On Monday, a PEN American Center poll reported that 75 percent of writers in free countries fear government surveillance. On Wednesday, 100 percent of the scribes and scribblers at Charlie Hebdo lamented the absence of government surveillance.
Writers call such plot developments irony—at least they do when authoring the story and not in it.
“Writers living in liberal democratic countries have begun to engage in self-censorship at levels approaching those seen in non-democratic countries,” the PEN survey warns, “indicating that mass surveillance has badly shaken writers’ faith that democratic governments will respect their rights to privacy and freedom of expression, and that—because of pervasive surveillance—writers are concerned that expressing certain views even privately or researching certain topics may lead to negative consequences.”
The cowardice of writers, in their salaams to what the government seeks to protect us from, serves as a small but glaring reason for the rise of the surveillance state. Edward Bulwer Lytton famously wrote of a famous Frenchman, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” But those who take up the keyboard understand the maxim too literally as though not applying to them.
Major outlets, such as CNN and the New York Daily News, refuse to show Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons even as their employees posture as Kirk Douglas’s silver-screen friends. But to have an “I am Spartacus” moment, one must clearly annunciate, rather than mumble, “I am Spartacus.”
“You’re correct,” Associated Press flak—news organizations employing such people surely bespeaks a perversion in mission—Paul Colford told Buzzfeed about the absence of the images in the agency’s coverage. “None of the images distributed by AP showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.”
Translation? “He is Spartacus. She is Spartacus. We are not Spartacus.”
The self-censorship the PEN American Center decries as stemming from government eavesdroppers more frequently arises, at least in democracies, in response to the people upon whom the state spies. The state didn’t sexually assault Lara Logan, behead Steven Sotloff, Daniel Pearl, and James Foley, or execute the staff of Charlie Hebdo. The “global chilling” referred to in the title of the PEN American Center’s report applies more readily to the response to Islam from Western intellectuals and journalists.
Not showing even the least objectionable of the cartoons permits the heckler’s veto to stand. Not showing the most objectionable of the lot omits a crucial part of the story. One needn’t bow toward Mecca five times a day to find a drawing in horrible taste that depicts a religion’s founder naked on all fours with sexual organs showing and backside to the viewer.
Aside from giving a megaphone to that which they sought to muzzle, the terrorists employing violence where a disgusted non-acknowledgement would have sufficed, show themselves as caricatures of people—monsters really—deserving far worse than ridicule. Alas, people who act dishonorably on behalf of a religion nudge outsiders to view the religion as dishonorable.
A reasonable compromise for the self-censorship regarding Charlie Hebdo calls for the cowards of the Associated Press, CNN, and the New York Daily News to permit the more courageous of their contributors to cover the atrocities accurately provided the reports come in a language forbidden as unclean by the Koran and thus indecipherable by the jihadists. In this spirit, I offer my simple, encrypted take on the challenge facing the West:
Islamway eansmay ubmissionsay, asway uchmay orfay ethay eretichay asway ethay elieverbay. Ifway Islam’sway ostmay erventfay evoteesday inway Europeway andway Americaway eattray Esternersway udelyray asway oughthay intrudersway inway eirthay ownway ountriescay, it’sway ecausebay eythay oonsay eeksay otay akemay eirthay ostshay ethay uestsgay. Ankthay Odgay orfay Arleschay Artelmay.
There. Like the self-censoring writers highlighted by the PEN American Center poll, I present my hidden message to shield myself, though not from Uncle Sam but Cousin Mustafa. The difference between the two appears as stark as the difference between seeing a peeping Tom at your window and seeing a creeping Ted Bundy at your window.
No small part of ridding the West of the totalitarian menace that appeared in Paris this week, and London, Madrid, and New York in earlier weeks, involves ridding the totalitarian within ourselves that intimidates us into silence or equivocation. As a cartoonist of an earlier generation famously observed, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
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