Those Cartoons: A Reply To Walter Block

Ilana Mercer, March 6, 2006

I’m glad Walter Block has addressed one of the defining libertarian issues of our times: speaking and publishing under the threat of injury or death. This is not quite how my good friend has framed the matter in “Those Cartoons: A Libertarian Analysis.” Nevertheless, he is to be praised for attending to what is becoming a matter of life and death for writers, filmmakers, comics, and caricaturists in the West. (Who’s next? The few courageous academics who fail to bow to Mecca in academe?) 


Were he alive today, the late Theo van Gogh would agree that the cartoon conniption is the contemporary crucible for free speech freedom fighters. The descendant of the great Vincent van Gough was slaughtered like a pig on the streets of Amsterdam. He had insulted Muslims with a docudrama depicting the subjugation of women in Islam, and in Islamic countries. Quite a few Muslim women applauded his courage, in silence, of course.


Openly appreciative was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a liberal Dutch politician, and a lapsed Muslim. She even assisted the late filmmaker in exposing the enslavement of women in Muslim countries. Hirsi Ali, who doesn’t mince words when it comes to Mohammed, has called Islam “backward.” Threats have driven her underground. She lives in fear of her life.


In my opinion, Hirsi Ali is courageous. The Danes are great too. And there are no words for the magnificence of Islam’s latest American “heretic,” my hero, Wafa Sultan. Most people in the West would concur, although I’m not sure Dr. Block would. I don’t know what he’d make of van Gogh’s provocative exposé, Hirsi Ali’s pronouncements, or Sultan’s expressed contempt for Islam’s militant chauvinism. Come to think of it, given that Dr. Block has denounced the rather mild Danish cartoons as not nice, not moral, not appropriate and not considerate, I’m even less convinced as to how he’d assess Asma bint Marwan’s fare.


This erudite—and emancipated—poetess lived during Muhammad’s reign of terror. Her fate was sealed after she mocked him in verse for his murderous sprees. He had her assassinated while she nursed her baby. Centuries removed, the Danes did the same, pictorially positing a connection between Muhammad and the violence that mars the Muslim world today (even in places where a U.S. Marine hasn’t set foot).


Whereas Dr. Block and I both agree the cartoons are perfectly licit in libertarian law and that the cartoonists and their publishers deserve to be safe from death or threats thereof, Dr. Block has asserted, under the rubric of a libertarian analysis, that libertarians would view the cartoons as immoral and that “from the libertarian perspective, both sets of acts—“drawing pictures of Muhammad” and offending “western sensibilities”—are “improper.”


Incidentally, Dr. Block errs in saying that it is “the (radical) Islamic position” that “holds that showing the likeness of Muhammad per se constitutes blasphemy, and should be punished, presumably, with beheading.” Au contraire: this is a mainstream position, sanctioned by Islam’s leading scholars. True, not all Muslims are prepared to avenge such “blasphemy,” especially not in Western countries, where they’d be prosecuted. But most devout Muslims sanction aggression against innocent “blasphemers.”


Dr. Block is impeccable when it comes to the application of libertarian law—not in a million years would he rule to outlaw speech he deems immoral. However, I take exception to his characterization of these caricatures as such. At the very least, it demonstrates a low intellectual threshold for controversial speech.


Let me preface my objection to Dr. Block’s wrongheaded characterization by confessing to an error in my initial column about the controversy. In “The Cartoons and the Camel in the Room,” I declared, prematurely, that one of the media’s central stupidities “was to debate how offensive the cartoons really were and whether the barbarians had a case.” I contended this was “immaterial; a red herring really,” because, with few exceptions, private property rights and freedom render immaterial the contents of the speech.


From the vantage point of libertarian law, this still holds. However, if a radical proponent of freedom such as Dr. Block can dub mild satire immoral, inadvertently tainting innocent, non-aggressive satirists, then it’s imperative to address the substance of the speech being debated, lest innocent polemicists and illustrators be maligned.


