Time for a press with a spine

We like to think of our press as the freest in the world — and for the most part it is. But it is far from the bravest. That was proved last week when newspapers across Europe stood up to the threat of terrorism and reprinted a dozen cartoons showing the Prophet Muhammad. (The original one, not Elijah.)

Muslims don't believe their prophet should ever be depicted, in any way. Court jesters used to be the only people at court allowed to tell the truth, and last fall, a Danish comedian, of all people, made an interesting observation. He said he could get away with peeing on a Bible, but wouldn't dare deface a Quran.

What he meant, of course, was the fear that fanatics would kill him. And in fact, there's been a dual standard in the Western world, at least since author Salman Rushdie spent years in hiding after the Ayatollah Khomeini ordered loyal Muslims to kill him for his novel, The Satanic Verses.

So an intrigued Danish features editor named Fleming Rose, from a newspaper I can't pronounce — Jyllands-Posten — issued this challenge to the Danish cartoonists' society, inviting them to draw the prophet. A dozen complied, and he published their images. Then the falafel hit the fan.

Fundamentalist Muslims went ballistic. Fundamentalist imams demanded a meeting with Denmark's prime minister. (He rightly refused.) The fundamentalists then began whipping up outrage by showing the cartoons around the Middle East. And get this. These "holy men of God" included phony cartoons that were much worse than the real ones.

They included images showing Muhammed as a pig, a pedophile and a sodomizer of animals. (I'd love to know who did those.) The cartoons in the Danish newspaper were far milder. Some were pro-Muslim, some didn't depict the prophet at all, and one attacked the editor as a "reactionary provocateur."

Naturally, inflamed Muslims began behaving badly. Danish flags were burned; people have been killed in demonstrations; diplomatic installations have been set on fire; and they called for an international boycott of Danish products, which must be bad if you're addicted to small buttery cookies.

Accordingly, last week a number of European papers did something that should put the press here to shame. They courageously reprinted the cartoons.

One of those, the German newspaper Die Welt, added this: "Democracy is the institutionalized form of freedom of expression. There is no right to protection from satire in the West; there is a right to blasphemy."

Amen, amen, selah and salaam. Thomas Jefferson couldn't have said it better. Lovers of freedom all over the world ought to be very, very proud of every editor who published them. Naturally, various so-called liberals howled that this was racism, and whined that it would help an anti-immigration party in Denmark.

That's a load of bullshit. Denmark is a postage-stamp country with barely half Michigan's population. And all you need to know about it is that when the Nazis occupied them and came to round up and murder their Jews, the Danes said no. No way. The entire nation then collaborated to smuggle nearly the entire Jewish population to Sweden. Nobody else did anything like that.

They are people of courage, tolerance and a sense of humor, three qualities that America — especially the American press — is sorely lacking.

By the way, how many newspapers in this country, home of the free press, reprinted the cartoons? To the best of my knowledge, not one.

Not a one. No American newspaper, not The New York Times, not even Metro Times, has had the guts to reprint these cartoons. (You can see them, however, in many places on the Internet; try michellemalkin.com.)

That makes me ashamed for my country, and my profession.

Yes, some of the cartoons may be found offensive — such as one of Muhammed wearing a bomb for a turban. Some of them are genuinely funny, such as one in which Allah calls off the avenging angels, saying "relax ... it is just a sketch made by a guy from southwest Denmark."

But that doesn't matter. Many American newspapers published pictures of Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ," which showed a crucifix in a bottle of urine. Cartoons lampooning Jesus are published; during Watergate, Paul Conrad did a prize-winning sketch of Richard Nixon nailing himself to a cross.

This nation is not a theocracy, much less one that's supposed to be designed to placate the imams. This nation has enough trouble with ignorant so-called Christian yahoos trying to ruin our education and subvert our Constitution.

Not that we should try to muzzle them, either. Voltaire, that canny old French philosophe, used to say, "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

We, as journalists and Americans, should be prepared to die to prevent any censorship of any form of expression, no matter how repulsive.

And fight for freedom of speech, everywhere and in every sphere.


Support this bill: State Sen. Ray Basham, a Downriver Democrat, is proposing a kind of welfare reform we should all get behind. He wants to stop having poor and middle-income Michigan taxpayers pay welfare to multibillionaire corporations like Wal-Mart. That's exactly what is happening now.

Wal-Mart mainly treats its "associates" abysmally, pays them starvation wages and fails to provide the majority of its workers with any health insurance at all. What happens when they get really sick?

Their only recourse is to fall back on the resources of the strained state Medicaid system. According to Basham, Wal-Mart's 11,000 Michigan employees and their dependents cost the state $46 million that way last year.

Wal-Mart made $10 billion in profits. Basham would require the giant company either to invest a piddly 8 percent of its payroll in health care coverage for its workers, or pay that money into a "Fair Share Health Care Fund" that would reimburse the taxpayers for Medicaid-related expenses.

Naturally, that has the right-wing greedheads screaming like mad. Wal-Mart lobbyists are working overtime. Turning to the highest available intellectual talent, The Detroit News ran a column by sportscaster Frank Beckmann predicting that corporations would pull out of Michigan if this passed.

Sure they will. They tried that argument in Maryland, by the way. The bill passed, and was promptly vetoed by the Republican governor, whose talents seem mainly to lie in doing golf commercials on cable TV.

The Legislature quickly overrode his veto, it became law — and corporate America whined a little bit, then paid up. Maryland's still there, thank you.

Basham's bill, in my opinion, is too conservative — he would only force rich corporations with more than 10,000 employees to pay their fair share.

But, sadly, his bill will never go anywhere. The Republicans who control the state Senate won't even bring it up for a hearing. (Certainly wouldn't want the citizens to hear about this.) Yet there is a way to get around them.

Put it on the statewide ballot in two years, and the time to start organizing for that is now. After all, wherever Sam Walton's soul is today, it's time we helped the serfs he exploits, and gave the octopus he spawned a little hell.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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