Those Cartoons: A Libertarian Analysis


There are several perspectives now making the rounds regarding those cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. For those who have been in Rip Van Winkle land, they first surfaced in Denmark and are now being reprinted all over the world.

The libertarian claim is that these caricatures did not constitute fraud, force, or the threat of initiatory violence; therefore no physical sanctions should be visited upon the cartoonists, or those who reprint their work. This does not mean that such artistic acts were nice or moral or appropriate or considerate; they were not, in my personal opinion. They hurt the feelings of vast numbers of people, Muslim and non-Muslim. But, as long as private property rights and freedom prevail, such initiatives should be legal.

The (radical) Islamic position holds that showing the likeness of Muhammad per se constitutes blasphemy, and should be punished, presumably, with beheading. Advocates of this view have been rioting in numerous cities, burning Danish flags as well as the foreign missions and property of the nationals of this country, and other western countries guilty of reprinting. Dozens of lives have so far been lost in this conflagration. This is about as far as it is possible to be from the libertarian vision where anyone can do anything he wants without fear of physical reprisals, provided only that his acts do not constitute the initiation of aggression against person or legitimately owned property.

Mainstream western opinion falls into two categories. On the one hand there are those who apologize profusely for these drawings, and counsel against reprinting them on the ground that to do so would be to further inflame passions. They pay lip service to the idea of press freedom, but insist it must be coupled with “restraint” or “responsibility.” This perspective, too, is incompatible with libertarianism; freedom of the press, ability to write anything you want (except for threats) is part and parcel of the rights of private property. If it must be tempered with the obligation not to hurt anyone’s feelings, that is, to be “moderate,” then it is no freedom at all. This is, rather, political correctness run amuck.

On the other hand are those who call the first group “appeasers” and “fair weather friends” of freedom of the press. They call for making common cause with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten by exhibiting these pictures as far and wide as possible. They were particularly incensed by the fatwa (death threats) issued by Muslims against Salman Rushdie. In their view, the Muslims are engaging in a holy war, the goal of which is to drive us all back into the dark ages. Nor do they much appreciate the fire-bombing of Western embassies. Their attitude seems to be that if “war is what they want, then it is war that they shall have.” (These words were spoken by Mrs. Sheila Broflovski of South Park fame.) All of this is tempting for the libertarian, who bitterly opposes physical attacks on those who are themselves innocent of such uncivilized behavior. This is particularly true in view of the fact that the Muslims, themselves, depict Christians and Jews in outrageously negative manner, with no widespread objections, or even any discernable ones at all.

But before declaring war against the Arab and Islamic nations, let us pause for a deep breath. Are not these advocates of press-freedom hypocritical? If so, if they are themselves guilty of crimes with which they charge the Muslims, they cannot engage in any such war with clean hands. An argument can indeed be made that their support of freedom of the press depends upon whose ox it is that is being gored.

Of course, these press freedom warmongers would adamantly reject such a charge. And, in their favor, it must be said that they tolerated the “Piss Christ” (a Christian crucifix in a glass of urine) and also the Virgin Mary covered in feces without calling for, or engaging in, violence. (Don’t ask: the issue in those cases was not whether the perpetrators should be imprisoned; rather, it turned on whether they should receive governmental art subsidies.)

However, there is a plethora of other instances where this is not at all true. For example, suppose some cartoons were published that did not depict Muhammad in an unflattering light, but, rather, blacks with big lips shuffling along or tap dancing, Jews with long noses looking avaricious and holding bags of money, or hordes of Orientals with a “yellow menace” caption. If anything is clear, it is that in most western nations such caricatures would be deemed “hate speech” and their authors clapped into prison forthwith. The same applies to the use of such words as “nigger,” “kike,” “spic,” “chink,” “wop,” “greaser,” “cunt,” when used in an attempt to denigrate certain favored groups of people. (“Honky” would not likely result in the same fate.) And what of holocaust denial? In many “progressive” nations denying this historical event, or making fun of it, is a violation of law. David Irving now languishes in an Austrian prison for engaging in his free speech rights on this topic. An Islamic group in Holland posted a cartoon of Hitler and Ann Frank in bed with each other; but for the present conflagration, this would have likely resulted in a jail sentence for them.

An argument has been made by Kathleen Parker that there is a disanalogy here. She says: “… the Nazis … were officially sanctioned enforcers of immoral social orders that used caricature to further degrade and dehumanize beleaguered minorities they ultimately murdered. There is no equivalence between organized murder on behalf of a malignant social system and a half-dozen nerdy artists, speaking only for themselves, lampooning a fanatical religious sect…”

But David Irving is not a Nazi. He murdered no one. He merely engaged in press freedom, or free speech. The same applies to those who use the racial and sexual expletives mentioned above. Yes, great evil was perpetrated by those who used this denigrating language, and by those who sported Nazi regalia. The Nazis murdered millions (the Communists murdered tens of millions; when Prince Harry donned the swastika he was roundly condemned; had he treated the hammer and sickle in a similar manner, it would have passed unremarked, but that is another story). But it is still a logical fallacy to claim that all who adopt their regalia, mannerisms, goose-stepping, etc., are equally guilty; even that they are guilty of any crime at all. In my own opinion, just as in the case of prostitution, pornography, addictive drugs, these are not nice things; but from the libertarian perspective they are victimless crimes and should not be punished by law, or through extra-legal sanctions: rioting.

Miss Parker is saying in effect that it should be legal to insult Muslims by drawing pictures of Muhammad, but not to affront western sensibilities by engaging in behavior that infuriates the latter. As I see things, both sets of acts are problematic, but from the libertarian perspective should be legal. That is, not punishable by law. One can well understand the Muslim charge of hypocrisy.

Let us not go to war so quickly. Let us get our own house in order before we even contemplate such extreme measures, which are more than likely to result in the deaths of untold millions of innocent people. At the very least, let us first wipe off the books of all western and presumably civilized societies all laws prohibiting “hate” speech. Maybe governments should subsidize thick skins. (I am kidding.) As for those embassies that are being torched, these institutions are highly overrated. They serve as targets in these overheated times. They might have had some value in the distant past, but in this era of instant communication, it is difficult to see why this now holds true.

Let us better understand Muslim sensibilities. We are doing to them precisely what holocaust deniers, and those who use racial and sexual expletives are doing to the politically correct.

I am grateful to my friend Ilana Mercer (Mercer, Ilana. 2006. "THOSE CARTOONS: A REPLY TO WALTER BLOCK." March 06; for pointing out several errors of mine in an earlier version of this article, mainly concerning my failure to fully distinguish morality, on the one hand, and the libertarian perspective on law, on the other. Thanks to her insights, this column is now significantly improved.