Is only free speech sacred?

RushdieProfile.jpgChristopher Hitchens is most engaging when he's showing indignation, but he's most endearing when paying tribute to a courageous friend. His portrait of novelist Salman Rushdie, appearing in the February issue of Vanity Fair, opens with some of the warmest and most affectionate words I've seen from Hitchens in quite a while. Indignation is never far away for Hitchens, however, and he opens up on both the late Ayatollah Khomeini (for issuing the infamous fatwa against Rushdie) and on many figures of journalism and literature for becoming self-censoring in the shadow of that fatwa:

Some of this was a hasty bribe paid to the crude enforcer of fear: if Susan Sontag had not been the president of PEN in 1989, there might have been many who joined Arthur Miller in his initial panicky refusal to sign a protest against the ayatollah's invocation of Murder Incorporated. "I'm Jewish," said the author of The Crucible. "I'd only help them change the subject." But Susan would have none of that, and shamed many more pants wetters whose names I still cannot reveal.

... I brushed up against the unacknowledged censor myself when I went on CNN to defend the Danish cartoons and found that, though the network would show the relevant page of the newspaper, it had pixelated the cartoons themselves. And this in an age when the image is everything. The lady anchor did not blush to tell me that the network was obliterating its very stock-in-trade (newsworthy pictures) out of sheer fear.

Hitchens is especially good in countering the claim that self-censorship is an act of multicultural sensitivity:

To indulge the idea of religious censorship by the threat of violence is to insult and undermine precisely those in the Muslim world who are its intellectual cream, and who want to testify for their own liberty -- and for ours. It is also to make the patronizing assumption that the leaders of mobs and the inciters of goons are the authentic representatives of Muslim opinion. What could be more "offensive" than that?

I take issue with Hitchens' belief -- entirely understandable, given his muscular atheism -- that nothing is sacred, and further that nothing ought to be considered sacred:

In the hot days immediately after the fatwa, with Salman himself on the run and the TV screens filled with images of burning books and writhing mustaches, I was stopped by a female Muslim interviewer and her camera crew and asked an ancient question: "Is nothing sacred?" I can't remember quite what I answered then, but I know what I would say now. "No, nothing is sacred. And even if there were to be something called sacred, we mere primates wouldn't be able to decide which book or which idol or which city was the truly holy one. Thus, the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification is the right of free expression, because if that goes, then so do all other claims of right as well."

I find this a truncated understanding of sacredness. For a religion writer -- for that matter, for any reporter who tries to prevent personal assumptions from interfering with journalistic duty -- the issue is not "which book or which idol or which city was the truly holy one." Rather, a reporter writing about believers does well to recognize that certain books or cities or people are holy to those believers.

Such a recognition need not lead to self-censorship or cowering dread of violence. Ideally, it helps a journalist depict people so accurately that they recognize themselves in the report.

I am thankful for the courage Hitchens has shown these many years in defending and sheltering his friend, and in alerting the West to genuine threats against free speech. He is, of course, correct to say that no sense of the sacred ought to imperil the lives of anyone who exercises free-speech rights.

I don't expect Hitchens to refrain from his war against the idea of sacredness for the sake of his own safety. His refusal to do so merely for his own safety is when of his most admirable traits. I wish only that Hitchens' style of atheism did not drive him toward a campaign against sacredness as a category. Such a campaign only confirms the worst suspicions held by believers of various faiths, and it limits Hitchens' ability to understand the daily reality of billions of people.

It's entirely possible to believe in sacredness and to believe that people must be free to express themselves, even if their expression denigrates what one holds to be sacred. Pope Benedict XVI is a model of this. So are Douglas Wilson and Dinesh D'Souza (Google Video), who have both debated Hitchens in recent times.

In the cause for free speech, Hitchens has more allies than he seems able to recognize.

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