Who needs a state censor when the press bites its own tongue so effectively?

A wartime lexicon.
Feb. 18 2008 11:53 AM

Truth and Consequences

What is the point of a paper of record that decides the untarnished record is too much for readers?

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 please—or at least not to offend—the worst tyranny of all, which is the safety-first version of public opinion.

Take, just for an example, the obituaries for Earl Butz, a once-important Republican politician who served presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford as secretary for agriculture until compelled to resign after making a loutish and humorless observation in the hearing of the Watergate whistle-blower John Dean. In the words of his New York Timesobituarist, Butz (who "died in his sleep while visiting his son William," which, I must say, makes the male offspring sound exceptionally soporific) had "described blacks as 'coloreds' who wanted only three things—satisfying sex, loose shoes and a warm bathroom." There isn't a grown-up person with a memory of 1976 who doesn't recall that Butz said that Americans of African descent required only "a tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit." Had this witless bigotry not been reported accurately, he might have held onto his job. But any reader of the paper who was less than 50 years old could have read right past the relevant sentence without having the least idea of what the original controversy had been "about."

What on earth is the point of a newspaper of record that decides that the record itself may be too much for us to bear? My question is prompted by some recent developments from a previous front-page sensation. In Denmark last week, the authorities detained three people in an alleged plot to murder a 72-year-old Dane named Kurt Westergaard. Westergaard is an illustrator who lives peacefully in a university town. Not very long ago, he joined with other cartoonists in an open society in drawing some caricatures of the alleged "prophet" Mohammed. The object of the satire was to break the largely self-imposed taboo on the criticism of Islam and its various icons. The satire was wildly successful, in that it resulted in hysterical Muslims making public idols out of images they had proclaimed to be unshowable lest they became idols. Much nasty violence and intimidation accompanied this stupidity.

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 you—as with Butz—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 Inquiry—two outlets (for both of which I have written) with a rather small combined circulation. Borders thereupon pulled Free Inquiryfrom 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 Presswere 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.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

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