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The timid defense of free speech

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published May 12, 2015

 The timid defense of free speech

Some of our liberal friends, particularly the art lovers among them, are terrified of the hobgoblins that Ralph Waldo Emerson warned about. "A foolish consistency," he famously said, "is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines."

We see this writ large in the threat to public peace and the lives of the innocent by Islamic radicals. The radicals, who maim and kill in the name of the Prophet, are treated with respect (if not terror), and the Christians who have threatened no one, must be hectored, lectured and exiled to the fringes of the public square.

Pam Geller, who organized the draw-the-Prophet cartoon contest in Texas that two home-grown ISIS wannabes tried to shut down with murder and lost their own lives trying, is a villain for some sunshine defenders of free speech. One pundit, writing in The Washington Post, is all for the First Amendment, err, uh, umm, "but." She typically scolds Mzz Geller "for instigating this unnecessary clash." As an "operating principle," Kathleen Parker writes, "mightn't we try less incendiary means of problem-solving? I don't know, maybe something less likely to lead to violence?"

Other wizards on the left even accuse Mzz Geller of committing "hate speech," the currently fashionable name for harsh opinions you may not agree with. Several of them include Mzz Geller's drawing contest. Chris Cuomo of CNN, who says he's a graduate of a law school, even says her "hate speech" does not rise to speech protected by the Constitution. This sounds like something he misremembers from a mail-order course of the Grinder's Switch College of Law, Cosmetology, Dietary Science and Creative Writing.

The Constitution was not written by the sort of law-school weenies who would write it today, and it is not meant to protect nice, refined and respectable speech. It protects free speech, brash, unadorned and with the bark on. If you don't like it, don't listen. Respectable speech, the kind you might hear in nice, refined parlors, needs no protection.

Baiting anyone with taunts or teasing, or challenging a Muslim, an Episcopalian, a Whirling Dervish or a Hindu for real or imagined goofy religious beliefs, is not my idea of a good time. It's bad manners to deliberately offend someone for his beliefs, particularly for his religious beliefs. But it's legally defensible in a free society like the one we all say we want to keep. Once the First Amendment suffers the first chips, it's gone.

None of the weepers over offending Islam by drawing cartoons in Texas are remembered for taking similar offense when millions of Christians were offended by High Art promoted by the government and defended by the arts establishment in America. An "artist" named Andreas Serrano peed in a bottle in 1986, submerged an icon of Christ on the Cross in it, snapped a photograph and called it art. Artists everywhere swooned. The National Endowment for the Arts did more than swoon; it gave him $20,000.

There was more swooning over a piece of municipal art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a jigsaw portrait of the Virgin Mary comprised of bits of pornographic images overlaid with elephant dung. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington got in on the fun, like a 5-year-old telling a doo-doo joke when mommy goes out to the kitchen to fetch the ice cream and cake, opening an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe's work in urine-drinking, sexual bondage and his masterpiece, a self-portrait of himself, described by Jeffrey Goldberg as "showing a bullwhip going someplace the sun reportedly does not shine."

It was all great art, which of course had to be "considered in context," and Christians and other yahood objected in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson's observation that "to compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."

When the U.S. Senate voted to restrict the way taxpayer money was spent on such "art," delicate artists from the Atlantic to the Pacific suffered heart palpitations. The director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angles said the Senate was trying to "put the art world in a state of terror." Robert Motherwell, the painter - of pictures, not something useful like houses - decried such "censorship" as putting the nation on the road to "fascism."

None of the critics of pee-pee and doo-doo art demanded that exhibits be closed, or masterworks destroyed. They didn't try to kill the artist. They didn't burn down the museum. They just didn't want to pay for it.

They don't expect sympathy or even understanding now. In the land of the dead, the hobgoblins rule.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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