Last week, I went searching the liberal Web for discussions of Idomeneo. The Deutsche Oper, a Berlin opera house, had recently canceled the Mozart classic because it feared Muslims would react violently to a scene featuring Mohammed's severed head. Germans declared that free speech was under siege. The New York Times covered every wrinkle. Right-wing websites buzzed. And, on the big liberal blogs, virtual silence.
If pressed, most liberal bloggers would probably have condemned the opera house's decision. But they didn't feel pressed. Blogging thrives on outrage (see, for instance, my colleague Martin Peretz's outraged blogging on the affair at tnr.com/blog/spine), and the Idomeneo closure just didn't get liberal blood flowing. And why is that? Perhaps because it didn't have anything to do with George W. Bush.
Consider the liberal blogosphere's reaction to Joseph Ratzinger's (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI's) September 12 speech, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor calling Islam "evil and inhuman"--prompting Muslim zealots to kill a nun in Somalia and two Iraqi Christians. Some liberals did unequivocally condemn the violence. The Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum, for instance, noted that "Benedict's remarks may have been needlessly insulting, but the vicious and theatrical displays of violence from all over the Muslim world have nonetheless been completely disgraceful." But Drum was not exactly typical. Look at the reaction on the uberblog Daily Kos. Markos Moulitsas himself didn't mention the controversy, but I found six "diaries" on the subject, written by contributors to his site, which garnered a sizeable response. One blamed the pope, one blamed the Muslim response, and one blamed both Islam and Christianity for being expansionist and violent. And the other three? They all blamed Bush. "Just in time for this year's elections," noted one writer. "Republicans need the Catholic vote, and, thus, we see [the pope's statement]." Another Kossack called Ratzinger's statement "a calculated, intentional strategy designed to help George Bush and the Republicans in the 2006 elections. " A third writer criticized Ratzinger for apologizing, because "[t]he Pope's apology played into the Bush culture of fear."
I know, I know. Bush is a horrendous president. The United States is on the verge of a midterm election that could strip him of much of his power. And liberal blogs are focused on trying to make sure that happens. That's all well and good.
But it's not enough. There are liberal causes that have nothing to do with opposing Bush and his Republican henchmen. In fact, some of those causes might even place liberals and Republican henchmen on the same side. And liberals must be passionate about them nonetheless. Partisan militancy may be necessary to combat Republican power. But it cannot define what it means to be a liberal in the United States today.
The Idomeneo controversy helps explain why. In much of Europe, Muslim violence has become a serious threat to free speech. In publishing its cartoons of Mohammed last fall, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten performed a test: Is it possible to safely caricature the Prophet? The answer--received loud and clear by the Deutsche Oper--was no. Lower profile incidents confirm the point. Within days of the opera's cancellation, a French philosophy teacher was placed under police protection for writing an article critical of Islam.
To their credit, conservatives are upset about this. But many conservatives have trouble distinguishing between opposing censorship and just plain opposing Islam. Ratzinger, for instance, has attacked Turkey's bid for membership in the European Union, because, as a Muslim country, it stands "in permanent contrast to Europe." In the United States, The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes responded to the Danish cartoon controversy by declaring that "Muslims all over the world are certainly enemies of Western civilization." An article in National Review suggested that the cartoon riots proved that the "cartoons depicting Muhammed as a dangerous man of arms ... had a good point."
No defense of free speech will prove effective if it strikes Muslims as simply a defense of Christian privilege. Art must be free to offend all religions. Yet, when it comes to their own, many conservatives grow hyper- sensitive. Right-wing pundits, from Mary Matalin to Joe Scarborough to Michelle Malkin, have claimed-- absurdly--that the United States is rife with anti- Christian persecution. Imagine if the National Endowment for the Arts were subsidizing an opera that featured a defamation of Jesus Christ--conservatives would be howling for it to be shut down.
Liberals are less prone to a "clash of civilizations" mentality that undermines the very notion of free speech as a universal value. And that is why they must make the cause of European free speech their own. The best analogy is the "political correctness" fights that roiled college campuses in the late '80s and early '90s. When professors and students were punished for statements that violated racial and gender orthodoxy, it was conservatives like Dinesh D'Souza who most aggressively came to their defense. But many conservatives were tainted by their defense of the McCarthyite assault on campus free speech in the 1950s. In 1991, the new republic published a review of D'Souza's book by the renowned Southern historian Eugene Genovese. "As one who saw his professors fired during the McCarthy era, and who had to fight, as a pro-Communist Marxist, for his own right to teach," wrote Genovese, "I fear that our conservative colleagues are today facing a new McCarthyism." Yet the conservatives, he argued, couldn't defeat it alone. The cause of free speech "will go down, unless it is supported by a substantial portion of the left and center. ... It is time to close ranks."
We have reached that point again. During the PC wars, many liberals were genuinely conflicted about whether free speech outweighed racial and gender sensitivity on campus. Today, some liberals still excuse censorship in sensitivity's name. The bigger danger, however, is not sensitivity; it is indifference. Having adapted themselves so fully to a hyper-partisan environment, many liberals seem unable to conceive of a struggle in which the Republican right is not an enemy but an ally. But there are such struggles, and, without today's activist liberals, they will be harder to win. Free speech is under threat, and Idomeneo should be the last straw. It is time, once again, to close ranks.
This article originally ran in the October 16, 2006, issue of the magazine.