The "Heckler's Veto"
Josef Joffe at the Harvard Institute for Middle Eastern Studies argues that Europeans are dealing with the Fitna incident in a traditional, but effective way. Joffe says that in Europe, pre-emptive censorship is far more normal than in the US due to an historical fear of communal violence.
European constitutional practice does not share the American tradition of the “heckler’s veto.” ... Yet in Europe, the mere expectation of communal violence against hateful speech routinely leads to bans and prohibitions. Significantly, the Dutch government has imposed no such sanctions on Geert Wilder’s Fitna. The Hague as well as the EU have merely condemned the 15-minute film. On the other hand, no television station would air it, so Wilders had to “premiere” it on the Internet.
In other words official Europe, while making a show of outrage, has pointedly exempted Fitna from the full force of proscription. Joffe says that Fitna is an instantly recognizable instance of provocation with which Europe has had a long experience in dealing, of the same sort employed by anti-Semites, Michael Moore or Al Gore. Provocation is as European as a pate de foi gras; but not all provocateurs are treated equally. Moore and Gore are given a pass because they are serving the official line, but Wilders the renegade may not.
The suggestion is that the Europeans are far better at their own style of taqquiya, or dissimulation, than are Americans. Authorities managed the Fitna problem by talking out of both sides of their mouths. In essence, they paid back the Arab world back in its own two-faced coin.
This time, Europe is walking the fine line between appeasement and self-assertion. The Dutch are a perfect example. No, they would not ban Fitna. ... On the other hand, the Dutch bent over backward to assuage Muslim rage, knowing full well that such fury is never spontaneous, but a convenient pretext for scoring another Big One in the “clash of civilizations.” Dutch diplomats were dispatched to assure Muslim regimes that Fitna was strictly a private affair—and by no means condoned by the powers that be.
But the most interesting part of the essay is Joffe's fascinating assertion that Europe has discovered that not standing up for causes is the essence of wisdom; that if European history teaches anything it's that nothing is worth fighting for. Better to settle things privately; as things work so much better that way that way. The European art of compressing arrogance and self-hatred into a single emotion has never been expressed better than in Joffe's paragraph.
What these emissaries did not cite, one surmises, is another, now safely banished part of our history. This is those three centuries of million-fold annihilation in the name of the One True God, be he the Lord or a secular Deity, as in the guise of Stalin or Hitler. To invoke this bloody past in defense of free speech would have been totally incorrect, the kind of cultural hauteur that would assign to the West a higher perch on the scale of civilizational progress.
But maybe it should be pointed out that the "now safely banished part of our history"; that those "three centuries of million-fold annihilation" did not come to an end on the tides of European widom but on the bottoms of Higgins boats on the Normandy beaches. The luxury of not standing up for causes was paid for by the long garrisoning of Europe during the Cold War; and to now assign to that luxury powers of salvation and wisdom is an interesting inversion, to say the least. Joffe ends:
Next stop is Germany, where a municipal theater in Potsdam, a suburb of Berlin, will premiere Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses on Sunday. Recall that this led to Khomeini’s death fatwa against the author in 1989 and innumerable eruptions of Muslim rage throughout the world. Recall also the submissive response by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie: “Only the utterly insensitive can fail to see that… Salman Rushdie’s book has deeply offended Muslims both here and throughout the world.”
This time, twenty years later, submission and self-assertion, rage and restraint are more balanced. For now.
What a world of menace is contained in the phrase "for now". The policy of kicking the can down the road also has its drawbacks: one of which is that the provocative exhibition in Potsdam is somehow a consequence of Robert Runcie's "restraint". He and his generation of officials kicked the can down the road, and see where it got us? Now the exhibition in Potsdam is going to pick the can up and what they will do with it is now going to keep many a Eurocrat up a night. Maybe one of the lessons of history should be that if you don't pick up cans, the cans you've kicked down the road may someday come back stuffed with gunpowder and sputtering fuse.
When officials send diplomats to assure the Muslim world that "all is well" while giving a tacit go-ahead for private individuals to continue, some element of randomness and chaos enters the process. From the days of the piracy on the Spanish Main to the ISI's support of the Taliban in Pakistan, governments have learned that there's no free lunch.
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