Monday, July 14, 2008

The Freedom to Offend

Thinking about the fracas surrounding The New Yorker cover reminds me of other political cartoons like, for instance, the cariacature of the Prophet Muhammad, in violation of Islamic law, which drew the wrath of the Muslim world.

I'm reminded, too, of a speech made by a young congressman, before the House of Representatives, on February 18, 1947; Richard Nixon:"Mr. Speaker, on February 6, when the Committee on Un-American Activities opened its session at 10 o'clock, it had by previous investigation, tied together the loose end of one chapter of a foreign-directed conspiracy whose aim and purpose was to undermine and destroy the government of the United States...It is essential as Members of this House that we defend vigilantly the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But we must bear in mind that the rights of free speech and free press do not carry with them the right to advocate the destruction of the very government which protects the freedom of an individual to express his views."

And, here we are, more than 60 years later, in the same ballpark, with another pitcher, and dealing with the same mindset, as reflected by President George W. Bush who observes that: "Every nation in every region now has a decison to make--either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." All we need do is substitute the word "Communist" for "terrorist," et voila! But, can we sit back, and let the First Amendment be sodomized by those who understand control better than consciousness, and allow artists to be called over the coals for what amounts to a dumb joke?

The New Yorker is a magazine, founded in the 1920's, which has been around longer than the administrations of either Presidents Nixon or Bush. Notably, too, in the 1920's, the greatest novel of the English language, James Joyce's "Ulysses," was banned by the Tariff Act , and confiscated at American borders, on grounds of obscenity. This was right around the time that an organization of writers, PEN, was formed to protect artists from the arbitrary stroke of the censor's hand.

Who can forget the memorable words of another president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, about a decade after the launching of a magazine whose name has become synonymous with quality, humor, satire, poetry, political commentary, and first-rate cartoons: "We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way. The third is freedom from want...The fourth is freedom from fear."

Arguably, humor is optional with the vehicle, and it is subjective. One person may feast on what another finds tasteless. While there may be some who find a political cartoon disturbing, the ramifications of self-censorship, as well as societal pressure to redact that which offends, must be resisted as an outrage to all who view dissent as a vital ingredient for democratic, and higher order, thinking.

Whether we think the Obama cartoon was satire, flawed or otherwise, or simply over-the-top, we must agree with author, and past president of PEN American Center, Salman Rushdie, when he asks: "What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist." When public opinion dictates what is acceptable, there can be no art, and without art, there can be no diversity.