Monday, April 26, 2010

Why James Taranto is Clueless on Mohammed Drawings

James Taranto just doesn't get it with respect to "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," which I have endorsed and promoted.

Here are the essential lines of Taranto's April 26 column entitled, "Everybody Burn the Flag: If we don't act like inconsiderate jerks, the terrorists will have won!"

[H]olding an "Everybody Burn the Flag Day" would be stupid, obnoxious and counterproductive if one seeks to persuade others that flag burning should be tolerated.

"Hate speech"--for example, shouting racial slurs, positing theories of racial supremacy or denying the Holocaust--is illegal in Canada and many European countries. In the U.S. it is protected by the First Amendment--but it has been known to provoke a violent reaction. ... This column is also of the opinion that hate-speech laws are pernicious and that the First Amendment does and should protect the expression of even ugly and false ideas. But we would not endorse or participate in an "Everybody Shout a Racial Slur Day" or an "Everybody Deny the Holocaust Day" to make the point.

Why is "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" different? Because the taboo against depictions of Muhammad is not a part of America's common culture. The taboos against flag burning, racial slurs and Holocaust denial are. The problem with the "in-your-face message" of "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" is not just that it is inconsiderate of the sensibilities of others, but that it defines those others -- Muslims -- as being outside of our culture, unworthy of the courtesy we readily accord to insiders. It is an unwise message to send, assuming that one does not wish to make an enemy of the entire Muslim world.

Taranto is totally wrong in all of his comparisons. (He is right to defend the First Amendment even in troublesome cases, so he gets full credit for that.) Drawing Mohammed is not remotely like burning the flag, shouting racial slurs, or denying the Holocaust. Nor does drawing Mohammed to protest Islamist death threats have anything to do with defining Muslims as cultural outsiders.

Even though people have the right to burn the American flag, it is the wrong thing to do because burning the flag is an expression of hatred against America, in its essential founding principles of liberty the greatest nation in the history of humanity. Shouting racial slurs, while properly legally protected, is wrong because racism is immoral and rooted in irrationality. Denying the Holocaust, again while properly legally protected, is wrong because the Holocaust is an objective fact of history, and denial of it is inextricably tied to racism (antisemitism).

In contrast, there is nothing inherently immoral about drawing Mohammed or any other religious figure. The Islamic taboo against drawing Mohammed is sheer irrationality and utterly ridiculous. Therefore, not only is drawing Mohammed properly legally protected, it is entirely morally proper, unlike burning the flag, shouting racial slurs, or denying the Holocaust.

For Taranto to miss this key distinction is simply stunning.

(Update: however, I can think of a hypothetical circumstance in which burning a U.S. flag would be acceptable, if unsavory. Let us say that some Americans were making death threats against some leftist group or some Muslim group for burning the flag. Let us further say that such a threat had actually been acted on or carried out, as is the case with Islamist threats, and that there was a legitimate fear of more murders. In that case, burning the flag with the express purpose of protesting the death threats and alleviating the plight of the threatened parties (by providing moral support and by spreading the risk) would be acceptable. In that case, burning the flag would not be a sign of hatred for America, but an act of solidarity for the core principles of America, which involve the protection of individual rights. Similarly, if the U.S. passed "hate speech" censorship laws, there might be a way to violate the technical aspects of the law without actually endorsing racism or Holocaust denial. Notice that no such contextual nuance is possible regarding an outright taboo against drawing Mohammed, precisely because such a taboo is by its nature inherently irrational.)

Now, I also went out of my way to make my drawing of Mohammed otherwise blasphemous, in that I refer to Mohammed as a "false prophet." However, in my view, Mohammed really is a false prophet, and in reality Mohammed in no way represented any god.

My wife, by contrast, drew a great picture of Mohammed that is not on its face blasphemous, beyond the fact that any drawing of Mohammed is considered by Islamists to be blasphemous. (Whether scholarly Islam in fact prohibits any and all drawings of Mohammed is a theological point beyond my interests.)

A free society requires a clear distinction between what is moral and what is legally protected, and Taranto largely grasps this critical point. People properly have the legal right to do all sorts of immoral things, ranging from getting roaring drunk and lying to their mother to expressing racist views. What is properly outlawed is any action that violates the rights of another individual by initiating force or fraud.

Taranto is noting a superficial similarity between drawing Mohammed, expressing racist views, etc. -- namely, that all those things are properly legally protected -- and inappropriately drawing a moral equivalence between all those things. But expressing racist views is inherently immoral, while drawing Mohammed is inherently within the bounds of morality. Taranto grasps that not everything that should be legal is moral, but he fails to notice that, in the case of drawing Mohammed, what is properly legal is also perfectly moral.