What is Dr. Block’s premise for asserting these things are immoral? Other than that they offend Muslims, I see none. And to give offence is not always immoral. It is certainly not immoral to lampoon the connection between Muhammad, author of Islam, and the savagery and atavism that grip the Muslim world today.


Since there is no objective reason to rule the caricatures immoral—the caricatures have violated Islamic, not western, strictures—could Dr. Block’s determination be based on some sort of cultural sensitivity, on the demands of multiculturalism, perhaps? 


I personally view satire—caricatures included—as a highly civilized and refined way of exposing “folly, vice, or stupidity,” to follow the dictionary. The dictionary defines satire as “a literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.” I, and many other writers, have instantiated in writing the questions the cartoons posed in pictures. Does Dr. Block believe we have been immoral and improper?


With a cartoon, a subset of satire, “the subject’s distinctive features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated to produce a comic or grotesque effect,” so as to bring to the fore the illustrator’s perspective. It so happens that the 12 Jyllands-Posten cartoons produced only a mildly comic effect, but did not in the least exaggerate the connection between the example the prophet set, his teachings, including the exhortation to Jihad, and the violence that convulses a critical mass of Muslims.


No doubt, some so-called satirical depictions are immoral. Dr. Block mentions a caricature posted by a Muslim group of Dutch Holocaust victim Anne Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler. To most decent human beings, a depiction of a victim copulating with her killer qualifies as immoral. If you find it hard to empathize with a Jew, think of a parody of Janice Ott in bed with her killer, Ted Bundy. More to the point, how does spoofing the genocide of Jews (or Armenians, Kurds, or Kulaks, for that matter) serve to attack “human vice or folly through irony, derision, or wit,” as the definition goes?


It doesn’t.


As Dr. Block well knows, underpinning this Holocaust humor is the idea that the Jewish genocide is a hoax, perpetrated on the world by a camarilla of scheming shakedown artists. What the Arab world and the creeps in their Holocaust-denying lairs are satirizing is the Jew who has used the Holocaust to hold the world hostage. The swindler of Swindler’s List!


If anything, such cartoons are immoral and improper—and not because they offends Jews, to apply Dr. Block’s criterion, but because they offend a thoroughly documented, easily accessible, objective truth. (I cannot emphasize enough that Dr. Block and I both agree that these actions should be perfectly legal; those who indulge in such speech free of legal or “extra legal sanctions: rioting.”)


Easily the most confusing thing about Dr. Block’s analysis is that he calls penmen “warmongers,” yet the rioting barbarians are merely “uncivilized.”


While Muslim mobs went berserk; westerners took to the blogs, a hallmark of their non-aggressive civility. Yet oddly enough, Dr. Block chose to focus on the alleged aggression of a group he calls “press freedom warmongers.” He condemns this bunch because they’ve called on “making common cause with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten by exhibiting these pictures as far and wide as possible”; [t]hey were particularly incensed by the fatwa (death threats) issued by Muslims against Salman Rushdie”; and they failed to appreciate the “fire bombing of western embassies,” which are altogether overrated, in Dr. Block’s estimation. He accuses these free speech fiends of agitating for war.


Personally, I’ve not heard a call to war from Dr. Block’s “press freedom warmongers.” Their particular talk does not amount to a declaration of war. Since this war of words seems quite benign, it should not frighten or offend libertarian sensibilities. These free speech devotees are guilty of no more than hoisting their epistolary pitchforks.


In any event, if I’ve personally failed to call for solidarity with the Danes, I, apologize, and do so herewith. I echo the ever-so-civilized signs and slogans other freedom lovers held aloft at a recent rally for the “Great Danes”: “We are all Danes now,” “Submit to Havarti,” and “Lego Rules!” And if I’ve never before expressed outrage at the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, I do so belatedly.


As for my lack of appreciation for the fire bombing of western embassies: It was plain where my friend was going with that. However, making light of terrorism on the basis that it’s directed against property appropriated by government is beneath Dr. Block. For one, the private-public distinction is his alone; the Islamic vandals have not been nearly as discerning, burning private missions just as gleefully and lashing out indiscriminately at foreigners in the employ of the private and public sectors alike. Moreover, arson endangers lives, and indeed, people were murdered in this orgy of destruction.


