February 14, 2006

Don’t take our media’s freedom lightly

Before I sat down to write this column, I reread The Days are Just Packed, one of Bill Watterson’s collections of Calvin and Hobbes comics.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do was to sit in my bed and read the Sunday edition of Calvin and Hobbes. I loved that Calvin pretended to be Spaceman Spiff. I loved how he teased Susie by pretending that his sandwich was made with various body parts. Most of all, I loved his friendship with Hobbes and that they did everything together.

It’s that type of loyalty that I look for in my friends. Calvin reminded me what it was like to be a kid, and when I was just 10 years old, it reminded me to stop taking life so seriously, something I think is important when one is growing up.

But let’s imagine that Calvin and Hobbes was never printed. Let’s say that people objected to it on the basis that it promoted an anti-education message, or because Calvin is never nice to girls. Imagine angry protestors actually burning the comic strip.

Of course, that couldn’t happen in America.

The reason is this little thing called freedom of the press. It is my right to write whatever I want about whomever I want, subject to only a handful of restrictions. It is an important right. Anyone who has seen All The President’s Men knows how such freedom can act as one of the most powerful checks on our government.

Many people take this right for granted. When I heard about people rioting in the Middle East over a set of admittedly offensive cartoons, I was outraged. The Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten, ran a set of cartoons that represented the artists’ feelings on Muhammad and Islam. The cartoons featured representations of Muhammad, an act many Muslims consider blasphemous, but instead of responding with non-violent speech, some have resorted to rioting, embassy burnings, death threats, and the usual tools of the terrorizing mob. Still, many Americans think that the lack of a free democracy is fine for other countries, but not for us.

Yet even here in America, the attacks are having their desired effect. Four members of the editorial staff of The New York Observer resigned in protest over their bosses’ decision not to run the cartoons in an issue devoted to them. Editor in Chief Harry Siegel wrote, “For all the talk of freedom of speech, only The New York Sun locally and two other papers nationally have mustered the minimal courage needed to print simple and not especially offensive editorial cartoons that have been used as a pretext for great and greatly menacing violence directed against journalists, cartoonists, humanitarian aid workers, diplomats, and others who represent the basic values and obligations of Western Civilization.” The fact that even this story was buried is reprehensible.

Maybe you don’t believe in the values of Western civilization, such as tolerance, individualism, or freedom. I know I wouldn’t particularly like it if the Maroon printed an article by a Neo-Nazi, or a member of the Taliban, but I doubt there would be a violent protest over it. Because that’s the way we do it in America, a country where people can criticize the president and not have to worry about being thrown in jail. No one kills each other over words. And apparently, no one wants to take the time to recognize how great that is.

Voltaire once said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” I find that statement a little complicated as an example for what many people take for granted about this country. I’d rather quote Calvin, who said in The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes, “Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.” How accurate, and how deliciously cynical.