The American left has spent the past few weeks trying to tell us that they believe in free speech, but…—and the “but” is that anything that offends the sensibilities of Islamic fanatics is unnecessarily provocative, hateful, and possibly racist. Therefore, such “hate speech” shouldn’t be allowed.
Now they’ve gotten a taste of their own medicine.
An anti-censorship benefit scheduled for next month in New York City has been cancelled after the managers of the venue, the Sheen Center, “suggested that we alter the title of Neil LaBute’s play”—charmingly titled Mohammed Gets a Boner—”and alter the content of some of our panelists’ speeches.”
That’s right, folks. They tried to censor an anti-censorship event.
Well, not censorship in its truest sense. The managers of the venue do have a right to say what can and cannot go on there, and in this case, they didn’t act out of fear of attack. Rather, the Sheen Center is funded by the Archdiocese of New York, which has its own vested interest in discouraging mockery of religion. But the irony is that, after weeks of saying it’s “hate speech” to deliberately offend Muslims, intellectuals on the left can hardly complain, even though they are the ones getting kicked to the curb this time.
The various panels on the event were slated to discuss “censorship of women in the arts,” “censorship of environmentalists and climate scientists,” and “censorship of LGBT artists.” The part about “censorship of environmentalists” is, of course, laughable. And these days, the only artists who are forced to recant their views are those who violate the LGBT speech codes by pointing out that Bruce Jenner isn’t a woman. So while the organizers of this event were preparing to work themselves up into a frenzy of concern over non-existent censorship, they inadvertently reminded us of the censorship threat we should actually fear.
[Update: the event will go on at a new venue—but without LaBute’s play, because the organizers “said the event ‘was always supposed to be about building bridges, sharing points of view, and trying to ease tensions rather than create them.'” So they’re against censorship, unless that offends someone.]
This raises a big question, one of the great paradoxes of our era. Why is it that a large segment of left has embraced a code of appeasing “sensitivity” toward Islam—when they are its obvious next victims? Why do they wring their hands over “microagressions,” while urging us not to provoke people who execute homosexuals and throw acid in women’s faces?
Why does the left kowtow to Islam?
You might suspect that the question answers itself. They kowtow to Islam precisely because it is a real threat, a macroaggression that trumps all of the microaggressions. So you could say that it is simple cowardice. They protest against people they know are extremely unlikely to harm them, and they shut up about the fanatics who might actually follow through on their threats.
But I don’t think that’s the fundamental cause. After all, most lefties are not being called upon to take any personal risk, because somebody else has already stuck his neck out. Drawing or publishing a cartoon of Mohammed might get you put on an al-Qaeda hit list. Simply saying that you support the cartoonist’s defiance of that threat won’t get you on anybody’s list.
In fact, a running theme of the left’s arguments, repeated with a great deal of apparent sincerity, is the notion that it is irrational to fear Islam, that describing the religion as violent and dangerous is “Islamophobia.” They seem to have largely talked themselves into believing that they have nothing personally to fear from Islam. Jihadists may throw gays off of buildings in Syria, but it can’t happen here.
This is nonsense, of course, but it is revealing of the mindset. They actually talk themselves into believing that “censorship of LGBT artists” is an equal or even greater threat, far more urgent than anything having to do with Islam. For the left, the main source of evil in the world always comes from within America and from within the West, never outside of it.
In this respect, one of the most revealing responses was Jeffery Tayler’s attempt to persuade Salon’s “Progressive” readers that they should take the threat of Islam more seriously. It’s actually pretty good—once you get past all the throat-clearing about the evils of the West, blaming “Europe’s colonial past and the United States’ current (endless) military campaigns in the Islamic world, as well as prejudice against nonwhites in Europe.” Or this long paragraph making sure to inveigh equally against Christianity.
Enter the God of the Israelites. Jealous and vengeful, capricious and megalomaniacal, He issued His Decalogue. What is Commandment Number One? “You shall have no other gods before Me”—an absolutist order implicitly justifying violence against those who haven’t gotten the memo. Even after “gentle Jesus meek and mild” entered the picture, Tyrannus Deus continued His brutal reign, with legions of His Medieval votaries waging crusades against rival monotheists in the Holy Land, hurling themselves into battle as they cried Deus vult! (God wills it!) And, of course, with Jesus came (the highly non-gentle, non-meek, non-mild) idea of eternal torment in hell as divine retribution for sin—surely no inducement to peace and tranquility, either.
