This Post is now available in Polish translation at Racjonalista. Thanks once again to Malgorzata.
In an op-ed in the National Post this morning George Jonas seems to be desperately confused as well as confusing. People have a right to say stupid things, he tells us the in title of the piece, and then he spends 889 words telling us why Douglas Murray is wrong, and does not really stand in the tradition of his Enlightenment ancestors — the Scottish one’s, of course. Jonas is responding to Murray’s article in the Spectator in which Murray takes the press to task for not supporting one of its own, and he ends with this:
However, Murray reports “a rare piece of good news in Europe. Lars Hedegaard is … going to sue the Swedish media for libel. I hope — along with all decent people who believe the media should be more than the warm-up and PR wing of the jihad — that he takes them to the cleaners.”
Trouble is, the quoted words are not to be found in Murray’s Spectator article, which is the one Jonas highlights. So, Jonas’ parting shot –
There’s no doubt that lawsuits aren’t in a class with assassination attempts, and libel-chill is preferable to murder. Still, liberty’s ideal is a free press. That’s what constitutions guarantee, with a fair press just a hopeful consequence. I’m afraid people turn to libel suits when they lose hope in freedom.
– seems not to be about anything at all. But the words do come in an article that Douglas Murray wrote for the Gatestone Institute, entitled “Blaming the Victim” (which Jonas fails to link — perhaps the Gatestone Institute is beyond the pale). But the Spectator article is all about blaming the victim too, though in the Spectator Murray doesn’t pass on the “good news” of Lars Hedegaard’s decision to sue the Swedish press. That, Jonas says with some acerbity, is what people do when they lose hope in freedom.
Now, Jonas says he agrees with Murray. He agrees that the opinions of several journalists, that America brought 9/11 on itself, that Theo van Gogh was just asking for it (as was Ayaan Hirsi Ali), and so on, are stupid, even that those who hold such views are ”the jihadi’s useful idiots.” But he doesn’t call them cowardly. That he reserves for Hedegaard. What is, by any standard, the cowardly response to theocratic violence is just stupid, according to Jonas. It’s hard to forget the almost universal opinion, expressed by prime ministers, the pope, the archbishop of Canterbury, and others in high office, that Salman Rushdie ought to have known that his novel The Satanic Verses was just waving red flags around in the presence of bulls. These views, says Jonas, are regrettable, even obscene, he grants, if Murray had chosen to say so; but not, apparently, cowardly. That he reserves for Hedegaard. As he says:
I think that holding and expressing obscene opinions is also a human right. Idiots have liberty’s license to be idiotic. Cowards have liberty’s license to be scared.
Resorting to the law of libel is the way of the coward, and not only shows a loss of faith in freedom of speech, but is being a “fraidy-cat” to boot. So says Jonas. But what has Hedegaard’s suit to do with being scared? What about those who refused to stand with Rushdie, Hirsi Ali, van Gogh? Aren’t they cowards? Apparently not.
This is all very confusing. In what sense is Hedegaard a coward? According to Murray (in his Gatestone Institute piece):
In a number of papers, particularly in the country which is swift becoming the home of the world’s most illiberal media – Sweden – the stakes were raised higher. In their reports of the incident, the Swedish media referred to Hedegaard as an “enemy of Islam.” Others referred to him in even more hostile terms.
I take it that Hedegaard is taking the Swedish press to court for making such claims. Is this the act of a coward, or is it the act of a man defending his name? Hedegaard is a well-known critic of Islam, was once convicted of hate speech in his native Denmark, a conviction which was later overturned by the Danish Supreme Court in a 7-0 decision. He has been accused of “Islamophobia,” and, while well-known for his criticisms of Islam, claims that he does not mean this as a criticism of all Muslims. (This is, incidentally, very difficult to do. I criticise the Roman Catholic Church all the time, even the Anglican Church, and no one has yet accused me of hating Roman Catholics or Anglicans. But when I say anything negative about Islam, I am accused of “ranting.”) Nevertheless, when he was attacked in his own home, by an unidentified young man who shot at him point blank and missed, a man who, according to accounts, ‘looked like an immigrant’, Hedegaard was apparently widely blamed for his own predicament by the Scandinavian press, especially the press in Sweden.
The strange thing is that it is Hedegaard — the victim here, who was shot at, struggled with his attacker (one of that growing number of bumbling zealots — see Yasmin Alibhai Brown’s article on the growing intolerance of Islam, and the increasing incompetence of would-be jihadis), who shot point blank at Hedegaard and missed, even dropped his pistol, and then, after failing to overcome the 70-year-old Hedegaard, fled — is accused by Jonas of being a coward! He’s a coward because he has lost faith in free speech! And he has shown this by taking the press to court for libel. Hedegaard is the one Jonas accuses, and nowhere makes plain why. Let’s see. He criticises Islam openly. He should know, presumably, that by attacking Islam he put himself at risk. He has only himself to blame. He’s an “Islamophobe.”
But here’s the strange and confusing thing. Jonas thinks that people who blame the victim have a right to say stupid things, but he doesn’t seem to think that Hedegaard himself has a right to say stupid things. Let’s suppose that Hedegaard is an Islamophobe. I don’t know Hedgaard. I have never read a word that he has written. He doesn’t like Islam, and has criticised it in ways that have led some people to think that he doesn’t like Muslims. As I say, I know how difficult it is to do this, without attracting the same accusations. I don’t like Islam either, but have no particular animus towards Muslims. Don’t know very many, and those I have known have been decent citizens. (One old man, who ran a convenience store, used to say, ribbing me, as the local Anglican cleric, “But, excuse me, Jesus was a prophet, but not the seal of the prophets!”) But what about Hedegaard’s right to say stupid things? And if he does say stupid things, should a free press tell him that he brought it on himself, that he had it coming? That people who criticise Islam should expect to be confronted by pistol-wielding jihadis (if that’s what the clumsy, pistol-wielding young man was)?
Who’s the coward here? The man who, in defence of his good name (and, notwithstanding his criticism of Islam, Hedegaard claims not to be anti-Muslim) has decided to say, “To hell with it!”, I’m going to take these bastards to court? The man who actually criticises Islam, despite the fact that he must know that by doing so he is standing into danger? Or the man George Jonas, who plays a convoluted game of sorting out, or, rather, failing to sort out, who is stupid here, and who has a right to freedom of speech: the Swedish newspapers who, according to Hedegaard, have falsely accused him of “Islamophobia,” or Hedegaard himself, who criticises Islam, and who has set out to defend his good name? Jonas seems to have confused the issues so thoroughly that it is not clear at all who and what he is defending.
In the end, it seems to me – though, as I say, what he writes is confusing — that Jonas may be the coward, for refusing to stand up and defend Hedegaard’s right to speak freely about something that Hedegaard, at least, perceives as a danger, and who was attacked because he exercised that right. Sure, the Swedish newspapers have a right to say stupid things. They may even, if they like, say that the United States deserved 9/11, brought it on themselves, as Mary Beard apparently said. But what if they picked out an individual victim of the 9/11 bombing, and claimed that he deserved to die? That his opinions should have been censored by using plane loads of people as a weapon? That those who tried to clear this individual’s good name were cowards dressing themselves up deceptively in the garb of freedom? What is Hedegaard doing? What does he stand for? I have been puzzling over Jonas’ article for a while, and, after trying to sort through who Jonas thinks has a right to free speech, and who is afraid, it seems to me that what Hedegaard is doing may justly be seen as a defence of free speech, not a denial of it. Jonas, I’m afraid, is the stupid one here. And also a coward? I’m not at all sure. It’s confusing.