Is it not odd that when neutered Westerners finally locate their metaphoric male appendages, and stand their grounds, albeit peacefully, their brethren condemn them? Patrick Buchanan also found the cartoons horribly immoral and turned on the Danes. It seems that the only Western protest the author of the “The Death of the West” will countenance is the adoption of Christianity coupled with an accelerated breeding program. 


In addition to charging (unjustly, I believe) some muscular advocates of press freedom in the West with bigotry and potential bloodshed by “declaring war against the Arab and Islamic nations,” Dr. Block has also called them hypocritical for their treatment of offenders such as David Irving. He claims they are “guilty of crimes with which they charge the Muslims.”


Reason’s Tim Cavanaugh put it well when he commented on how “every conceivable opinion, prejudice and half-baked observation has attached itself to the unlikely controversy over a dozen cartoons in a Danish newspaper,” including the world’s most famous Holocaust denier: “[Irving] managed to butt into the narrative for a moment.”


Yes, what would a debate about free speech be without confessed Holocaust denier David Irving, whom I’ve defended here. At the risk of repeating myself, the need to repeal laws prohibiting hate speech goes with libertarian territory. While the moniker “immoral” fits Irving (but not Flemming Rose of the Jyllands-Posten), no libertarian wants to see him jailed for being a jerk.


Come to think of it, neither does Professor Deborah Lipstadt; she’s the scholar (and lady) Irving sued. Professor Lipstadt has said she was “uncomfortable with imprisoning people for speech. Let him go and let him fade from everyone’s radar screens,” she urged.


Oh, you didn’t know that Irving was the one to infringe Lipstadt’s freedom of speech? He sued her for describing him as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.” Irving is not only immoral, but a hypocrite too. He whimpers about his own freedoms but doesn’t hesitate to infringe those of others.


Lipstadt crushed Irving under facts, truth, and reason. Mr. Justice Gray duly found that Irving had “deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence.”


Back to Dr. Block: Those who justify European laws banning Holocaust denial (there are no such laws in the U.S. or the U.K.) are distasteful. But how in blue blazes can they be compared to people who threaten to—and indeed do—burn and behead “heretics”? Do acts of aggression exist on a continuum? Dr. Block knows full well that slippery slope reasoning is also a form of illogic, favored by the loathsome left.


Moreover, not all the writers Dr. Block accuses of crimes comparable to the crimes of the rampaging Muslims support hate speech laws. He should look to governments and to liberal interests for initiating and passing such laws.


In the coda, Dr. Block pleads, not with Muslims, but (presumably) with the likes of the delicate-looking Kathleen Parker and her fellow word warriors: “Let us not go to war so quickly.”


Fine, although it strikes me as an overreaction, since, by his own account, the individuals Dr. Block has called “press freedom warmongers” have only 1) rallied around the Danes 2) voiced support for Salman Rushdie 3) condemned the “bombing of western embassies,” and 4) accused Muslims of wanting to force the West to accept Islam’s taboos (I wonder where they got that idea?).


Dr. Block then pleads that, “We are doing to [Muslims] precisely what holocaust deniers and those who use racial and sexual expletives are doing to the politically correct.”


To a libertarian, offending the politically correct is a good thing—to speak honestly about sex or race is quite fine. However to use racial or sexual expletives or to deny the holocaust is not a good thing. These practices are not politically incorrect but simply incorrect—the former is rude and uncivil; the latter offends objective truth and reason. However, all such speech should be legal; its speakers free of threat and intimidation.


On matters of law, then, Dr. Block and I agree. But there is more to life than law. We depart on matters of values. To tar moral and honest intellectual expression as immoral and improper is plain wrong.



Dedicated to the late Harry Browne. He was the consummate gentleman who prized civilized debate.


(Walter has informed me that he has since revised his piece, “Those Cartoons: A Libertarian Analysis,” to address my critique.)



©2006 By Ilana Mercer

   Free-Market News Network

   March 6

CATEGORIES: Free speech, Islam, Libertarianism

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