I hoped I’d never have to write this post. But my God, Ross Douthat is close to right about something.
Last week, South Park, in its inexorable quest to offend, sometimes for its own sake, sometimes to educate, met its match, when fringe elements of Islam threatened violence if the series was allowed to depict the Prophet Mohammed in semi-comic manner. In the face of controversy, Comedy Central relented, and pulled the episode. Replying to the situation, Douthat comes close to expressing the rage that we should all feel when extrinsic threats come close to threatening free speech, the very core of our society:
Our culture has few taboos that can’t be violated, and our establishment has largely given up on setting standards in the first place. Except where Islam is concerned. There, the standards are established under threat of violence, and accepted out of a mix of self-preservation and self-loathing.
This is what decadence looks like: a frantic coarseness that “bravely” trashes its own values and traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force.
Happily, today’s would-be totalitarians are probably too marginal to take full advantage. This isn’t Weimar Germany, and Islam’s radical fringe is still a fringe, rather than an existential enemy.
For that, we should be grateful. Because if a violent fringe is capable of inspiring so much cowardice and self-censorship, it suggests that there’s enough rot in our institutions that a stronger foe might be able to bring them crashing down.
And yet, he still manages to go amiss by attributing our inability — or unwillingness — to defend our institutions against radical Islam to some problem with society as a whole, surely wrought by cowardly liberals (bolded elements). This isn’t a time to point fingers.
First, I initially balked at using the phrase “radical Islam,” because the right so commonly uses it to marginalize all Muslims. But if we use the entire phrase — “radical Islam” — and take seriously the first word of it, there is no risk of being misunderstood.
Next, this isn’t a case where we need to identify some internal enemy, so corrosive as to weaken our resolve, and sap the courage of our convictions. When reacting to a threat, we don’t blame the victim for taking it seriously, especially when the threat has been carried out before, and when the effects of the threat are, elsewhere, well-known. Violence, or the threat thereof, has always been the enemy of free speech, especially when coupled with radicalized religion. If we are so willing to trash our own ideas, but not those of others, it’s because we value satire, and we generally don’t threaten existential war against ourselves for using it to question our ideas (although our own religious extremists regularly do threaten lawsuits: see Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988)). Fault, here, lies exclusively with the maker of the threat. Look no further.
Against such threats, we on both sides of the aisle should be able to recognize and prosecute a common cause. Radical Islam (see caveat, supra) is a danger to American values, and America’s survival as such, and where members of our society chance the dangers of that threat, we should rally to their side as allies and show as one that we will not be intimidated.
When the threat fades, we might also profit from the experience, and learn, for all our sakes, that there’s something noxious about being controlled by a restrictive foreign morality — whether foreign to our nation, or foreign to ourselves. If we fight radical Islam as a basis for self-censorship, but embrace other exclusionary radicalisms as a basis for the same, have we really learned anything?