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September 13, 2012
William Saletan: Romney Betrayed Free Speech By Championing It
I've asked Saletan a series of questions about this piece on Twitter. Alas, I got his name wrong, so he has all the excuse he needs to pretend not to notice.
The question I ask -- it's long and multi-pronged -- is this:
What does William Saletan imagine the purpose of anti-Christian art is? I do not dabble in it myself, but it seems to me that such art is animated by several things:
1. Simple hate. There is no doubt that many anti-Christian artists simply hate Christianity, and, perhaps more than the religion itself, Christians themselves.
2. A belief that art which injects doubt into the mind of a believer is a good thing, because artists tend to think of themselves as free-thinkers, and wish to encourage free thought. They believe that Christianity (and other religions, but especially Christianity) is a silly superstition, and they think their art helps to liberate people from this superstition.
3. An anger at the political stances engendered by Christianity. They don't like where fundamentalist Christianity leads, politics-wise, so they seem the sowing of doubt as a useful method of undermining the Christianity where the rubber meets the road, that is, at the point Christian thought affects policy choices.
Has William Saletan ever objected to any anti-Christian art? Has anyone at Slate magazine? Has any liberal in the media, the entire media, objected?
Even when the motivation seems to be simple hate -- and yes, there are those who simply hate Christians and Christianity, and that bitter venom comes through -- I never see anyone calling such art "juvenile provocations" or "hateful stupidity."
Now, many of us -- and this includes me; does it include William Saletan, I wonder? -- think that fundamentalist Islam is dangerous and rather bad for those living under it. And we -- again, is William Saletan among them? -- would like to see, if possible, a movement away from fundamentalist Islam.
We don't like that it justifies murder in the name of "god." We do not like that it turns women into de facto slaves -- every wife is the slave of her husband, to be beaten, or raped, or disposed of as the husband may wish. Every non-married woman is in an even worse position, except to the extent her male relations may protect her. But even in that case, a woman's status comes through the men around her.
We do not like its rejection of the Enlightenment, or of its reactionary opposition to unobjectionable (or so we thought) universal values of human dignity. We do not like its insistence on championing believers in a faith with a superior legal status over nonbelievers (also known as "polytheists," "blasphemers," "apostates," "dhimmis," or, worst of all, "Jews").
We do not like its apparent political agenda of building a bridge to the 14th century.
For nonbelievers like myself -- agnostics -- and believers in other creeds as well, it is alarming in its championing of anti-blasphemy laws (punishments ranging from long terms in prison to execution) and its insistence that everyone living in an area controlled by Islam give praise to a "god" and an ideology that we do not actually believe in.
It is unobjectionable in the modern age to express hostility towards the Catholic Inquisition. It is, however, very strangely considered something approaching a hate crime to express hostility to the currently existing Islamic Inquisition.
Now, if someone like myself would like to encourage people to abandon this hidebound, hateful, backward mode of thought -- and, again, I ask: Does William Saletan disagree? Is he a big fan of fundamentalist Islam? -- we might take a page from all that anti-Christian art the country has been awash in for 70, 80 years, and think to ourselves, "Perhaps spoofing this religion, pointing out its absurdities, pointing out its true evils, will help inject a modicum of useful doubt into the minds of the believers, and perhaps cause a moderation, a skepticism of things like woman's servitude and especially Murder In The Name of 'God.'"
Would I be wrong in thinking this? To read William Saletan, I would, because his piece says, with very little caveating at all, that to offend the dignity of Islam (especially fundamentalist Islam) is not a use of free speech -- not a permissible use of it, like all that anti-Christian art he's never got 'round to condemning -- but an an abuse of it.
One might have certain beliefs -- such as the idea that a religion predicated upon the de facto slavery of women, the rejection of the reason and humanism, and ultimately, even the rejection of the Commandment Thou Shalt Not Kill -- and one might think he would be on firm ground to use the exact same methods and techniques of subversion and spoof and plain ol' vitriol directed against the Faith of the West for coming on a century now.
But no, William Saletan sharply disagrees, and calls such things an "abuse" of free speech.
Not a legitimate use of free speech. Not a true expression of truly held beliefs (and, again, does William Saletan disagree that fundamentalist Islam could use some reform and rethinking? Let's get him on the record).
But an abuse of free speech, and if not a crime, per se, at least such a transgression as requires the mobilization of social pressures (ostracization, demonization, even threats to physical safety -- ask Salman Rushdie about that) to punish those who would give themselves to such "abuses."
Am I wrong to think that fundamentalist Islam is in dire need of some doubt?
William Saletan, I am fairly confident, would be quite effusive in describing all the manifold ways in which the Christian mind is "closed" and "hidebound" and "haunted by superstition." He would, I'm reasonably certain, be quite in favor of any artistic project which undermined the foundations of Christian thought.
And yet, when we turn to fundamentalist Islam, he becomes... a censor. He becomes not an agent of the Inquisition per se, but a bit of a fanboy of it.
And why? Why the anger directed towards someone who is doing what Saletan would almost certainly praise were it directed at any other religion?
I think I know. There is a line of magnificent wisdom in the film The Spanish Prisoner (by David Mamet). It is spot-on about human nature.
The circumstances of the quote are that a young financial wizard has created a "Process" which is worth, literally, trillions. However, it was created as work-for-hire. He created it, but the company owns it. And he's wondering if the company will actually compensate him for it, as they have promised.
Steve Martin gives him the bad news (paraphrased): "I think if they have a moral obligation to you but not a legal one you will begin to find them behaving cruelly towards you. You will find them treating you poorly, isolating you, speaking badly about you when you are not present. Even as they decide to stiff you out of what they owe you, they will compound that with bad manners and worse intent. They will not be apologetic about it; they will become increasingly hateful towards you."
The reason is this: When people know they have a moral obligation towards someone which they do not feel like honoring, for reasons of personal interest, or personal safety, or personal political agenda, they feel awfully bad about themselves for not honoring the moral obligation. They feel awfully bad that they are ignoring a moral obligation in favor of their own personal interests.
And people do not like feeling bad about themselves.
So what people do, is this: They begin demonizing the person to whom they have an inconvenient moral obligation, convincing themselves that he is in fact the Bad Guy because, hey, he makes them feel bad. So he must be the bad guy.
In fact, he must be a Monster.
And no one owes a moral obligation to a Monster.
So, as William Saletan, and the news media generally, gives up completely on its own duty to protect free speech, they have to explain this to themselves in terms of No Duty To Protect a Monster.
Indeed, they will even, at the end of the day, help jihadists find the inconvenient Monster in order to murder him, and thereby make the Bad Feeling About Oneself go away.
If left to his own devices, without any contrary narrative to cast doubt on his claims, a coward can write an account of his heroic deeds in battle that would make Achilles himself quail.
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