Jewish World Review Feb. 15, 2006 / 17 Shevat, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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The decline of the West | When future historians do their postmortem on the West, what will they cite as the cause of death? Caesarism? Suicide? Nuclear incineration? It may be nothing so dramatic, but just a general failure to thrive. You can sense it in the latest retreat from principle.

Note the West's response, or rather lack of it, to the violent scenes in the Arab world and beyond as ambassadors are called home, boycotts declared, embassies burned, flags stomped et usual cetera — all in response to some less than respectful depictions in a Danish newspaper of the Prophet, the blessings of Allah be upon him and all his household.

In response, Western politicians and businessmen speak of freedom of the press in muted, pro-forma tones if they remember to defend that outdated idea at all. Right now the West's leaders seem to be lining up to explain how horrified they are at the tastelessness and worse of these cartoons — as if one could have liberty without tolerating license. For freedom is not freedom if it does not include the freedom to offend. Liberty is first challenged not at its core but on the margins, which is why bad taste may be the surest sign that freedom is secure.

But for the moment, what all too many Western spokesmen seem to fear is not any loss of liberty but being mistaken for Danes. Yes, the Danes may have stood with us time and again, but this is no time to stand with them. It might cost us something. And, after all, theirs is only a small country.

There are some welcome exceptions here and there to this sad pattern:

The Brussels Journal proclaims that we are all Danes now.

Norway's prime minister sensibly explains that his country guarantees freedom of the press, so he cannot apologize for what newspapers are free to print. Germany's interior minister took the same welcome tack.

France's Nicolas Sarkozy, minister of interior and never one to buckle under to the mob, said he would "prefer an excess of caricature to an excess of censorship." Viva la France! I've been waiting for an opportunity to shout that once again.

Unfortunately, France's premier — Jacques Chirac — issued the usual elegant statement of abject surrender. He is nothing if not consistent.

Other official voices — in Poland, in Britain, even in Washington — quiver. Our own State Department's press officer, Janelle Hironimus, sounded more like a censor than someone who believes in freedom of the press. "Inciting religious or ethnic hatred in this manner is not acceptable," she decreed. So much for the First Amendment.

Here was the perfect opportunity to discuss why freedom of expression isn't just freedom for those ideas we agree with. That seems to be its definition in much of the Islamic world, where the grossest caricatures of other faiths are not only tolerated but encouraged while cartoons offending Muslims spark violence and threats of more violence to come.

What distinguishes a great civilization is its tolerance of ideas it does not share and even images it finds offensive. There was a time when it was the Arab world that was the tolerant realm while Christian Europe was mired in the Dark Ages. And the decline of Arabdom proceeded in step with its refusal to tolerate different ideas.

But instead of pointing out all that, much of the West just hunkers down and hopes this storm, too, will pass. As if freedom isn't worth explaining if it's going to cost us our exports. Some call this craven performance diplomacy; it's more like intellectual surrender. And it will only encourage the mob and those who would appease it. What we're witnessing comes too close to a kind of intellectual Munich.

The moral disarmament of the West continues apace. Only now has the administration's top leaders begun to focus on the importance of freedom of expression in this worldwide debate and contretemps. Happily, this is still a free country no matter what our State Department declares unacceptable. And free men should speak out in these circumstances.

We in the West should be distributing copies of Milton's "Areopagitica," and explaining why the best reply to a bad idea is a better idea, not mindless violence. We should be declaring that freedom, if it is to have any meaning, is freedom for the thought one hates, and that a crime is still a crime even and especially if it is committed in the name of the holy.

Freedom will always be a kind of island in the world, expanding or shrinking depending on whether those who say they believe in it are willing to defend it.

What, defend the most basic of our values in clear, unambiguous words and deeds? Unthinkable. We must be, uh, nuanced lest we offend the forces of violence and oppression around the world. And so the West declines.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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