Regarding the alleged definition of Muslims as outsiders, Taranto is simply Making Stuff Up. While perhaps some who participate in the "Everybody Draw Mohammed" campaign may wish to define Muslims as outsiders, there is nothing involving the campaign itself that does so. Taranto seems to forget that plenty of U.S. citizens are Muslims. Taranto also seems to assume that all Muslims everywhere think it's wrong to draw Mohammed. I'm sure that lots of Muslims throughout the world regard the taboo against drawing Mohammed as stupid, irrational, and counter to an enlightened religious view.

Regardless, what is relevant is that some Muslims (who happen to be American) have made death threats against other human beings. While I am especially motivated to participate in the campaign to draw Mohammed because the most recent threats were made against people from my home state, the point of the campaign is to protest such death threats, regardless of where they are made and against whom they are made.

If (counterfactually) it were the case that drawing Mohammed made "an enemy of the entire Muslim world," that would only prove the irrational hatred and violence of the entire Muslim world -- hatred and violence that would be sparked by any number of faux "offenses." But, thankfully, Taranto is wrong; a significant portion of the Muslim world -- particular within the U.S. -- is more enlightened than to display hostility over some drawing. However, obviously violence and rights violations are all too common in the Muslim world, and we have a moral responsibility to condemn that.

* * *

Taranto also quotes Ann Althouse as condemning the "Everybody Draw Mohammed" campaign because it "doesn't show enough respect and care for the people who are trying to tolerate the expression that outrages them."

By that logic, the recent works of the "new Atheists" never should have been published, because those works did not adequately respect Christians.

Althouse's argument is bunk.

The primary and overriding purpose of free speech is to allow us to express our ideological views without fear of punishment or reprisal. I think Platonism is false. I think Kantianism is false. I think Christianity is false. I think Islam is false. And by God I'm going to say as much, and I'm not going to be intimidated into silence because Platonists, Kantians, Christians, or Muslims may be offended by my statements.

I'm certainly not going to refrain from drawing some religious figure because of an absurd, antirational, ignorant taboo.

I do not believe that it is a sign of respect to someone to pander to his or her blatant irrationalism. I believe it is a profound sign of disrespect. For, apparently unlike Taranto and Alhouse, I believe that Muslims, as people with a rational capacity, are potentially open to reason, rather than hopelessly mired in insane superstitions.

While it is true that a drawing of Mohammed, as such, is not an argument, it is also true that my drawing contains an explicit message, and that a drawing can point toward a rational argument.

It is precisely because I define Muslims as "insiders" -- as fellow members of the human race -- that I insist on engaging them in reasoned dialog and refuse to accept their threats of violence as substitute.

It is Taranto and Althouse who disrespect Muslims and define them as outside the realm of reason.

* * *

Taranto does provide some useful background on the matter. While I had credited Dan Savage with the idea for "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day," in fact he in turn picked up the idea from Molly Norris. Norris, it turns out, was quite surprised by the attention her little cartoon generated.

Of course, having seen Norris's cartoon, I understood that her "group" was fictional and intended in jest. I had noticed the line from her cartoon: "Sponsored by Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor or CACAH (pronounced ca-ca)." I remember enough Spanish to understand that was a joke. Also, Norris drew the "likeness" of Mohammed as various silly objects, such as a coffee mug and a cherry.

Regardless of its origins as a jest, the "Everybody Draw Mohammed" campaign is a great idea, and it has a very serious purpose. The point of it, beyond illustrating the lunacy of prohibiting the drawing of a religious figure, is to provide so many targets that the violent Islamists cannot hope to intimidate everybody. They can send a handful of Danish cartoonists into hiding. They can suppress South Park. But they cannot intimidate, suppress, or harass all of us. Drawing Mohammed is a legitimate and important way to express our outrage over such death threats, to show our solidarity with the threatened, and to stand up for freedom of conscience.

For what it's worth, here is Norris's recent statement, as posted on her web page:

I make cartoons about current, cultural events. I made a cartoon of a fictional ’poster’ entitled “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!” with a nonexistent group’s name — Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor — drawn on the cartoon. It was in specific response to the recent censoring of a South Park episode, a desire to bring home the importance of the first amendment. I did not intend for my cartoon to go viral. I did not intend to be the focus of any ’group’. This particular cartoon has struck a gigantic nerve, something I was totally unprepared for.

