>First published on Blog Critics on 19 October 2009
Refusal to reprint dastardly cartoons offensive to Islam was a giant step forward for free speech.
The Yale University Press is dedicated to principles of independence, academic freedom and scholarship; it adheres steadfastly to those principles without fear or favor; without regard to whether its actions cause anger, adverse comment or praise. Its honorable decision to publish The Cartoons That Shook the World minus a reproduction of the actual cartoons demonstrates YUP’s fearless adherence to its principles.
YUP is to be commended for its willingness to court popular criticism. Few publishers of significance would be willing to risk outrage of the sort engendered by publication of only a bowdlerized version of The cartoons book. In an August 14, 2009 press release announcing its decision, YUP modestly declined to acknowledge that its courageous goal was to stimulate such criticism and thereby to encourage the sort of freedom of expression it well knew would be directed against it. Instead, it took the much disputed position that its decision was made to promote public safety.
After careful consideration, the Press has declined to reproduce the September 30, 2005, Jyllands-Posten newspaper page that included the cartoons, as well as other depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that the author proposed to include.
The original publication in 2005 of the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad led to a series of violent incidents, and repeated violent acts have followed republication as recently as June 2008, when a car bomb exploded outside the Danish embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, killing eight people and injuring at least thirty. The next day Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the bombing, calling it revenge for the “insulting drawings.”
Republication of the cartoons—not just the original printing of them in Denmark—has repeatedly resulted in violence around the world. More than two hundred lives have been lost, and hundreds more have been injured. It is noteworthy that, at the time of the initial crisis over the cartoons in 2005–2006, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe declined to print them, as did every major newspaper in the United Kingdom.
Despite this self-effacing explanation, it should be obvious that YUP’s motivation had nothing to do with public safety; the chances of violent attacks against YUP or even Yale University as a whole resulting from publication of the already widely seen three year old cartoons in a scholarly volume, likely to be read by few, are laughably remote. Any suggestion that the copious free publicity for YUP certain to result from its decision was a motivating factor must also be rejected. YUP does not need publicity, good or bad. It is already one of the top thousand or so academic book publishing companies in the United States and would be shocked at the prospect of massive demand for one of its learned books. YUP fears the publication of a best seller as the gods fear Sarah Palin. Even more ludicrous is the mean-spirited charge that Yale University was motivated by a desire for financial assistance from such Moslem countries as Saudi Arabia. YUP doubtless has plenty of money, and the thought that Yale University might stoop to such mercenary thoughts is unthinkable.
These nonsensical theses must be put aside. YUP was merely following cherished Yale University Guidelines, known to and respected by all members of the university community.
[T]he history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.
YUP courageously desired to subject itself to violent criticism from the proponents of free speech precisely to encourage such attacks. And vehement attacks there have been. Here is an article reporting and elaborating upon some of them.
Cary Nelson, the President of American Association of University Professors (AAUP), quickly responded on August 13 with a biting letter, “We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just accede to their anticipated demands.” Yale’s action struck the AAUP as creating much more harm. Yale violated “an author’s academic freedom and [damaged] the reputation of the press and the university.” These actions would impact “other university presses and publication venues” and “[had] the potential to encourage broader censorship of speech by faculty members or other authors.”
It goes on and on, as do many other such articles; indeed, they continue to this day, more than two months after the initial announcement.
How better to encourage “unfettered freedom,” thoughts of the “unthinkable”, mention of the “unmentionable,” and challenges to the “unchallengeable?” Indeed, how better to boldly go where no man had dared to boldly go before? By actively promoting a heretofore unthinkable freedom to suggest that YUP may have had some ulterior motive or, indeed, even that it was strangely misguided, was a truly courageous and brilliant exercise in generous self sacrifice of a type, magnitude and generosity rarely seen. Sadly, “the Yale faculty has mostly yawned.”
It is, nevertheless regrettable that some even within the enlightened Yale Community were taken in by YUP’s heroic
hoax decision, and blamed it on cowardice. One undergraduate commendably proclaimed in the Yalie Daily that there are legitimate limits to freedom of speech.
While most of us would defend the free-speech rights of “birthers” or Klansmen or fraternity misogynists, we defend those rights in a manner that makes clear we don’t want to see those rights exercised in violation of our sensibilities and beliefs. Some ideas are not welcome at Yale, nor should they be.(emphasis added)
I cannot agree with that too much! Indeed, it warms the very cockles of my heart and sole (sic) to learn that Yale is a far better and more liberal place than when I floundered around intellectually there as an undergraduate more than forty years ago, and that only the right to exercise freedoms which do not offend is now desired.
Despite this entirely reasonable statement of principle, doubtless taught by the illustrious academics at Yale, the author attributed the YUP decision to fear, and expressed the odd view that
I would be prouder to belong to a university whose officials censored a book because of what they believed in, and not because of what they feared.
But, as demonstrated above, fear had nothing to do with YUP’s selfless and productive decision. Voluntarily going into harm’s way, by encouraging attacks on one’s adherence to noble principle is not inspired by fear. It is inspired by courage and willingness to suffer the adverse consequences of one’s actions.
Lux et Vomitus Lux et Veritas! — a motto now engraved on the hearts of all Yalies in Latin, Arabic, and also for the moment in Hebrew.