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Cartoon Fundamentalists


The recent brouhaha over the Mohammed cartoons seems, on the surface, to pit liberals against fundamentalists. On the one side are the defenders of such liberal values as free speech and freedom of the press. On the other side are an intolerant bunch of extremists who refuse to budge an inch from their position. Liberals might not like the cartoons depicting Mohammed, but they support the free and open “marketplace of ideas.” Fundamentalists want to censor all ideas they do not like.

Liberals, we are told, are flexible folks who make decisions based on reason. They are immune to dogma. There is no such thing as a liberal ideology, for liberals have no ideology, not like socialists or fascists or environmentalists or feminists. Liberals, of the traditional or the neo variety, just want to get the job done. They’re pragmatic. They approach problems on a case-by-case basis.

This is, of course, nonsense. In liberal countries, liberal ideology is simply transparent. It is like the air that we breathe.

Liberals can be just as dogmatic as fundamentalists. One of the dogmas of the liberal religion is freedom of speech and of the press. I happen to believe in this particular dogma. I am, after all, a writer. But I also see this freedom for what it is: an article of faith, not a law of nature.

Like any responsible member of a religion, I am forever questioning this article of faith. And I am always suspicious of those who take a fundamentalist position on freedom of speech. Such a fundamentalist position holds that, aside from cases of libel, journalists and editors can publish whatever they want regardless of consequences.

Journalists rarely think through the consequences of their actions. If they did, they would never file any stories. Telephone a grieving widow? Publicize a case of quiet diplomacy? Reveal a politician’s sex life? The public, we are told, has a right to know.

Sure, journalists will often go to extraordinary lengths to protect valuable sources in powerful places, as Woodward and Bernstein did for Deep Throat. But this is self-serving. Journalists want to protect access. As for ordinary people, with whom journalists don’t need to maintain access, exposure is routine.

Consider a recent CNN documentary about North Koreans in China. The producer profiled two young North Korean boys and made no attempt to disguise their identity. The camera followed their preparations to return to North Korea. Crossing the border is a crime in North Korea. CNN knows full well that its broadcasts are viewed in North Korea. Why didn’t the producer at least conceal the faces of the boys? Does the public have a right to know what the two boys look like even if it throws their lives in jeopardy?

The fundamentalist stance of the press on free speech often conceals less noble goals than upholding liberal principles. TV producers want higher ratings. Editors want to sell papers. Journalists want to capture awards.

In the case of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which the European Network Against Racism has identified as one of the most anti-immigrant newspapers in Denmark, the editors wanted to offend.

As many ethicists point out, the freedom of speech does not extend to shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire at all. Publishing a caricature of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban is practically the cartoon equivalent of such a false announcement of “Fire.” It deliberately provokes a violent reaction for no good purpose. The reaction was not, of course, purely fundamentalist in nature. Many politically moderate Moslems protested the publication. But the public debate, begun in an incendiary fashion, tended to push opinion toward the fundamentalist extremes.

At what point should journalists and editors question their liberal fundamentalist credo on freedom of speech, consider the consequences of their actions, and essentially engage in self-censorship? There is no universal code of ethics for this kind of professional soul-searching. Each situation demands a careful weighing of factors.

I believe that Jyllands-Posten made the wrong decision, as did the other newspapers that published the cartoons as acts of solidarity. I am too much of an adherent to the religion of free speech, though, to call in government censorship. I can only hope that the polarization caused by the cartoons will give way to a more sensible consideration of consequences. Otherwise, an important discussion on cross-cultural values will continue to degenerate into the kind of clash of fundamentalisms that the Western right wing has been predicting (and relishing) ever since the end of the Cold War. John Feffer, www.johnfeffer.com, is the author of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis.

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