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Gerard Biard and Jean-Baptiste Thoret, editors of "Charlie Hebdo", after being awarded a "Freedom Of Expression" prize by PEN (photo: PEN American Centre)

The rich are cruel, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote; the liberty of wealth makes them careless. Nearly a century after Gatsby, Americans remain richer and freer than the rest of the world. They remain careless, too. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of conscience, expression, and assembly; the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms. Two events in May showed how Islamist violence, actual or anticipated, is redefining the practice of free speech in America.

On May 2 in the Dallas suburb of Garland, two Islamists attempted to critique Pamela Geller’s “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” with assault rifles. A massacre was averted only because a guard suspended the attackers’ freedom of assembly with a Glock pistol. Two days later in New York, there was extra security at PEN’s annual black-tie dinner. When PEN’s board had conferred its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, six of the dinner’s table hosts had resigned. Two of the six, Peter Carey and Michael Ondaatje, are global figures; two, Rachel Kushner and Francine Prose, are names in America; and two, Teju Cole and Taiye Selasi, need all the publicity they can get. “6 pussies,” Salman Rushdie tweeted, before remembering that he is a man of letters. “Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.”

Politics, J.K. Galbraith claimed, means choosing between “the disastrous and the unpalatable”. Geller is unpalatable; the PEN refusés are disastrous. Geller does not discriminate between Muslims and Islamists. She has praised the thugs of the English Defence League; the guest speaker at Garland was Geert Wilders. She demonises her critics; she called the Daily Mail part of the “enemedia” for blacking out images of the Garland cartoons. When her organisation, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, campaigned against the “9/11 Mosque”, it attacked the First Amendment rights of American Muslims. Geller is a bigot, deliberately testing the margins of tolerance and legality. She is, then, exactly the kind of person that the First Amendment exists to protect.

The First Amendment does not protect “fighting words”: speech, acts, or images that are likely to provoke a punch. But do the Islamists have the right to be throwing punches? In 1977, the Supreme Court ruled that the American National Socialist Party could march through Skokie, Illinois, swastikas and all. Public funds supported the exhibition of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ in 1987, and Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary in 1996, which rendered Jesus’s mother in pornographic cut-outs and elephant dung. The Garland cartoons are aesthetically worthless, but Americans have the right to draw and display them: there are no laws against poor taste, or even insult. Geller is frequently wrong and hateful, but she is brave and right to warn that Islamists wish to intimidate Americans into restricting their First Amendment rights. This is how America rolls, at least in the red states.

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Katya
June 1st, 2015
10:06 AM
There is a battle of wills in the West. Arguments over the depiction of Muhammad are a proxy for the battle between Islam in western societies and the Enlightenment values of the West. On the one hand, Islam wants the West to submit to Islam, to defer to its blasphemy taboos, and to accommodate its sharia codes. Left wing relativists are on the side of Islam. They want our societies to submit to Islam's demands, and this is what multiculturalism and 'anti-racism' is all about for them. On the other hand are those, ranging from liberals to people like Tommy Robinson, who see what is happening in our society, and want to resist it. Any capitulation will lead to a lessening of our freedoms and domination by Islam, because the demands Islam makes won't stop simply at cartoons of Muhammad. It will be our laws, our secular liberal society that they are at war with, and wish to negate. This could be the death of the Left in western societies, because the backlash against this grotesque agenda is already stirring in society, and the more that the Left embraces Islam's agenda, its weasel words and double-speak, the more it shall compromise itself and be rejected by the masses. The posturing writers who threw a hissy fit at the award to Charlie Hebdo are a symptom of this illness. A society cannot fall because of the challenge of a crude, vulgar and primitive ideology. It falls because of the unwillingness of a society to defend itself from that ideology. In the case of Islamo-philes, relativists, post-modernists and multiculturalists, that society contains elements who are full of self-loathing. The destruction of society is the aim. Hence the embrace of Islam, and support for those who shoot writers and cartoonists in the head.

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