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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hitchens on Nancy Graham Holm

Here's an interview conducted with Christopher Hitchens by Michael J. Totten, in which Hitchens rightly laments the mentality of blaming the victim when attempts are made on the lives of cartoonists, writers, and others for supposedly offending Muslim sensibilities. Hitchens pretty much nails the issues on this occasion.

While I'm still talking about this, I see that I made an error in my earlier post on the topic. While Holm certainly appears to believe that the attack on Kurt Westergaard's life can be blamed on the Danish suspicion of religion and the Danes' ongoing unwillingness to back down - and this apparently includes the attitudes of Westergaard himself and his editors - it is clear that she sees the responsibility to apologise as having initially fallen on the Danish prime minister at the time of the publication of the cartoons in Jyllands Posten. This was slightly easier to miss in the article as first published, and as I believe I first read it, and the logic of the article is far from clear. But I still should have picked up on this point.

But none of that lets the author off her hook of shame. Indeed, such a suggestion displays a shocking misunderstanding of freedom of speech and the proper role of governments in Western democracies. If a private individual makes comments or draws a cartoon or expresses herself in some other way that offends people, and if the offending expression is published by a private organisation such as a privately-owned newspaper, then the government is not responsible for it. In most cases, the government will have no legal authority to control what has been said, and any event governments should be upholding their citizens' freedom of speech and expression - including their freedom to engage in satire that might be offensive to some or seem unreasonable to others.

As for the idea of Westergaard or Jyllands Posten, or the Danish government, or the Danes in general, backing down now, after the horrifying attempt on Westergaard's life - the very idea is repugnant.

Hitchens is correct to relate this episode to the notorious fatwa that was issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989, over the publication of The Satanic Verses, at which time many public intellectuals in the West disgraced themselves by blaming the victim.

There is too little unambiguous defence of free speech by Western intellectuals, and far too much undermining of it by people who should know better. There is too much capitulation to violence, authoritarianism, and highly illiberal attitudes to free expression. As Hitchens says, this kind of capitulation must be stopped.


Chris Schoen said...

I think what Holm is referring to in reference to the Danish PM is his refusal to meet with Muslim ambassadors who had requested a kind of summit in the wake of cartoongate. The ambassadors had asked for an official (but non-binding) statement of respect for religion, and perhaps Holm means to interpret this as a kind of apology. My reading of that paragraph is that Holm is saying such an offering might have had a salutary effect on the unrest that followed the cartoons' publication, not that the PM had an obligation to make such an offering.

I agree with you that it was not his place as an agent of the state to repudiate anyone's speech on their behalf. But I'm not convinced that's the function she is (retrospectively) requesting of him. Rather I think she's talking about something more closely resembling Obama's "Beer Summmit," in which, without fully taking sides, he tried to promote better communication and mutual respect between Skip Gates and the Cambridge police. But she doesn't elaborate much on her remarks, so it is not easy to say.

K said...

Indeed, it's amazing that anyone can publicly defend the rights of those wishing to inflict violence and harm over outrage, but not condemn the violation of free speech.

I wonder, with that recent Delhi Times cartoon calling the Victorian police force as racist, would these same intellectuals blame the cartoonist if Australians behaved in the same manner as what the fundamentalist Muslims did over these cartoons? Would they lament the bigotry over national identity that Indians fail to understand about Australians? Would they decry the ignorance about Australian history and the efforts to move away from racism?

Lorenzo said...


The answer is clearly "no" since the game is very much about selective moral outrage which, in an important sense, is not moral outrage at all since morality is not what it driving the decision to be outraged.

DM said...

so you don't believe that Nostradamus could predict the future, right?






some comment moderation on your blasphemy, please

we gotta deal with little sh*ts like kel appearing

Paul said...

I think what Holm is referring to in reference to the Danish PM is his refusal to meet with Muslim ambassadors who had requested a kind of summit in the wake of cartoongate. The ambassadors had asked for an official (but non-binding) statement of respect for religion, and perhaps Holm means to interpret this as a kind of apology.

Do you mean cartoongate as when the cartoons were first published, or when they were brought up again several months later by Mulsim clerics, who added in some that were not even posted by the Danes in an attempt to rile up Muslims? Because it's rather relevant. The latter, which was the only time there was a backlash, was deliberately orchestrated, and should definitely not be apologized for, whether or not it's in the form of a non-binding statement.

Russell, DM appears to be David Mabus. He's long been a troll on Pharyngula (although he shifts 'nyms), and has been branching out to other "atheist" sites lately (even ones that aren't really atheist, which is odd). You might want to look into your options for preventing him from posting here. He can be quite deranged, and never actually holds a dialogue with commentors.

Anonymous said...

How bout this deal? Yall kill a cartoonist, we bomb the kabbah. Denmark could almost do it. They just need better in-flight refueling. Maybe Danish commandos could hijack cargo planes inside Saudi and crash them into the kabbah. Better still would be to steal the magic rocks of Mecca and hold them hostage.