I recently had an exchange with my good friend Ian that I think is worth mentioning. It had to do with the fact that recently a court in Austria put a guy in jail for three years for denying the Holocaust. This seemed at first glance to smack of hypocrisy, given the current row over free speech that we are currrently experiencing due to the controversy over the publication of satirical cartoons of Muhammed.

At one leve, you want to just shake your head and say, “Those crazy nuts. They’re just so damn crazy.” Until you realize that people are dying during these “protests” and that they are symptoms of a much larger trend: the trend toward extremism in Islamic countries.

At first I was happy about the cartoon controversy. I think there are some major incompatibilities between Islamic and Western cultures, and I think that a healthy debate helps all parties to understand exactly what their values are and how they are going to co-exist in a world where people have different values.

As a smart guy I know at work said a few weeks ago, “We [the West] can’t really claim that we are not intolerant, because we are intolerant. We’re intolerant of intolerance.” And at the end of the day, that’s what the cartoon thing boils down to. Fundamentalist Islamic people believe that any depiction of the prophet, by anyone, should not be allowed. It’s an egregious insult to them and they can’t stand it, must beat their heads with their hands, riot in the streets, burn buildings, yadda yadda yadda.

While this is happening (and as some claim, being instigated by some Arab and Islamic regimes to further their own agendas), the Western worlds looks at this as a challenge (and certain French papers see it as a chance to boost circulation and look like they are defending free speech by choosing to reprint the cartoons). It’s a challenge to our value of free speech. And this is one of those values that transcends partisanship, everyone can get behind free speech (even if there are some Republicans who don’t want to go as far as some others).

So when I first heard about this particular controversy I was happy, because if you’re going to have a confrontation between civilizations, having the flashpoint be a case that is so obviously clear cut is better than having the debate over some other more fuzzy issue, like the implicit racism of the West.

Plus, the issue is really a non-issue. No one is going to apologize. No newspaper, and certainly no government, is going to get up and apologize for exercising their right to free speech. They may get up and say the cartoons were more hurtful than they understood, and that they were in poor taste, but no one is going to get up and say “yeah, you win you crazy nuts, there should never be any depictions made of the prophet muhammed, ever.”

Of course, the flaw in my argument is to believe that ultimately the Islamic world, having failed to secure any kind of apology or concession, will reconsider their approach toward international diplomacy and look for a more successful strategy. If that were to happen it would be a triumph of logic over emotion. But sadly, such victories are rare even when the issue is not as strong as religion.

But we have gotten away from the beginning of the story. The hypocrisy Ian saw was that we would defend free speech on one side of our face while putting people in jail for exercising their right to free speech out of the other side. But I don’t see it that way.

The issue with jailing a neo-Nazi Holocaust denier, is an issue of truth versus lies. There is already an established precedent that enshrines truth as one of the things that we value as a society and for which we will offer protection. Defamation and libel laws, and also laws to prosecute Holocaust deniers, exist because we have decided that it is a value as a society for us to require that those who distribute a commercial message (of any kind) distribute a true one. Usually we leave it to the wronged party to bring a civil lawsuit, but in the case of the Holocaust, where there is no single defendant to bring a case, we have decided it is in the public interest for the state to prosecute offenders, because it is for the public good that we accurately remember the atrocities of the past so as not to repeat them in the future.

So I don’t see any incompatibility between jailing a Holocaust denier and championing free speech.

Do you?

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