Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Right to Be an Asshole

Note:  I’m reaching way back to the infancy of this blog on February 23, 2006 to resurrect this entry.  Not only does it resonate to the state of contemporary American politics, but the tragic events in Benghazi yesterday brought it to mind.  The incidents illustrating the theme may be dimly remembered and dated, the idea isn’t.
Every writer, whether he wishes to admit it or not, occasionally commits a turn of phrase that seems to him so perfect that he just has to stand back and admire it. I came up with one of my personal such favorites more than thirty years ago in a letter describing a particularly obstreperous fellow worker: “He’s such a flaming asshole that he can’t sit down without igniting the furniture.” Not Shakespeare perhaps, but certainly a classic insult. Two major news stories bring this to mind.
There is the case of David Irving, the alleged British historian. He has been cooling his heels in an Austrian jail for a couple of months and was just sentenced to three years in prison for denying the Holocaust in a number of books published in Britain but circulated all over Europe. The darling of neo-Nazis was stupid enough to be caught in Austria, the country that gave the world Adolph Hitler and which has strict laws about that sort of thing.
Making even greater headlines has been the cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed published in Denmark and republished over most of the western world. After a slow start, Islamic outrage at this desecration has boiled over into rioting and bloodshed from North Africa to Indonesia.
 Both cases illustrate the perplexing conflict between two deeply held liberal western values—unfettered freedom of expression on one hand and respect for and protection of minorities on the other. These are complex, even wrenching moral problems. Ernest commentators have come down on both sides. Others have tried to navigate some middle ground.
After much consideration, I have to come down on the side of the god-given right to be an asshole.

Everyone is somebody else’s asshole—at least everyone with the requisite combination of strong opinions and backbone. That means that there is always someone out there that yearns to shut us up and someone we want to muzzle in turn. In my case small armies would like to slap the gag on me. There was the sputtering “Let’s turn Iraq to a sea of glass” guy who denounced my namby-pamby treason at an anti-war vigil this year. There are the anonymous phone callers every time I write a letter to the editor in defense of same-sex marriage. There are the proper Catholic ladies who hiss “baby killer” at me when they see me at the Democratic Party booth at the County Fair. I could go on, but you get the picture. Almost any one of these folks would be overjoyed to have the government arrange for either my silence or disappearance.
I, of course, have my own list of knuckle dragging buffoons, crackpots, and hate spewing bigots who I am sure need the deft application of a dirty gym sock shoved far down offending throats.

In the end my cherished right to be obnoxious to some folk depends on having to put up with the offensive speech of others. I do not trust any government to make a call on what is permitted or not. In this sense I am a First Amendment absolutist in this country and fervent defender of free speech everywhere in the globe.

But that does not mean any asshole has to be “tolerated” in the sense of being allowed to proceed unchallenged or unchecked by public outrage. The best part of free speech is our absolute right to call an asshole an asshole to his face and hold him up to ridicule and scorn. The truism is that the best weapon against a bad idea is a better one.

David Irving is a good case in point. For more than thirty years he has been promoting a patently erroneous version of history in which there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz and the deaths of Jews and others were the unfortunate side effect of admittedly harsh conditions of confinement, over work and disease. He has lost civil cases before in British courts, but in Austria faced criminal prosecution for the first time. Interestingly he claimed to have just discovered new evidence which now leads him to acknowledge that the gas chambers existed and extermination was a policy of the Nazi regime, although he continues to deny that Hitler personally was aware of any of it. How convenient for him.

The urge to grab an idiot like Irving by the throat or even to break his nose by a well placed left jab is not only understandable, but laudable. Where can I sign up to do it? But while having no sympathy for Irving I cannot countenance state suppression of his right to be an asshole. The Nazis themselves remind us how quickly the ball of state suppression can roll down hill gathering more and more in its path. We don’t need an Austrian prosecutor. We need an outraged public.

The case of the infamous cartoons offers its own lessons. The first is, just because you have the absolute right to be an asshole doesn’t mean you should necessarily exercise that right just to prove you can do so. That is pretty much what the Danish newspaper presented as their defense for setting off the storm—we did it because we could do it. Folks that are not bullies, thugs and fools should recognize the rights of minorities in their society. Going out of your way to purposefully violate the known sensitivities deserves to elicit the strongest condemnation.

A particularly outstanding asshole in this whole sorry, sordid affair is a minister in the Italian government. This genius, eyeing the rising backlash against Muslims in Italy, decided to print one of the offending cartoons on a T-shirt and proceed to wear it. The next day mobs in the former Italian colony of Libya stormed and burned the Italian embassy. At least ten were shot and killed by Libyan police. Those deaths are on the hands of that feckless opportunist. Had I been the Italian prime minister, I would have fired him on the spot and bought the gentleman a one way ticket to Tripoli where he could have the opportunity to display his personal bravery and dedication to free speech.

And speaking of assholes, the opportunists in the Islamic world who seized on this incident to build their own prestige and build a wider anti-western Jihad cannot escape condemnation. An asshole with a Koran is an asshole none the less. So here is my message to those guys: “Don’t sit on that prayer rug. You’ll set it on fire.”

1 comment:

  1. The Islamists in Cairo had requested a permit to protest in front of the US Embassy a week before hand. The stuff on the movie was only announced by them on the day of the protest.