Saturday, July 21, 2007
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Some short time ago, some of you may recall, there was something of a controversy involving the publication of controversial cartoons in Denmark linking, shall we say, the Prophet Mohammed with terrorism. These cartoons caused a certain reaction, as they were intended to do. During the ensuing controversy, many people thought it best to express solidarity with the provocateurs, by reprinting the cartoons, by expressing sympathy with them, by marching in their support and by publishing a great number of articles and internet comments condemning people who had threatened the publishers - or even disagreed that they had a right to publish these cartoons.
It was a freedom-of-speech issue. There were no complexities here, no questions of provocation or offence and anybody who observed that it wasn’t necessarily so simple could be expected to be abused as an apologist for terrorism, a relativist and what you will. (It was, however, quite in order to abuse the cartoons’ Muslim opponents for thinking there was only one side to the question, a paradox I seem to remember noticing in a letter I wrote at the time to Private Eye.)
Anyway, that was then and this, apparently, is now. Yesterday, in the Western liberal democracy where I live, a High Court judge ordered a cartoon banned and all copies of the magazine that published it seized. Police were sent to raid newsagents and the editors of the magazine were ordered to reveal the name of the artist who produced the cartoon, so that proceedings could be considered against them, proceedings which could lead to a two-year prison sentence for all involved.
These cartoons did not seek to inflame ethnic tensions, nor did they imperil national security (assuming a cartoon could do so). Their offence was simply to lampoon the Royal Family, in a manner which was certainly rude but not destructive. Giles Tremlett reports in the Guardian:
The cartoon on the front cover of El Jueves (“Thursday” – ejh)….showed Crown Prince Felipe and his wife Letizia in the midst of an ardent session of love-making.
A speech bubble issuing from the prince's mouth makes a joke about the amount of work done by the royal family and a government decision to give families €2,500 (£1,680) for each new child.
"Do you realise what it will mean if you get pregnant?" the prince asks. "This is going to be the closest thing to work that I've ever done."
Not all that ardent, really, if you look, but leaving that aside, this is the sort of social commentary which surely falls a long way within the bounds of legitimate free speech - if free speech is to mean anything. Is Prince Felipe depicted as a terrorist? He is not. He is depicted having sex with his wife. We know they do this, because they had their second child just a few weeks ago.
I bother with the detail and the circumstances, by the way, because it is possible that this controversy has passed you by. This is because for some reason this case has not brought on the worldwide outcry occasioned by the other matter to which I alluded earlier.
Which is a strange thing. The case, one would have thought, is no less strong, in fact it is a rather less complicated matter. It is surely an outrage in a Western democracy that newsagents should be raided, magazines seized, editors required to reveal names of contributors, people threatened with prison, all for no more pressing reason than there appears to have been an offence to the dignity of a member of the Royal Family (if, indeed, he was actually offended). It is the sort of thing that might have appeared in a cartoon and been prosecuted in 1820s Britain, where Crown Princes - and indeed, Kings - were frequently the butt of cartoonists' abuse. When people talk about modernity and the need to defend it, you would think this would be exactly the sort of thing they mean. You’d think this would be a cause célèbre.
Yet curiously, it is not. I am unable to detect a worldwide controversy about the police raids. Or even a small one. It has of course made some small impact in Spain, where some newspaper editors and journalists still remember what it is like to face bans and the threat of imprisonment. (For this reasons, the general level of political and cultural debate seems to me to be rather higher, more serious-minded, than back in the UK.) El Mundo, for instance, reprinted the cartoon in an act of solidarity.
But where, elsewhere, are the concerned and the outraged? Where, in the UK, are the bloggers? Where are the newspaper columnists and editors? Where are the politicians? Where are the editorials, the statements, the demonstrations? Where are those who stood up for freedom in Denmark now that it is menaced in Madrid? Where are those who believe that freedom, if it means anything, means telling people what they do not want to hear?
Well, fair enough. If individuals don’t want to comment on this or that controversy, if it doesn’t particularly interest them, if they have better things to do if they just don’t feel like it then that’s OK. I mean it. One can condemn people for what they say, but one should not condemn for what they have not said – there are far too many websites that cater for the opposite persuasion. Besides, it’s not as if the internet is full of commentary on the subject from people who don't think you have to invade countries and bomb their civilians before you can be accepted as a friend of civilisation.
So it’s not that any individual person or party or paper or website isn’t saying anything. That’s not what bothers me. It’s the difference between the two situations that bothers me. Remember, when it came to Denmark, this was a Matter Of Principle. It was nothing to do with Islam, or provocation, or anything: it was to do with freedom of speech. That particular freedom had to be defended and everybody needed to say so. There were no complications. You couldn’t pick and choose. That was Relativism and that was what led to the trouble in the first place.
Well, what’s the difference? Where’s the storm of protest this time? Is freedom really not to be protected abroad as readily as it would be at home? Isn’t the real difference that those who were threatening freedom of speech in the Denmark case were a small minority of Muslims, whereas now it is the police and the courts, the apparatus of the law?
Isn’t this actually a matter not of principle so much as narrative? Isn’t that narrative one that says that the apparatus of law is what we in the West should fight for, because it is what protects our liberties - whereas the Muslims threaten our liberties so they are who we are supposed to fight? Isn't it only a matter of principle when it's a chance to Get The Muslims?
For what it’s worth, my underinformed opinion is that nobody will go to jail. Although Prince Felipe may be a chinless wonder, his father is certainly not and it would be unwise of him to have people thrown in clink merely for making ribald commentary about his family. But still, there will presumably be fines levied and precedents set.
So perhaps this is a ‘sleeper’ and there will be a torrent of complaint tomorrow or next week. Concern will be expressed by politicians, outrage in newspapers, apoplexy in the blogosphere. But if there is not, then a principle will have been created, indeed may already have been created. It is all right for cartoons to risk provoking hatred against Muslims but it is not all right for cartoons to risk provoking laughter against princes.
But we knew that already, did we not?
Labels: 'free speech'