Now THIS is courage in the cause of free speech


A lot of people have had trouble understanding my point that there is nothing noble about holding contests to see who can mock Mohammed the most, It’s just stupid, immature and offensive.

Many imagine that those who participate in such pointless insults to Islam are courageous defenders of freedom of expression.

No. In case you’re still having trouble telling the difference, this is the kind of cartoonist that we have a First Amendment to protect:

Iran’s thin-skinned mullahs have jailed an artist who drew a cartoon disparaging members of parliament over their decision to restrict birth control for women.

Atena Farghadani, 28, had what Iran considers a trial in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court on May 19 and is now awaiting a verdict. She was charged with “insulting members of parliament through paintings” for drawing  the officials as animals, according to Amnesty International. It is not clear what kind of maximum sentence she could face.

“She’s truly an angel,” a relative of Farghadani told on condition of anonymity. “She just loves people and animals, and besides for all her artistic talent, she is such a strong supporter of human rights.”…

See the difference? Standing up and criticizing the powers that be in your own oppressive country is courageous, and has a point. We have a First Amendment to protect people who do that in this country. That is essential to being a free country.

Being intentionally offensive to millions of innocent Muslims who have done you no harm is just being a jerk, not a hero. You’re free to do it, but don’t expect me to pat you on the back for it.

7 thoughts on “Now THIS is courage in the cause of free speech

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Not that she isn’t talented. I certainly can’t draw that well. It’s just that, speaking as someone with intimate knowledge of editorial cartooning, it’s… not really what I think of as a cartoon at all. It’s more like an illustration to go with a long-form journalistic piece about the subject. It doesn’t have enough kick, or enough explication, to be a proper cartoon.

      Oh, and by the way, this is a Catholic defending someone for fighting against restrictions on birth control. So, as Major Rawls would say, if this were not a legitimate freedom-of-expression thing, I’d be the son of a b____ to say so… Right?

  1. Phillip

    “Stupid, immature, and offensive”…this is tricky because in Iran, Islamic law and the government are so intertwined that direct attacks on government officials can be interpreted by many as anti-Islamic. You yourself say that Ms. Farghadani’s drawings somehow are not “a proper cartoon.” As we’re reminded in this item from the BBC yesterday re a new crackdown in Iran on freedom of expression, there are large segments of Iranian society (mostly those from “poor, religious families” according to BBC) for whom attacks on the government ARE attacks on Islam. They might find Ms. Farghadani’s “not a great” cartoon a “stupid, immature, and offensive” insult to Islam, since the Iranian parliament members are essentially there to implement Islamic law. After all, she simply drew the lawmakers as animals. To devoutly religious supporters of the Supreme Leader, her cartoons could probably be seen as a kind of indirect “pointless insult to Islam.” And I’m sure that the formal charges against her include some such language.

    My point is not to criticize her cartoons: I’m as appalled as you or any of us in this country would be at her jailing. My point is that true freedom of speech does not, cannot, come with all the qualifiers you seem to wish to attach to it (evidently, it must be “noble,” it must “have a point,” must not insult religions). Who, exactly, is empowered to make those judgments? Those are all arbitrary benchmarks.

    No, the question here is not a legal one on a domestic basis within any particular country, but a question of fundamental human rights. The enemy here is religious absolutism (manifested today by radical Islam, but in the past by other religions, and potentially in the future by any religion in a fundamentalist-absolutist form). The impetus that creates a theocracy where drawing a cartoon can get you jailed or worse is the SAME impulse that leads its followers across the globe to try to kill a man (Salman Rushdie) who wrote a book they felt “insulted” their religion, and into the heart of an iconic city of Western civilization (Paris) to gun down some people who (again, let’s remind ourselves) drew some cartoons. Her cartoons are unsophisticated, his book was elaborate and fanciful, their cartoons were crass and boorish. Doesn’t matter.

    You’re right that “freedom of speech is not just for the talented.” It’s also not just for those who deserve “a pat on the back.” It’s for any speech (save an incitement to “imminent, lawless action”…see Brandenburg v. Ohio) including the “stupid, immature, and offensive” , or the ignoble, or the viewpoint held by even a single person against a tidal wave of a whole world disagreeing, ridiculing, taking offense with that view. Otherwise, our support for Ms. Farghadani rings hollow, since we would be saying that free speech is not an absolute right but one defined by certain benchmarks set by authorities, religious and/or governmental.

      1. Juan Caruso

        Right on, Philip!

        Fundamentalist Islam and the practice of sharia are offensively totalitarian and contradictory to basic freedoms of western culture. Sharia’s treatment of women and gays, disrespect for our U.S. Constitution as the law of the land, Islamist demands for autonomous zones in the U.S. are patently offensive.

        Any definition of religion and related prophets must exclude seditious, totalitarian philosophies that levy taxes or capital punishment on infidels who exercise their choice not to convert. We need no more respect the putative leader (prophet Mohammed) of a movement that is more seditious than religious within our boundaries than we would need ever respect a pope’s eligibility for election to our president, Brad.

        Many cartoonists mock politicians. “Stupid, immature, and offensive” are like beauty, in the eye of the individual, however. We must speak now in order for our children to be able to speak out later, Brad.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Once again, I’m being misunderstood. And I don’t know why, because my position is not that complicated.

      Those jerks with the insult-Mohammed contest in Texas were WITHIN THEIR RIGHTS. So would Charlie Hebdo, had they published in the U.S., have been protected by the First Amendment (and one expects the same in any liberal democracy, although I can’t speak specifically to the way it works in France). That is the way it is, and the way it should be. You don’t have to be talented; you don’t have to have a noble point. Were that the case, little would get published. Neither I nor anyone else here has asserted anything to the contrary.

      What this long discussion has been about since the start is whether I will endorse such behavior — whether I will say, along with the herd, “Je suis Charlie.” I will not, for all the reasons I have set out. And I hate to see people in this country abuse the First Amendment this way. There is nothing admirable or heroic about it, in this country or elsewhere.

      What I have done from the beginning is stand against the rush to regard these people as freedom-of-expression heroes. They are not that.

      One more point, Phillip: I can’t help it if some people in Iran (including the leaders of the government) equate the government with Islam. This young woman is criticizing the government. There’s nothing unclear about that fact. And since she is criticizing an oppressive government, she is courageous to do so, and a far more fitting object of admiration than those people who are merely trying to antagonize in order to prove they can.

      What is so difficult about this?

      1. Juan Caruso

        “And since she is criticizing an oppressive government, she is courageous to do so, and a far more fitting object of admiration than those people who are merely trying to antagonize in order to prove they can.”

        Ahhh! If we succumb to the temptations of ascribing dishonorable motives to others, we must assume we can be certain of someone else’s motivations, although only the cause and effect can be certain. I say, you are correct, Brad, the effect (antagonism) is clear, as is the cause (disobediance of sharia law).

        The motivation, however, is really NOT clear to anyone because we are not mindreaders.

        My guess is that Gellar’s cartoon contest motivation to actually the same as Atena Farghadani’s attempt. In essence it was an effort to sway public opinion in our own country, Brad. Some of us subscribe to a prophetic warning and noble motive too often proven by history:

        “We must be ready to dare all for our country. For history does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid. We must acquire proficiency in defense and display stamina in purpose.” – President Eisenhower, First Inaugural Address

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