Friday, February 17, 2006

A Leaden Silence on the Islamic Threat to Free Speech

An ominous silence has followed the initial uproar over the Danish cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. The silence is deafening, emanating from two quarters that properly should be the most concerned: the news media and the government. They are either oblivious or indifferent to the crucial issue of the inviolability of the First Amendment.

Instead, they are obsessed with issues far removed from the question of whether or not anyone has the right to mock an idea or an icon or simply express thoughtful criticism of it. New Orleans and the Katrina victims, Vice President Cheney's hunting accident, videos of state policemen hit by passing cars while writing speeding tickets, obese children, and truth in multi-grain cereal labels, comprise just a fraction of the myopic fare offered on primetime news. So many deserving scrub pines obscure the redwoods in the distance.

The continuing destructive and deadly riots against the cartoons in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other locales now only merit incidental reportage, if any at all. Our politicians as well have tiptoed around the cartoon subject with a pusillanimity hard to credit them. They are otherwise so voluble about everything else, such as the necessity of smoking bans, gun control, reducing high cholesterol, punishing oil companies for their profits, and simpler Medicare prescription drug guidelines.

One should not blame semi-clueless, photogenic news anchors too much; they are just highly paid teleprompter readers posing as reporters cum entertainers. They read whatever their highly paid, politically correct house news writers churn out on orders from their editors. Who are they to initiate a probe into the speech restrictions of the Campaign Finance Law?

One can, however, charge a heavier responsibility to our politicians. Every one of them is sworn to uphold the Constitution, but not one has dared say much about the Danish cartoonists and how their predicament and jeopardy might just as easily be imported to the U.S. and experienced by American cartoonists. A veritable "clash of civilizations" is underway. Not one governor, senator, or representative has shown the least inclination to enter the fray on behalf of his electorate or constituents, or even demonstrated awareness of the clash.

One might be tempted to think they are exercising discretion as the better part of valor; after all, they could very well be targeted for Islamic violence or at least a noisy demonstration by Muslims if they publicly took the side of free speech and never minded anyone's offended feelings. But that temptation would be brief, given the venal and pragmatic character of most politicians. Their philosophy of serving and protecting productive Americans is to manage and regulate their lives for their own good, in exchange for handsome salaries, generous medical benefits, bountiful retirement plans, and innumerable perquisites. All paid for by fettered and yoked tax cows.

The realm of ideas and rights seems too frightening for most politicians to venture into. They fear it for one of two reasons: they might discover principles which they might otherwise feel compelled to champion, but would not want to for various reasons ranging from party loyalty to careerist inconvenience; or because they might anticipate the shame of ignorance and a sense of inferiority that can only be assuaged by a pragmatic disdain projecting a sense of superiority. As one Oxford don, a professor of logic, remarked: "Philosophy teaches you how to detect bad arguments, so it is no surprise when politicians are not keen for it to be studied." Nor keen to study it, either.

Silence is golden, goes the proverb. Golden, perhaps, for a spell of contemplation and cogitation. Silence can be leaden, too, signaling a baleful ignorance or a pernicious turpitude when the times demand the knowledge, courage and character of our Founders. Listen carefully; you might in time hear the dull thud of the First Amendment as it falls behind a diverting forest of the pedestrian and mundane, unheralded by our pseudo-Solons and unnoticed by the news media.

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