That’s an awful lot of throat-clearing, and by this point, you would almost forget this is an article warning against Islam. Which shows that Taylor (who elsewhere describes Ted Cruz as “our ayatollah”) knows his audience well. To even begin to tell them that radical Islam is a threat, you have to assure them that you, too, hate Fox News and Western Christians, and that you fear them just as much as radical Muslims, possibly more.
The point is that the left doesn’t kowtow to Islam because they actually love Islam, but rather because they hate our own culture. They have been steeped in a narrative about how American and Western culture is racist and “imperialist,” and they’ve been trained to see anyone with a dark complexion and a non-Western origin as the victim of our crimes. When they see criticism of Islam, or deliberate attempts to defy Islam, they filter it through that narrative. They see it as: there go those bigoted right-wing Christians, demeaning dark-skinned foreigners again. So they reflexively oppose it.
See the rationale offered by the writers who protested the PEN award given to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine whose staff was murdered by jihadists early this year. If ever anyone was a martyr for free speech, they were. But the PEN writers denounced the award as “cultural intolerance” which showed a “blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.” Leftist icon Garry Trudeau declared that “by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech.” So, as one of the writers put it, this is not something for Americans “to be self-righteous about.”
This is shallow and condescending. Equating the Charlie Hebdo murderers with a “disenfranchised minority” of French Muslims implies that all Muslims are terrorists, which is precisely what we’re told we’re not supposed to think. Meanwhile, Bosch Fawstin, the illustrator of the winning cartoon at the Garland event, is an ex-Muslim of Albanian descent. And when leftists validate a Muslim prohibition against offensive cartoons, they think they are denouncing Western provocateurs like Pamela Geller and Geert Wilders; instead, they are selling out people like Atena Farghadani, a young woman imprisoned in Iran for drawing cartoons considered insulting to the Islamist regime.
But anyone who knows the left knows that the narrative, once established, is nearly impossible to kill. It must be preserved because it serves as a source of personal identity and moral authority. In fact, you can pretty much ignore everything and skip right to that last quote from the PEN protest, because it’s what everything else is really about: that America should not believe in its own rightness. The left seeks to gain moral authority, not from what they are for, but from what they are against. If you look at the history of the left, you find that they have frequently changed their favorite causes and their vision of the ideal society, often in ways that are wildly contradictory. But the one thing that remains constant is what they oppose.
The left used to present themselves as hyper-industrial and super-technological. In H.G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come, the ideal future society was going to be ruled by a technological elite of airplane pilots, while the Soviets projected a grandiose vision of industrial giantism, with huge hydroelectric dams, steel mills, railroads, and chunky Bakelite telephones. Then the left flipped, and now they’re anti-industrial and their central crusades are to shut down power plants and to eat locally grown organic kale. You can frequently catch them making this flip in mid-conversation, as with an acquaintance I was talking to recently who expressed his concern for the plight of the poor under capitalism—and then a few minutes later, after I argued that hundreds of millions of people across the world have been lifted out of poverty by capitalism, he told me that Western affluence is overrated and destroys the environment. Everyone on the right has, at some point, had a conversation exactly like this, and it is maddening.
Or: if you go back and look at early 20th-century Progressivism, you will find it shot through with racism of the pseudo-scientific sort—Progressive icon Woodrow Wilson introduced segregation in the federal government—along with schemes for eugenics and a generally uncomplimentary view of homosexuals. Yet today’s Progressives claim the opposite position on these issues as one of their central virtues. Or: the left will champion insults to Christianity as so essential to free speech that they must be funded by the government—then regard insults to Islam as so inflammatory that they must be banned as “fighting words.”
So everything changes, but one thing stays the same. Capitalism is bad, the West is bad, America is vicious and corrupt and needs to be fundamentally transformed. Transformed into what? That’s always vague and subject to change without notice, and ultimately it doesn’t matter.
The left is fundamentally reactionary. It is a reaction against capitalism and against America. The left are defined by what they are against, or more accurately who they hate. So they are drawn to sympathy toward Islam because it is not-us: non-Western, non-American, neither Christian nor a product of the Enlightenment. And I guess that’s what the two ideologies have in common: they are both reactions against the supposed evils of the West. Which explains why leftists tend to find themselves uncomfortable and look for excuses to retreat when they are called upon to defend the West against this rival group of reactionaries.
The only corrective is to start over again from a very different starting point. Anyone who wants “progress” ought to start by asking how we achieved any in the first place. That would require some extended meditation on the virtues of the West, an appreciation of its achievements, an understanding of the ideas and values behind them—and a touch of self-righteousness that makes us too proud to kowtow to the enemies of those ideals.
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