Christopher Hitchens examines the self-censorship of the western press.
Do you ever wonder what is the greatest enemy of the free press? One might mention a few conspicuous foes, such as the state censor, the monopolistic proprietor, the advertiser who wants either favorable coverage or at least an absence of unfavorable coverage, and so forth. But the most insidious enemy is the cowardly journalist and editor who doesn’t need to be told what to do, because he or she has already internalized the need to pleaseâ€”or at least not to offendâ€”the worst tyranny of all, which is the safety-first version of public opinion.
Anyway, last week, almost every Danish newspaper made a deliberate decision to reprint the offending cartoons. Perhaps, if you live in most of the countries where this column of mine is syndicated or reprinted, you wonder what all the fuss can have been about. Certainly, if you live in the United States or Britain, you will be wondering still. This is because your newspapers have decided for youâ€”as with Butzâ€”that you must be shielded from the unpalatable truth. Or can it really be that? We live in the defining age of the image and the picture; how can it be that the whole point of an entirely visual story can be deliberately left out? (To see the original cartoons, by the way, click here.) I have a feeling that the decision to protect you from the images was determined this time by something as vulgar as fear.
The cowardice of the mainstream American culture was something to see the first time around. The only magazines that bucked the self-censorship trend, or the capitulation to undisguised terror, were the conservative Weekly Standard and the atheist Free Inquiryâ€”two outlets (for both of which I have written) with a rather small combined circulation. Borders thereupon pulled Free Inquiry from its shelves, with the negligible consequence that I will never do a reading or buy a book at any of its sites ever again. (By the way, I urge you to follow suit.) I think it’s pretty safe to say that most Americans never even saw this sellout going on. But that was because their own newspapers were too shamefaced to report a surrender of which they were themselves a part.
In Canada, only two minority papers reprinted the cartoons. The Western Standard, now online only, and the Jewish Free Press were promptly taken before a sort of scrofulous bureaucratic peoples’ court describing itself as the Alberta Human Rights Commission. If you think that’s a funny name, try the title of the complainant: the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada. Who knows how long such a stupid “hate speech” case might have dragged on or how much public money and time it might have consumed, but last week the Islamic supremes decided to drop it. “I understand that most Canadians see this as an issue of freedom of speech,” said Syed Soharwardy of the case that he had originated, adding “that principle is sacred and holy in our society.” Soharwardy went on to say, rather condescendingly perhaps, that: “I believe Canadian society is mature enough not to absorb the messages that the cartoons sent. Only a very small fraction of Canadian media decided to publish those cartoons.” Without the word not and without the sinister idea that Soharwardy’s permission is required for anything, that first sentence would have been a perfectly good if banal statement. But with the addition of his remark about the “small fraction” and the concomitant satisfaction about the general reticence, we have no choice but to conclude that Soharwardy is satisfied on the whole with the level of frightened deference to be found north of the U.S. border. I mention this only because the level of frightened deference to be found south of that border is still far in excess of what any censor, or even self-censor, might dare to wish.