Free speech is in bad shape in the west

As a counterbalance to my previous post about the Dutch’s new confidence in their culture, here’s an article from the Australian called Talk About Surrender. It’s already New Year’s Eve in Australia, so it’s kind of a roundup of the state of free speech in 2008.

If 2006 will be remembered as the year the West rolled over when tested on free speech – think the Danish cartoons, which large swaths of the media refused to publish for fear of causing offence – two years on, things are worse.

The year 2008 deserves to be seen as a year of anticipatory surrender, a year when the West decided to roll over on free speech of its own accord. Just in case. No threats. No demands. Just suppress controversial speech in advance, just in case it causes offence. You understand, we don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. In fact, such a trashing of core Western values is difficult to understand.

The author, Janet Albrechtsen, gives a brief rundown of events, beginning with “the the comments of Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC, who announced in October that Islam deserved different coverage in the media compared to other religions because Muslims were an ethnic minority.”  A comedian commented that the BBC would let vicar gags pass, but not imam gags, and the BBC agreed. Then:

The same rank capitulation occurred in the private sector when, in August, Random House pulled the publication of The Jewel of Medina, a book by Sherry Jones that told the tale of Aisha, the child bride of Mohammed.

The publisher had received no threats, just “cautionary advice” that publishing the book “might cause offence to some in the community (and) incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment”.

She goes on to mention Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders, who are heroes because they will not be silenced. She also mentions a Dutch cartoonist who was arrested and interrogated for his cartoons that mocked Islam.

And in Canada, Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant were hauled before that country’s Human Rights Commissions for being critical of Islam. (Steyn’s case was especially bizarre because he was cited for saying something which was actually a quote by a Muslim.) These two are also heroes.

But her point isn’t to highlight the heroes. It’s this:

If large sections of the media – normally devotees of free speech – cave into what the BBC’s Thompson called the “growing nervousness about discussion about Islam”, that self-censorship ripples out to all corners of society.

After the Danish cartoons fiasco, the onus was on the West to show its spine, to reassert its faith in freedom of expression. So far it has failed on that score. Let’s hope 2009 is a better year for free speech and the West’s confidence in itself.

Amen. Let’s hope indeed. Perhaps the Dutch will now lead the way.

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