception, he said, is America, where he lives, and where free speech is regarded as such a fundamental part of life. “I don’t want to touch the First Amendment,” he said.
However, this gets into the sticky issue of judging pain and suffering among different groups. Wiesel’s position is reflected in the laws of Germany, which does not stop that society’s deep flirtation with anti-semitism and fascism from continuing to exist. Rushdie’s view is that Holocaust denial law creates heros; such as Ernst Zundel and Robert Faurisson, the latter of whom first gained notoriety by claiming Anne Frank’s diary to be a fraud, instead of sticking to some of the oddities about her father, Otto Frank. Further controversy was sparked when one of Faurisson’s revisionist works was published with an introduction by Noam Chomsky, though the Chomsky piece was taken out of context since it was not written to be used as an introduction. Chomsky had authorized its use to defend Faurisson as a general defense of freedom of speech, including Faurisson’s. Chomsky stated that he had “no evidence to support conclusion” that Faurisson was antisemitic, and at the same time described the Holocaust as “the most fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history.”
Wiesel has also called for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be arrested for crimes against humanity — for his nuclear aspirations and anti-Semitic intent. But, based on a Chomsky like evaluation there might not be enough evidence to support the measure short of incontrovertible physical and material evidence. That is, between the Left and the Right, there are differing interpretations of the extent of free speech. That Iranian reactionaries can manipulate Leftist sentiment is almost absurd, especially in the name of freedom, when the strange bedfellows of politcs include types like John Docker, one of Australia’s best known cultural critics. He is also curiously perhaps Australia’s best known Jewish anti-Zionist whose anti-Zionism is linked to his denial of the Jewish experience of oppression. Utilising a long-standing Marxist tradition, Docker depicts Jews not as a vulnerable minority group which at times secures some economic and political power, but rather as a powerful collective acting to defend narrow political group interests.
”Many Jews appear to have regarded Zionism as an extremist movement with utopian, if not politically dangerous, objectives. Ideological opposition to Zionism was particularly strong from three sources. Jewish socialists including the numerically significant Bundists opposed Zionism as a reactionary diversion from the task of fighting anti-Semitism and defending Jewish rights in the Diaspora. Many Reform and assimilated Jews defined their Jewishness in solely religious rather than ethnic terms. And many Orthodox Jews believed that the rebuilding of the Jewish homeland must await the coming of the Messiah (Rubinstein 2001: 22-23; Kessler 2001)….For over two decades, John Docker has articulated an unremitting hostility to Zionism and Israel. This anti-Zionist perspective has no significance in itself. Many Australians share Docker’s anti-Zionist views, and at least some of them are of Jewish background. What is significant and unique, however, is Docker’s constant coupling of his anti-Zionism with a public Jewish identification.” ( Philip Mendes )
”A woman accused of using racial epithets while waiting for food at a Connecticut Taco Bell drive-through window was arrested Wednesday. Jennifer Farrelly, 19, of East Windsor, has been charged with ridicule on account of race, creed or color and second-degree breach of peace. . . . Face-to-face personal insults (racist or not) are generally unprotected by the First Amendment. They fit into the “fighting words” exception to free speech, on the theory that they lack constitutional value and tend to cause fights. Speech that isn’t directed to a particular hearer is generally protected, even if it’s an insult; but speech that is so directand is said face-to-face, where an imminet fight (or worse) is possible, is unprotected.
The relevant provision of the Connecticut breach of the peace statute, § 53a-181(a), has been narrowed by the Connecticut courts to cover only fighting words. (See State v. Szymkiewicz, 237 Conn. 613 (1996).) Farrelly thus might well be prosecuted under this statute. On the other hand, the “ridicule on account of race” statute is unconstitutional, at least if it is this satute (the only one I could find that uses those words):
Any person who, by his advertisement, ridicules or holds up to contempt any person or class of persons, on account of the creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race of such person or class of persons, shall be fined not more than fifty dollars or imprisoned not more than thirty days or both.”
The issue of rights and free speech can be a case study in hypocrisy and with regard to the arts has been used to limit creative expression through the application of osbcenity laws. An example is the controversies surrounding Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” and the Brooklyn Museum’s display of the Virgin Mary covered in feces that was made up in part of feces and of cutouts of bare buttocks from magazines. From the Boston Globe Nov. 3-1999:
This week, US District Judge Nina Gershon sent New York’s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani a message he should heed: Stop trampling on the Brooklyn Museum’s First Amendment rights.
Giuliani is furious about an exhibit, “Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection.” He called the art “sick,” withheld operating funds, and started eviction proceedings against the museum. One object of his anger is a painting of a black Virgin Mary spotted with elephant dung. The mayor said: “You don’t have a right to a government subsidy to desecrate someone else’s religion.” It’s a passionate argument, but it ignores the facts and the law. None of the $2 million for the “Sensation” exhibit came from New York City. Serious allegations have been raised about the museum’s fund-raising for the exhibit, but that is a separate issue. The city’s contract with the museum calls for the city to pay for maintenance without, as the court says, “stating any conditions regarding the content of the museum’s artworks.”
Most damning is the court’s finding that the city is violating the museum’s First Amendment rights. Gershon quoted many cases, including the Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling in Texas v. Johnson protecting flag-burning. “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
At the Rushdie-Wiesel news conference, moderator Brian Mulroney had this to say:
”In his remarks, Mr. Mulroney said Canadian leaders “should be cautious when they talk about our legendary sense of tolerance.””Often a tone of moral superiority insinuates itself into our national discourse,” Mr. Mulroney said. “We have little to be smug about.” To illustrate, he read passages of the diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister from the 1920s to the 1940s, revealing a stark anti-Semitism … and shockingly flattering comments about meeting Adolf Hitler. “He smiled very pleasantly, and indeed had a sort of appealing and affectionate look in his eyes,” King wrote. “He is distinctly a mystic,” with a “liquid” quality to his eyes that indicated “keen perception and profound sympathy,” and called to mind Joan of Arc.” ( Brean, National Post )