Private Transmission: 25 September, 2012
Dear Mr. Robert Fulford:
You are one of the very few columnists with which I anticipate a good and intelligible read. And you have your own entry on my list of memorable lines concerning a piece you did on Nietzsche a couple of years back where you said “Most philosophers write such dense prose that you need considerable training just to misunderstand them.” Having got lost in Kierkegaard’s labyrinthine meanderings and anesthetized by Kant’s definitions, it has special resonance. Who would have known that there was a comedic genre for philosophy; although I cannot imagine that it pays well?
However, I believe that your piece “In Praise of Blasphemy” seriously misses the mark. It is not that I favor the creep of censorship at both a state and corporate level (Thank God for the Internet!). If civilization was going to go down in flames, I would rather that it go down with liberty of expression intact than without it. At least, I might be able to consider other people’s opinions as to cause; or even know that it happened. (The impression from the history books is that the Romans didn’t particularly detect the death of the Western Empire.)
However, in your praise of one facet of the Western political cant, you and others forget another star in that constellation; the consent of the governed; that the virtue of a free press depends, perhaps unfortunately, but ultimately on the by-your-leave of the Sovereign; however that sovereignty is defined.
Instead we should be praising blasphemy, in fact proclaiming its many virtues, rather than sheepishly apologizing for it as a necessary evil we must reluctantly tolerate because of our belief in the freedom of speech.
That is not an attitude, which ultimately, is a safe or wise for a beneficiary as well as ambassador of the Fifth Estate to take. For, you are advocating the very irresponsibility that abets and gives comfort to those who would like to circumscribe the limits of speech. For, in the world of Realpolitik, Constitutional niceties and legalities do not amount to a hill of beans, if the ambassadors of any particular high position have lost their moral authority.
Some of the most eloquent speeches extolling the virtues of the Roman Republic were spoken by the last generation of advocates for its retention; of whom many of it members had been grossly abusing it for self-serving ends. And before the overthrow of every institution; of the Roman Senate, of Emperors, of nobility, of kings, of ecclesiastics; a loss of moral authority preceded each; provoked by abuse of position. When I studied the rise of the Nazis in Germany; one observation taken away was the total political weakness of potential islands of resistance (judiciary, military, press, unions, church, Wiemar Republic) because all had compromised their moral standing in the eyes of an aroused populace.
I believe that the mass media, amongst other institutions, is currently in that state of disrepute. I have heard from many corners of this disgust with lack of intellectual integrity; of this “I don’t know who to trust?” lament. The general news no longer discloses objective realities to their impartial and competent best; but advocates propaganda from one side or the other of the culture wars; with a few tidbits of selective facts to adorn. I am of conservative bent; but I had to agree with Hillary Clinton that the reporting of the Libyan skirmish last year by Al Jazeera (English) was far and away better than I have seen of anything in the West since perhaps Viet Nam / Watergate.
Instead of allowing the coherent understanding of the world’s actors to be presented, one gets cheap and misdirected pot shots at practices for which second and third-rate journalists have no understanding. I might poke fun at a religion (Islam) or one of its sub-denominations or cultural subgroups, which require women to protect men from their own lustful waywardness, when speaking of the burka. However, I am at least resonating to the real rationales of a deep concern by official Islam for modesty.
The meaning of ‘blasphemy’ has been extended over the centuries to mean religious heresy and public unbelief amongst other stretches. Although, according to the Greek (“abusive or scurrilous language”), it seems to have very wide latitude of meaning. Although not Catholic, I think their definition is probably the best one that I have seen; that being of “gross irreverence towards any person or thing worthy of exalted esteem”. And thus, were I to advise these Muslims in the East, I would advise them to get a trademark in the U.S. to sell toilet paper with the American flag, Constitutional Script or the Gettysburg Address imprinted thereupon. The Charter of Rights, or a comic impression of nude Pierre Trudeau or Tommy Douglas, sucking on a ram’s appendage or Ezra Levant’s wrinkly mother being porked by an elephant, might do the trick in Canada. Do you not think that the local reaction would be any more sedate than that occurring in Arab and Muslim cities and towns? It would be attack on what our people revere.
There is a difference between legitimate critique and the frivolous and blatant provocation of the kind by Ezra Levant, Jyllands-Posten, Charlie Hebdo and company. Mention the verses in the Koran about genies, and most Muslim apologists will take great pains and do great contortionist somersaults of reasoning to inoculate the obvious absurdity. Mention that Mohammed married a six year old and they will speculate, without substantiation, that sexual relations didn’t occur until much later. Take on Islam, truthfully, fairly and on its own terms, and you have both an interlocutor; at least in the West; and a good case on its own. However, cheap, senseless insults for the pre-pubescent pleasure of the rabble, merely demonstrate that toddlers are occupying the ramparts of opinion. And the mind of the sensible will merely conclude that the journalism is too important to be left with the journalists.
For rationales of foot-in-the-door, we might have to tolerate such scurrilous nonsense. But it should never be praised or promoted. It will undermine the good will of those who you and I need to support that liberty.