To mark the fifth anniversary of the Danish Mohammed cartoons, and my own recent visit to Copenhagen, here are two columns of mine from the early days of the crisis, "Unfit To Print" and the piece below. Both are included in my most recent book Lights Out: Islam, Free Speech And The Twilight Of The West:
The Periclean funeral oration I opened with last issue was a bit of a bummer so here's something to stir the blood: The New Moon, the smash Broadway operetta of 1928. It's 1792 and in French colonial New Orleans ...hang on, wasn't New Orleans Spanish in 1792? Oh, well. Fortunately for Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein, Spanish Colonialism Denial isn't a crime like Holocaust Denial.
At any rate, Robert Misson, a chevalier lying low as a servant, is dreaming of throwing off the shackles of the French King and establishing a free state on the Isle of Pines. But how does he know the other men will stand with him? Ha, he scoffs:
Give me some men
Who are Stout-Hearted Men
Who will fight for the right they adore
Start me with ten
Who are Stout-Hearted Men
And I'll soon give you ten thousand more
Shoulder to shoulder, and bolder and bolder
They grow as they go to the fore...
You may have seen the 1940 film version with Nelson Eddy tramping through the woods as stout-hearted torch-bearing yeomen fall in behind him.
Which brings me to our publisher, Ezra Levant. I'm not suggesting Ezra's as camp as Nelson Eddy, but I am saying he might reasonably have expected to have attracted a similar size crowd. In publishing the Danish cartoons, he'd started with our editor, Kevin Libin, and another ten stout-hearted men from the Western Standard office, and he had the right to assume he'd be joined by ten thousand more from the Vancouver Province and The Toronto Sun and La Presse and the Charlottetown Guardian.
But he wasn't. Nor were the other handful of publishers and editors in France, Germany and elsewhere who reprinted the Danish cartoons. And the ramifications of that will echo through our culture for years. As I said last time round, one can have different opinions on the merits of the original cartoons. After I posted them at my website, Rosie Witty of Christchurch, New Zealand - by the way, isn't it a little culturally insensitive to call a city "Christchurch"? - anyway, Ms Witty wrote to say that she found the cartoons "rude, crude and lewd... The freedom of the press sometimes is wise; sometimes it is not."
That's a valid argument if you're writing to Jyllands-Posten, the originating newspaper in Denmark. Had this or that imam done as Ms Witty did, many a dispassionate observer might have agreed. But, instead of writing to the newspapers, the imams embarked on a campaign that led to embassies being burned, Turkish priests being murdered, and over a hundred others dying in associated riots. Once that happened, the issue was not the appalling nature of the cartoons but the appalling nature of the reaction to them. The 12 cartoonists are now in hiding. According to the chairman of the Danish Liberal Party, a group of Muslim men showed up at a local school looking for the daughter of one of the artists.
When that racket starts, no cartoonist or publisher or editor should have to stand alone. The minute there were multimillion-dollar bounties on those cartoonists' heads, The Times of London and Le Monde and The Washington Post and all the rest should have said "this Thursday we're all publishing all the cartoons. If you want to put bounties on all our heads, you better have a great credit line at the Bank of Jihad. If you want to kill us, you'll have to kill us all. You can kill ten who are stout-hearted men but you'll have to kill ten thousand more. We're standing shoulder to shoulder, and bolder and bolder."
But it didn't happen. There was a photograph from one of the early Muslim demonstrations in London that I cut out and kept: a masked protester promising to behead the enemies of Islam, and standing shoulder to shoulder with him two Metropolitan Police officers, dispatched by the state to protect him and enable him to incite the murder of others. When those Muslim men return to that Danish school, I only hope that little girl is as well protected by the forces of authority.
I realized the other day, talking to a novelist of my acquaintance, that I'd had the conversation before - the one where some writer of repute tells me that he had a great idea for a story involving certain, um, aspects of the, er, geopolitical scene and the publisher (or sometimes even the agent) hemmed and hawed and eventually said well, it sounds like a good idea but in the, ah, current climate maybe we should put that on hold for a year or two, and how about that plot you mentioned a couple of years back about the redneck Baptist serial killer in Alabama? Pitch certain proposals and even the cockiest New York editor at the back of her mind has the vague feeling that her swank Manhattan office could wind up as vulnerable as that Danish grade school. One consequence of the faint-hearted defence of free speech this time round is that more and more publishers and editors will take the path of least resistance next time.
The free world is shuffling into a psychological bondage whose chains are mostly of our own making.
"Extreme cases make bad law," we say. But extreme cases make the best defence of principle. In 1847, a man called Don Pacifico, a Portuguese Jew living in Greece, had his house burned in an anti-Semitic riot. He appealed to the Greek government for redress (the sons of some ministers had been involved) and got nowhere. But he chanced to have been born on Gibraltar and thus was, technically, a British subject. And so he turned to the British government. And, though to most Englishmen's eyes a century and a half ago no one could have seemed less English than this greasy dago Jew moneylender, Lord Palmerston began a naval blockade of Greece - on the grounds that Don Pacifico was a British subject like any other. And, when the government in Athens backed down, Palmerston addressed the House of Commons thus:
As the Roman in days of old held himself free from indignity when he could say Civis Romanus sum, so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong.
Civis Britannicus sum: that was all Don Pacifico had to say.
Today, in the face of more riots and more burnings, Palmerston's successor Jack Straw, like the foreign ministers of Canada and Europe, is craven and shifty. We in the media could at least recognize our own responsibilities and commercial interests here. The Danish cartoonists are the Don Pacificos of the modern media empire. They're not Thomas Friedman or Naomi Klein, just some nobodies on the fringes of the map. But the mob has threatened them with death, and if they get away with it they will do it again. For that reason - on Islam, eco-terrorism and anything else - the press should act on the principle that a death threat against one newspaper is a death threat against all and will invite automatic republishing of the offending item. We should all be stout-hearted men - before it's too late.
from Lights Out: Islam, Free Speech And The Twilight Of The West
Comment on this item (members only)
Viewing and submission of reader comments is restricted to Mark Steyn Club members only. If you are not yet a member, please click here to join. If you are already a member, please log in here: