Y Tu Mama Tambien, Buruma

by Lorna Salzman

Is Ian Buruma a closet fascist? Perhaps that is going a bit far, but after reading his waffling over Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and now having read his NY Times Jan. 30th Op-Ed piece, it is time to cut him less slack.

Buruma's latest blunder is over a decision by an Amsterdam court to prosecute film maker Geert Wilders for "insulting" and "spreading hatred" against Muslims. This was based on a Dutch criminal law that can be invoked against someone who "deliberately insults people on the grounds of their race, religion, beliefs or sexual orientation".

The existence of this law and a similar one in Germany arises of course from the Nazi era and memories of the holocaust against the Jews. Unfortunately it is itself borderline fascist, as are laws in this country against "hate crimes", not only because it violates the freedom of expression handed down to us by the Enlightenment but also because it comes dangerously close to punishing THOUGHT.

Wilders of course has provoked outrage for his film Fitna, which depicts the deplorable ugly anti-semitic and anti-female statements and actions of muslims in various countries, in coarse and highly inflammatory but verifiable films, photographs and news stories taken from reliable media sources. Anyone who thinks that muslims believe in non-violence and tolerance will be disabused of this notion after they see this film (you can find it on the internet by googling various sources).

In his Op-Ed piece, Buruma insists that Wilders, who has publicly called for the banning of the Koran, is not defending free speech. Of course Wilders is wrong to call for the banning of any book while demanding the right to show his film, though presumably he did this under the Dutch statute which would allow this. (His own film does not attack muslims or islam; it merely shows how some muslims talk and behave).

But Buruma says this: "Free speech is never absolute. Even - or perhaps especially in America - where citizens (sic) are protected by the First Amendment, there are certain words and opinions that no civilized person would utter..."

Say what, Ian? First of all, Buruma misunderstands the American Constitution. It doesn't protect citizens; it protects our FREEDOMS. Nor does the Constitution exempt uncivilized speech. It protects nasty speech, rudeness and bad manners, which apparently Buruma thinks need to be legally curbed in order to protect the dainty sensibilities of some who might take offense.

I don't know about Buruma but my sensibilities are tested daily, not just on the Op-Ed page of the NY Times but on the streets of New York City, and sometimes even in polite company, by rude obscenities as well as near-fascist rantings of famous authors, most of which aren't even directed at me personally. But if they were, you can be sure I would readily throw them back to their source, without fearing prosecution by the authorities. Y tu mama tambien, Ian.

Buruma is Dutch by birth but shows what I consider not just poor breeding but a woefully inadequate education and distorted socialization. Here is a novelist who has deliberately injected his views into an extremely important civil debate that involves not just tasteless epithets but which has ramifications for the actual survival of half the human population of the earth, namely women.

Buruma's book, Murder in Amsterdam, on the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, was what he wrote from the top of the fence where he now sits making moral pronouncements. He has set himself up on a prickly and lonely place because he is too spineless to actually criticize the heroic Hirsi Ali, the collaborator on that film and arguably one of the most courageous and principled activists of our time, someone who has put her own life on the line to defend women's rights and freedom of expression. Since he hasn't the integrity or guts to come out and attack her, and since he lacks any historical, ethical or philosophical underpinnings for his beliefs, he has fallen back on the indefensible flimsy argument that SOME speech should be banned because SOME people find it offensive. Or "uncivilized". I plead guilty, but I have lots of company.

That's easy for him to say; he knows that he can write whatever he wants and if people don't like what he writes, they just won't buy his book...no skin off his back. He isn't in danger of having his throat slit like van Gogh. He isn't getting death threats like Hirsi Ali. But as far as broad principles for social justice are concerned, he is enthusiastic about curbing the rights of OTHERS to have their say. This is hypocrisy writ large. Were I someone of his ilk, I would introduce legislation banning his writings because he is a hypocrite. But lucky for him, no such ban is likely to come into existence any time soon.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.