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Media’s Cowardice Pales Next to Politicians

John O'Sullivan

February 17, 2006

An old anti-Soviet joke tells how a mother was asked by her puzzled child to explain something mysterious in her history book: what was a meat queue? Patiently she explained that a queue was when people had to stand in line in order to obtain some scarce product.

“Oh, don’t be silly, mommy,” interrupted the child. “I know what a queue is. But what is meat?”

Events of recent weeks may well be listed in future history books under the serio-comic title of “the cartoon war.” Our great-grand-children will be amazed to learn that people were killed over the publication of cartoons. But will they be amazed over the killings or over the cartoons?

For the riots against the publication of twelve cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed by the small Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, reveal that a culture war is being waged by radical Islamists against a post-Christian West largely disarmed by multiculturalism. Its purpose is to compel the West to impose limits on free speech to protect the religious sensibilities of Muslims communities in Europe and America. And if it succeeds, it will gradually snuff out a long tradition of irreverent caricature—and any other form of free expression that significant numbers of radical Muslims oppose. This attack on such cardinal European values as free speech and tolerance, however, has evoked a very mixed response.

There has been a perceptible drift towards appeasement of the rioters and the Islamist forces behind them by European governments and politicians. Yet a number of European newspapers, including such progressive ones as Le Monde, have re-published the cartoons to demonstrate that they will not be intimidated by threats of murder.

In the U.S., on the other hand, politicians have been quite robust in defense of free speech whereas media outlets have piously refused to re-publish the Danish cartoons on pious grounds of not offending Muslims even though they had published equally offensive illustrations in earlier controversies over “obscene” art funded by the U.S. taxpayer.

But these journalistic sins pale into triviality in comparison with the truly active cowardice of European politicians.

Since most of the cowards on this occasion were Europeans, it should be stated up front that the first to step forward and abase himself was former President Clinton. At an economic conference in Doha he described the cartoons as "appalling" and "totally outrageous" and compared them to the anti-Semitic prejudice harbored by Europeans until recently.

Had Clinton actually seen the cartoons? If not, he was irresponsible in condemning them sight unseen. If had seen them, he was spreading the exaggerated rumors about them that had caused actual to be murdered. In either case, he was pandering to his largely Arab audience.

After Clinton spoke, a procession of European nabobs stepped forward to condemn the cartoons and, worse, to suggest that expressions of free speech that some consider blasphemy will not be permitted in future. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: "I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been unnecessary, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong."

France's President Chirac said: "Freedom of expression must be exercised in a spirit of responsibility. I condemn all manifest provocation that might dangerously fan passions."

And at least one European Union high official, Spain's Javier Solana, expressed some sympathy for the demand from the Organization of the Islamic Conference's demand that international conventions on free speech should not permit blasphemy.

These remarks might be dismissed as well-intentioned platitudes if there were not already significant restrictions on free speech in Europe. These include all the traditional ones--libel, incitement, national security, etc., etc.—together with more recent restraints to protect ethnic minorities against hate speech. If new restraints were now added to protect religions against offense, free speech across Europe would be seriously curtailed.

Why are European governments so willing to appease radical Muslim rioters in this way—much more so than the U.S. government? And why are even leftist European news media prepared to defy both their governments and the rioters—much more so than their timid American cousins?

The answer may lie less in the cartoon controversy than in another matter entirely: a report from the OECD (drawn to my attention by Fareed Zarkaria in Newsweek) that paints a very gloomy picture of Europe's economic future. If current trends continue, then Europe's per capita standard of living, already fifteen points behind America's, would fall to about half the U.S. level in two decades. That decline would occur in a world in which India and China are rising rapidly.

As Zakaria points out, though many Europeans believe U.S. capitalism to be unregulated and harsh to the poor, Asian economies are less regulated, less welfarist, and thus much more competitive. So Europeans would soon lag behind almost everywhere except the stricken continent of Africa and a Latin America walking backwards into neo-socialist illusions.

Whether they cope with these problems through protectionism or a bold program of Thatcherite economic reforms, they would face enormous internal social and economic strife as different groups sought to protect their current privileges or to gain new competitive advantages. Witness the 1980s in Britain or whenever serious market reforms are tried in France.

Unlike other periods of upheaval, moreover, European countries now have more diverse populations, in particular large and growing Muslim minorities. What Europe faces is a gloomy future of economic difficulties, political battles and ethnic hostility.

Radical Islamists see all these difficulties as an opportunity to spread the own rules across Europe in order to give Islam something like a privileged place in social discourse--the first time a minority religion has ever enjoyed this status. And Middle East governments see the cartoon riots as a chance to embarrass and weaken the West when it is seeking to introduce some elements of liberalism and democracy into their corrupt autocracies.

In order to keep these threatening social conflicts to a minimum, European governments are now seeking to establish rules of conduct that would prevent the different groups in a multicultural society insulting each other. European media, on the other hand, see a long-term threat to their own independence in exactly the same set of problems. For the very first time media leftists are waking up to the fact that the multiculturalism they have supported as a weapon against the Right may now be used to restrict their own powers and liberties.

In the U.S. there are fewer Muslims, thus fewer radical Islamists, and a much more favorable economic outlook. So the same groups take a much more complacent view of the potential clashes between free expression, multiculturalism and radical Islamism. Politicians are readier to condemn the rioters and the media is still happy to enforce the pieties of multiculturalism since they rather than the government is carrying out the enforcement. The “cartoon war” seems far away and not very relevant.

In fact it is the first skirmish of a long and serious conflict in which there will be many more deaths. Whether there will be many more cartoons is altogether less certain.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times where John O'Sullivan writes a weekly column.

John O'Sullivan is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved