Public Comment

Commentary: Progressives Have Conceded the Heckler’s Veto By OSHA NEUMANN

Friday February 24, 2006

It feels like a bad dream. Poorly drawn cartoons in an obscure Danish newspaper spark deadly riots. In northern Nigeria at least 16 people die, many of them Christians, when rioters torch churches, shops and vehicles; in Libya 10 people die in clashes with police; in Afghanistan 12 people are killed and 20 injured. The Danish consulate is burned in Beirut. 300 Palestinian protesters attack an international observers’ mission in Hebron throwing rocks and bottles. Riot police in Delhi fire tear gas and water cannons to disperse hundreds of student protesters; in Kashmir a general strike is called. And a Pakistani Imam announces his mosque will give $25,000 and a car to anyone who kills the single cartoonist he believes produced the offensive drawings. He says a local jewelers’ association would give another million.  

What are we (by “we” I mean us unbelievers—hippies, atheist Jews, anarchists, unrepentant wacko Surrealists, dogmatic leftists, liberals, and “progressives”) to make of all of this? As in a bad dream we have trouble orienting ourselves. We debate ad nauseum the balance between rights and responsibilities and end up sounding disconcertingly like our president who, sitting next to King Abdullah of Jordan informed the world: “We believe in a free press,” but “we also recognize that with freedom come responsibilities. With freedom comes the responsibility to be thoughtful about others.” He went on to say that the reaction to the cartoons “requires a lot of discussion and a lot of sensitive thought.”  


The best lack all conviction, while the worst 

Are full of passionate intensity 


We would not call ourselves “the best,” nor those enraged bearded men we see on TV waving their fists in the air “the worst.” We do not think that. But it does seem that only those to whom truth is pumped in a direct pipeline from God are filled with passionate intensity, while those of us whose values derive from some less certain source lack something in conviction. We have difficulty explaining how we get “ought” from “is.” We ring our beliefs with caveats and qualifications, and often retreat into a self-contradictory relativism. It is as if we’re a little ashamed that our rhetorical commitment to democracy and freedom—we would say “real” democracy and “real” freedom—and to human rights is expressed in language that is not that different from the rhetoric our leaders deploy before the bombs start dropping. 

It was not always so. It was not always only the God besotted who spoke with passion, whose eyes shone, whose voices cracked with emotion. Once the left was more certain of itself. It owned the opposition to the system. It defined that system—capitalist, racist, imperialist. It championed solidarity. It spoke the language of universals. It appealed to reason rather than revelation. It had its heroes—the Zapatas, and Che Guevaras, and Ho Chi Minhs and Mandelas. The religious leaders who marched in its ranks, the Martins and the Malcolms, did not attempt to impose on the rest of us an all-embracing religious orthodoxy.  

Now the left shares the stage uncomfortably with a third force we can not embrace, but cannot ignore. The inability of secular democratic movements to deliver on their promises opened the door to fundamentalism. The leaders of the free world were all too happy to see clean shaven communists and socialists tortured and killed by men with beards shouting “God is Great.”  

These days it sometimes seems as if the huddled tribe, the narrow coven of the faithful, has replaced the open circle, universally inclusive, inscribed by reason. Reason is tainted by its association with the irrationality of market driven consumerism. Those who wage holy war against the system frame their opposition as a jihad, a religious war against “Jews and crusaders.” They would not necessarily discriminate between Dick Cheney and me. The rebels and the plutocrats, the corporations and their critics, forces of law and order and the perpetually civil-disobedient, are all in their eyes corrupted with the virus of modernity. We on the left fight in the name of a justice that does not rain down from heaven, but grows from the soil beneath our feet. We fight, also, in the name of a liberated desire. We want to sing and dance and shake our bodies, blaspheme and offend. When our leaders speak of “responsibility” we know the police will soon be knocking on the door. None of us would look good in bourkas. 

Not that long ago we were all Salman Rushdie. We deplored Khomeini’s fatwa. Fellow writers rushed to his defense. Bookstores refused to remove his book from their display cases, never mind he had offended Islam by suggesting that mischief making devils might have inserted a few Satanic Verses into its sacred text. Unlike the unremarkable cartoons that are at the center of this current outburst, Rushdie’s novel had considerable artistic merit. But even bad art deserves a defense. And we have grown timid and responsible.  

“Beloved imagination, what I most like in you is your unsparing quality,” wrote Andre Breton in the Manifestos of surrealism. “All power to the imagination,” shouted students on the barricades in Paris in 1968. It’s hard to see the Danish cartoons as works of the imagination. They’re pretty pedestrian. But it may be that “First they came for the bad artists, then they came . . .” 

There is a concept in First Amendment jurisprudence called “the heckler’s veto” The concept is easy to illustrate: A speaker gets up on a soapbox, begins an oration and gathers a crowd around him. Certain members of the crowd angered at what the speaker is saying, begin to heckle loudly and cause a disturbance. The police are called. They observe that the speaker is riling up the crowd, which has become unruly, loud, and potentially violent. The police go up to the speaker and tell him that he must stop because he’s provoking a disturbance. What the police have done is given the hecklers a “veto” over what the speaker is saying.  

We’ve given the Muslim rioters a heckler’s veto. Sometimes it’s a wise decision to stick your speech in your pocket, pick up your soap box and get out of town before things really get out of hand. But we shouldn’t pretend we’re acting on principle, that we are hightailing it out of town because of our tolerance, our desire not to offend, our respect for cultural difference. Call it what it is—intimidation. For if we keep going down this road, there’s no telling where we’ll end up. 


Osha Neumann is a civil rights lawyer, muralist, and sculptor.