Free-Speech Hypocrisy in Europe
A Danish art exhibit attacks public figures who ‘insult’ but not those who issue death threats in response
Pavilion for Revolutionary Free Speech encapsulates the divergent American and European attitudes to free speech, with the former tending to view it as an absolute and the latter as a relative value that must be weighed against the “right” not to be offended. But “the right to insult” has always been a part of the liberal European concept of free speech, something that Kilpper, with his insulting artwork, especially ought to understand. Yet in a short video documentary inside the exhibit, Kilpper pronounces the cartoons “not emancipatory but chauvinistic.” In fact, the real chauvinists of the Mohammed cartoons controversy were the Muslim extremists—many of whom lived half a world away and never saw the actual cartoons—who considered it their religious duty to burn down the embassies of a small European democracy because a newspaper in that country published pictures they deemed offensive. That one can open a paper in any Muslim country on any given day and find anti-Semitic cartoons more at home in the rancid pages of Der Sturmer (a state of affairs that does not cause Jews the world over to incite murder) is a phenomenon that doesn’t seem to faze Kilpper.
In addition to presenting a morally inverted view of the cartoon scandal, Pavilion for Revolutionary Free Speech is a display of Kilpper’s dogmatic, and at times adolescent left-wing animus. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hardly anyone’s idea of a right-wing extremist, comes under attack because “she supported the U.S.-British intervention in Iraq” and, get this, “welcomed the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden.” Though he has said that the purpose of his exhibit is to criticize the forces of reaction on the continent, Kilpper targets three non-European figures—and their inclusion is revealing in its own particular way.
The first to earn this dubious honor is U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, whom Kilpper seems to have selected not for any particularly odious quality that the bland bureaucrat possesses but because she is “responsible for the rising numbers of refused entries to the U.S. and for the more and more militarized wall to Mexico.”
The second non-European leader is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Kilpper erroneously claims, “is not in favor of an independent Palestinian State.” (Netanyahu announced his support for such a state in a speech at Bar Ilan University in 2009.) It is curious that, of all the people in the world he could have criticized for sowing “censorship, social exclusion or intolerance,” Kilpper includes the leader of the Jewish state.
Lest one suspect the German artist of harboring that darkest and deadliest of European impulses, he finishes off his non-European collection with the heretofore largely unknown figure of Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohamed Al Qasimi, a minor leader in the United Arab Emirates, who, in 2005, sacked the director of a provincial arts foundation for displaying a work that some conservative clerics had criticized. Al Qasimi’s presence here comes across as an afterthought, a pre-emptive bone thrown to those critics who would undoubtedly ask how an artist mounting an exhibition attacking the enemies of free speech could not have included a single member of a faith some of whose adherents riot and kill in response to “insults” against their religion.
Kilpper displays his ignorance in other, more obvious ways. In his description of Rose, the editor, he writes that the cartoons were published in 2006, not 2005. He castigates Napolitano because “she tolerated Joe Lieberman from the Republican Party.” Never mind that Lieberman is not, and never has been, a Republican. In his explanation of why the pope merits a place among this disreputable cast of characters, Kilpper cites Christopher Hitchens’ 2010 call for criminal charges to be brought against the Catholic leader for his alleged role in covering up priestly sex abuse.
As much as he was an enemy of the Catholic Church and the current pope in particular, Hitchens was an impassioned defender of free speech, a frequent and cheerful blasphemer of all religious traditions, who wrote and spoke frequently in defense of the Danish cartoons and repeatedly offered his home as a place of refuge for high-profile targets of Islamist death warrants like Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi-Ali. Indeed, I first met Rose, of Jyllands Posten, at Hitchens’ Washington apartment. I do not think I could be accused of unfairly channeling the dead when I venture that Hitchens would be rolling in his grave if he knew that his name were being used to promote such sinister dreck.
There is an irony in Kilpper displaying his work at the behest of a country whose intellectual and political leaders he considers guilty of “narrow-mindedness” and “censorship.” This artist can drag his showcase across the continent safe in the knowledge that all he’ll get in return are state-funded grants. Meantime, the cartoonists and editors across the street receive death threats.
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