Free Speech, the Rough and the Smooth


Free speech attacked yet again. Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, angered somehow by the privilege of growing up in peaceful Denmark rather than war-ravaged Palestine, sprayed bullets from an M-95 at random into the Krudttønden cultural center simply because a debate about free speech was being held there. He killed a filmmaker. (Later he killed a volunteer security man at a Bat Mitzvah celebration just in case we had missed his motivation. We get it: Islamist radicals hate Jews just as much as they hate free discussion.)

Like most academics, I see free speech as an indispensable moral and political value. The only protection for any of us from oppressors who don’t like the way we think or talk is a universal principle that everyone is constitutionally free to use their linguistic capacities to express their opinions, without being locked up and flogged (like poor Raif Badawi), or of course murdered. Those offended by anything I say should keep in mind that the freedom permitting me to say it guarantees their freedom to rebut it.

For we all have to take the rough with the smooth. I hear things every day that make me furious. Remember Sarah Palin’s fear-mongering about Down’s syndrome babies confronting “death panels” if the government did anything about health care? Infuriating. But as a committed American, I of course had to affirm her right to run her stupid mouth, rather than threaten her with … umm … a death panel.

I was similarly tempted toward ire and indignation a few weeks ago when the soi-disant “terror expert” Steven Emerson appeared on Fox after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and informed a gullible presenter (and presumably a largely catatonic audience) that Birmingham, in the West Midlands of England, was a Muslim-only city into which non-Muslims simply dared not venture. Maddening. Fox really does send in the clowns when an Islam-connected story comes up. Birmingham’s million inhabitants do include about 200,000 Muslims, but (trust me) they allow the other 80 percent to walk the streets freely, and they permit the rest of us infidels to visit.

But rather than rage against the crying of the not-so-bright, perhaps I should take a lesson from the British online reaction to Emerson, which was genuinely charming. No furious how-dare-you denunciations or death threats for offending proud Birmingham residents. Prime Minister David Cameron said that he choked on his porridge when he heard the remark, and called Emerson an idiot, but online Brits largely opted for gentle linguistic humor, turning this American moron’s self-inflicted embarrassment into something that could be relished.

More than one person wryly suggested on Twitter that the familiar British gambling and social club organization known as Mecca Bingo might be controlled from the real Mecca.

Whole buildings, claimed others, are forced to wear the burkha in Birmingham (and they tweeted photos of scaffolded buildings modestly wrapped in protective plastic sheeting, like the one above).

One person tweeted that the real name of the Birmingham rock band Duran Duran is Quran Quran.

Yet another tweeter asserted that only 75 miles away Jihadi extremists had forced the city of Oxford to rename the Thames the River Isis. (The Oxford part of the Thames really is called the Isis; the word is only accidentally the initials of the mass murder organization styling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.)

My favorite was the proposal that the name of the nearby town of Nuneaton alludes to Ramadan, being a corruption of “none eaten” (the state your food should be in at the end of your day of fasting).

Emerson rapidly admitted error and offered apologies to “the beautiful city of Birmingham,” as if he had made a quick trip there and been won over. He even claimed to be planning a donation to a children’s hospital in the city. He must be panicking that his reputation as an international terrorism expert is in tatters. He shouldn’t. I’m sure he’ll be back on Fox before long, asserting that Denmark has adopted Shariah law, or that Prince Charles is already a secret Muslim.

But apologies to Birmingham may not be enough to repair his reputation in the eyes of the British. He made the further claim that in parts of London “there are actually Muslim religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to religious Muslim attire.” (Any statement that comes with three actuallys must be true.)

I’ve never noticed these sartorial cops when walking around London in Western dress, but don’t take chances: Pack some Arab robes and headgear if you’re visiting London this summer. At least, if you’re gullible enough to believe brainless terror experts like Steven Emerson.

In the meantime, speak freely, and laugh a little. Irony and ridicule are your constitutional right, and provide adequate responses to the infuriating Palins and Emersons and blasphemers of the world. Make puns, not war.

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