Personally I can feel afraid of Muslims because I really have no idea if in their hearts they hate non-Muslims. There are so many interpretations of the religion that I hear told — sometimes it is a very extreme translation (that’s the scary part, the radicals that believe that Westerners should die), then at other times it sounds more peaceful.

I hope for the sake of this country that moderate Muslims will speak out with everyone else against any violent members of that or any other religion. That way I would know that there is a difference. Maybe this cartoon I made, this fictional poster of “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!” had such a wildfire effect because it is finally time for Muslims and non-Muslims to understand one another more.

I am going back to the drawing table now!


My response is this: Hang in there, Molly! You did nothing wrong. Those of us who have chosen to draw Mohammed have done so for our own reasons, and not because of you. I respect you for standing up for the First Amendment, and I encourage you to be even more bold in that stance.

The Minnesota Fox affiliate posted a follow-up story about Norris, which is a little sad:

In more fallout around the decision by Comedy Central to censor an episode of "South Park" that contained comedic depictions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, a cartoonist has now censored herself. ... Now Norris has backed off from that position. She no longer has the illustration on her website and she claims responses to the idea were overwhelming.

When did we get so damned afraid in this country speak our minds?

* * *

Throughout the debate over South Park, various commentators have been extremely sloppy in their use of the term "censorship." That's a real problem, because censorship is a horrible evil, but it's hard to fight if people don't even know what it is.

While in other contexts "censorship" can carry a broader meaning (as with the term "self-censorship"), in the political context censorship means the use of political force to ban or suppress expression. For example, if the government fines, arrests, imprisons, or harasses you for what you say or write, that is censorship.

The actions of private parties never constitute censorship. If a newspaper decides to fire a writer or pull a writer's article, the newspaper is NOT censoring that writer. If I write a blog post but then intentionally erase it, that is NOT censorship.

While Comedy Central capitulated to terrorist threats and suppressed the expression of the South Park creators, Comedy Central did not technically censor the show. You can call the acting executives at Comedy Central damned cowards, but you oughtn't call them censors. They have the right to broadcast whatever they want on their station, consonant with their contractual obligations.

To conflate government censorship with nonviolent private acts is to obliterate the very concept of censorship and to open the gates to actual censorship.

If somebody calls you on the phone or writes to you and threatens you over an article you've written (as I have been threatened), that certainly constitutes the criminal suppression of speech, something that is properly outlawed and that the government properly protects against. However, such criminal action is not properly considered censorship, a term that refers only to government action.

Now, a government can sanction the criminal suppression of speech, by failing to protect those who have been threatened, and that becomes censorship. Or, as with the case of the Taliban, the street criminals effectively constitute the government, so criminal suppression of speech amounts to censorship. Morally, government censorship and criminal suppression of speech are equivalent evils.

The U.S. government has, by my understanding, taken measures to protect the creators of South Park, even if those measures have been too weak. If President Obama has condemned the death threats, I have not heard of it.

It is absolutely critical that we understand and articulate the meaning of censorship, for there is nothing more important to the maintenance of a free society than the protection of free speech, which requires the eradication of criminal suppression of speech and of (government) censorship.


  1. Hear hear. Well stated, Mr. Armstrong. And here's a likeness of Mohammud for everyone to enjoy:


  2. Hey i posted this on your previous "everyone draw mohammed" post, but i am happy to do it twice. I have created a blog for the everyone draw mohammed protest, here:


  3. Your discussion about what constitutes censorship is really quibbling over use of the word. MW indicates censorship is the act of censoring, which is "examining in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable". There is no requirement that the censoring is being done by a government or some other group engaged in what you term criminal suppression. So use of the word censorship in the dialogue is not necessarily an indication of sloppy usage.

    I would agree that censorship by those groups is more egregious as it represents some censoring being attempted by parties not otherwise party to any given speech. In this particular instance, I think those complaining about Comedy Central's decision may have misdirected their ire.

    Otherwise, not a bad article. Still have some mixed feelings myself about Everybody Draw Mohammed Day and undecided as to whether I'll participate.

  4. Anonymous is quite wrong about the meaning of censorship. I note that, in other contexts, it can have different meanings. But the key meaning is in politics, where censorship means only government action to suppress speech. Otherwise, censorship basically becomes a synonym for editing. Obviously we don't want to ban editing, but we certainly do want to ban government suppression of speech. It is absolutely imperative to distinguish private action versus government action when it comes to the limitation of speech.


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