Cartoons cause strife, violent protests, flag burnings, threats. It seems upsetting and unreal, at least to those of us who have little more than a passing familiarity with Islam. A western Canadian journalist -- the conservative cheer leader Ezra Levant -- decided to publish these cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in order, he says, to stand up for free speach and freedom of the press. Should we laud his defense of principle? Should we condemn his insensitivity? I'd really llike to say "I don't think we should do either because I have a different way of explaining this issue that will bring something new to the subject we have not read before." I hope I actually do have something different to say on this subject. But, I can't say "I don't think we should do either" on the question of whether or not we should laud or condemn this man. I think we should condemn Levant's insensitivity and disregard the false and hypocritical defense of freedom of the press behind which he is trying to stand. Let me be blunt: this man is publishing these cartoons because he can; not because there is any great principle at stake. Let me explain this, explain why insenstivity is a problem and not some sort of bugagoo paraded about weak-kneed lefties, and then suggest what we can see in all of this that is good because, for Canadians at least, there is a lot of good that has come out of this cartoon-triggered strife.
Freedom of the press: is freedom of speach be any more secure in Canada after these cartoons are published? If you answer no (and I think anyone who is honest will have to answer no), then publishing the cartoons accomplished nothing to defend freedom of speach. The best this journalist can now claim is that his defense of freedom of speach is a complete and unmitigated failure because he did not succeed in making it any more sound. If he had done nothing -- if Levant had not put one single cartoon in his paper -- we would be in the exact same situation we are now with regard to freedom of the press. And, this is the absolutely best claim he can make on his own behalf. That's it. If he had done nothing, we would be no better or worse off. But, there isa more important question: was freedom of speach in Canada threatened in the first place? Were the rights of journalists to cover public policy, report on leaders' actions, critically discuss the issues before the Canadian public, mock leaders should they so chose, threatened? Seriously. If one is going to argue that they are going to defend freedom of speach they have to believe that it is under some sort of threat. If so, what is that threat? Let's not make things up. Let's look at the track record. Judging from the last election and the lampooning Martin and co took, freedom of the press seams alive and well in Canada. No one tried to stop Levant from publishing those cartoons. In fact, Levant is on my TV set almost every week explain his views so he has not be silenced by any of this. So where does this leave us? Well, what we have is a person rushing to defend a principle that was not under threat and having absolutely no effect any way because that principle that he sought to defend did not need defending.
Ah ... someone might say ... freedom of speach is threatened. Look at what has gone on in Lebanon or Syria. OK, how would publishing these cartoons in Canada help defend freedom of speach in Lebanon or Syria or Denmark for that matter? I can't see how it would. I have read no stories about how Lebanese and Syrians and Danes have been rushing to the local Canadian embassy to thank Canadians for the actions in letting this journalist publish pictures that they considered blasphemous. Maybe free of speach needs defending somewhere else. Maybe it needs defending in Syria or Denmark. Truth be told, I don't really know. But is publishing these cartoons in Canada going to do anything to defend it? Can any reasonable person claim that an expected result of publishing these cartoons in Canada is that it will promote freedom of the press in Syria or Lebanon, say? I'm not joking. This is what Levant would have us believe if he is going to have us believe that he publishing these cartoons to fight the good fight for freedom of the press. He would have us believe that his actions have made freedom of the press in Canada more secure when it was completely secure and under absolutely no threat. Or, he would have us believe that he has stepped into the line and defended freedom of the press in other parts of the world by publishing his cartoons in Canada. The truth of the matter is that he didn't defend freedom of the press in Lebanon or Syria or anywhere else. In fact, his actions did nothing to help freedom of the press anywhere. The only thing he did was show how insensitive he is, how uncaring of other people's religious believes and how arrogant he is to believe his believes are so important that he can most other people's religion and not care. In my view, it is pretty sad when someone does mocks a religion and doesn't care. Sadder still when they try to tell us that they are doing so in the name of a grand principle. Freedom of the press is a vitally important principle for a democratic society. It is upsetting that a guy like Levant can pervert it for his own self gratification.
Let's be frank here. Levant published those cartoons because he could. He chose to publish them in Canada where freedom of the press is so well protected already that he is save and secure. He can take a quick, cheap shot at Islam -- and this is what he did -- dress it up in a principle and nothing will happen to him. If he really believed he were defending freedom of the press he would have gone to some place where freedom of the press actually needed defending and done something to defend it. He didn't. He chose to stay where he was save and take his cheap shot and, folks, that's cowardice. Its not defense of some grand principle. It is the definition of childish grandstanding because, like any grandstanding child, he knows there are no repercussions to his actions. The truth of the matter, then, is that these cartoons were going to be put into print in Canada for no good reason. He published them, because he could and for no other reasons.
Here is where I stand on this issue -- and, folks, write against me if you don't like what I have to say:
1. I respect religion. I don't always agree with what a particular pastor or rabbi, etc., says but I don't think we need to mock religious views and I don't think we need to insult them for no good reason. If we, in Canada, lived in a country where religion was being mobilized to repress the population, OK, we might resort to less civil means of engagement. We don't live in such a country so we can believe polite in our disagreements.
2. I'm not a big fan of cheap shots at someone else's expense. This is what Levant did. He could have defended freedom of speach, for instance, by opening his newspaper to someone like me who would disagree with him. IOW, if he truly wanted to defend speach, he had other means at his disposal.
3. I think we missed an opportunity to promote intercultural understanding. This would have been a great chance for non-muslims to learn about Islam. We'd all walk away a bit more informed, a bit richer in temrs of our understanding of fellow Canadians, and we could have accomplished htat through the educational system. We had a chance to promote national unity, IOW, that we missed. Levant could have promoted this, by the way, too, by running long columns explaining different facets of Islam (or, even points of theological debate within it and then extended this to other spiritual traditions but, again, he chose not to).
There is good news in all this, however. Here it is:
1. Most journalists in Canada chose not to take the same cheap shot. I shoot down The Globe all the time do kudos on this one. The Globe published a number of stories on this issue explaining the news and even explaining in text the cartoons. Those found an ethical way to report on the issue.
2. Islamic Canadians deserve kudos as well. Rather than falling for the Muslim baiting in which journalists like Levant engaged, they behave ... well, like responsible Canadians as we would expect they would because they are responsible Canadians. Islamic Canadians used all the standard channels of liberal democracy to express their concerns, they tried to education non-Muslim Canadians -- IOW, they used the opportunity of these events as a chance for dialogue.
3. Finally, Canadians in general behaved well on this issue.
This type of responsible behaviour (from journalists, religious Canadians and Canadians in general) is the type of stuff that builds national unity and maintains the strength of our democracy. This is the good news in all this.