South Park and self-censorship
In his New York Times column, Ross Douthat recounts the backstory behind the death threat—posted on a Muslim website—against the producers of “South Park” and discerns a broader issue. He argues plausibly that Comedy Central’s decision to bleep out references to “Mohammad” and remove the supposedly offending episode is part of a larger pattern of self-censorship in our culture.
What concerns him is the apparent lopsidedness of the self-censorship: practically every value and idea today is subject to criticism in popular culture, whereas the “South Park” incident is “a reminder that Islam is just about the only place where we draw any lines at all.” There’s something to that observation (though I don’t subscribe to Douthat’s explanation of it); but I want to put that aside for the moment to isolate a widely ignored, and broader, point. What he and others who echo this line overlook (or evade?) is that self-censorship in North America and (to a far greater degree in) Europe is in significant part a function of governments’ failure to uphold the freedom of speech.
The guardian of that right is the government — and it’s AWOL. To put it mildly.
The pattern we’ve witnessed in previous crises—from the death decree against author Salman Rushdie in 1989 to the Danish cartoons crisis, and similar cases—is the refusal of our political leaders to defend us against threats to our freedom of speech. Worse: we’ve seen them genuflecting before and seeking to appease aggressive Muslim activists and their backers. (I touch on this in Winning the Unwinnable War.) Yes, there have been publishers and TV networks and bookstores that exhibited fear, and perhaps cowardice, in the face of such threats. But when our government issues limp, apologetic statements mollifying the aggressors—and effectively leaves writers, publishers, filmmakers and everyone else unprotected from the threat of reprisals by would-be Islamist enforcers—is it surprising that self-censorship grows?