What a mess; the Middle East is one again aflame with religious indignation, the French continue to take rioting to the level of a national sport, and here in North America we've forgotten our most basic constitutional principles.
Theodore Adorno said it first, more than 60 years ago: if a film cannot be other than inoffensive, then an inoffensive film is meaningless; we all understand that a child's colouring book is not a work of art, no matter how beautifully he or she colours within the lines. With the recent (and shameful) treatment of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, creator of the deliriously offensive Innocence of Muslims we would do well to take a moment to reflect on that old insight.
As seen in the oppressive silence that accompanied the Danish Cartoon incident, or the outright hostility often shown to Salman Rushdie and Theo van Gogh, many in the media have a long history of bending to Islamic threats against legitimate artists. Nakoula may be a bad artist, but an artist he is, and his bigotry does not disentitle him to any of his fundamental rights, nor justify the rank victim-blaming now dominating the conversation.
That's not to say that the media requires the boogey-man of Islamophobia to abandon its responsibilities; perhaps the most egregious example of quietly accepting the destruction of an artist is that of young Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris. In 2010, a federal protection program helped Norris "go ghost" following a fatwa placed by radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. A cute and sympathetic idealist whose only crime was drawing a largely inoffensive cartoon that became promotional material for Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, Norris was involuntarily shot into view of the Islamists and then utterly abandoned. The attention came without remorse, and continued right up until she was forced to disappear. Thereafter, she was quickly forgotten.
If Norris' story failed to stir public outrage, what hope does Nakoula have of just treatment from his home country? Already, headlines describe him as a "convicted criminal", and a "meth-cooking fraudster," while TV news reports are delivered with inflection that drips with revulsion. Everywhere, we see that preemptively heading off accusations of racism and Islamophobia is more important than ethical treatment of a subject. The language casts Nakoula as a perpetrator in the killings around the world, constantly describing events as "fuelled" by a video he didn't promote. Even conservatives have offered little shelter or support, with one Jewish publication posting a rather frantic article denying rumors of his Israeli heritage.
The media spent two days camped in front of Nakoula's home, making him less safe and engaging in personal take-downs that all but rub their hands at the prospect of his murder. They've bemoaned the lack of photos of the filmmaker, assuming that their responsibility is to localize a possible target for religious killing, not to protect a fellow citizen's right to speak without fear of violent reprisals. Even police officers started anonymously confirming bits of information about him.
The only actual charge is a parole violation.
When Hillary Clinton spends a while calling the video "disgusting and reprehensible" before getting around to condemning the lynch-murder of diplomatic officers, or when she shoves three sentences about religious tolerance between "Some people think this attack was deserved" and "It wasn't," she can be forgiven due to her position; if she appears cold to the feelings of Muslims, people can literally die. But for the media to throw Nakoula under the bus when what set him running was the exercise of their most basic rights as journalists and citizens, is simply short-sighted.
Probably the most ignorant thing said about the film also happens to be one of the most wide-spread: that it was "intended" to incite violence. This is a subtle restatement of the most basic possible misunderstanding of free speech, that the expression of an opinion can be a violent act. The film contains no call to action on anyone's part, and Nakoula certainly made no special effort to put it under the eyes of Islamists in the Middle East. In what way can we credibly call this a deliberate effort to incite, beyond the simple fact that we do not agree with the opinion being expressed?
Here we have no cute young damsel to defend, nor a laughably inoffensive cartoon; here we have a truly bigoted work by an evidently quite ignorant man. This situation forces us to decide how much our freedom of expression really means to us, whether distasteful speech really is subject to the same protections as the popular sort, and whether violence at home and abroad can scare us into to leaving our weakest members to the wolves.
When Molly Norris tried to extract herself from Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, the movement saw it as a betrayal. She was attacked as a fair-weather activist by people too afraid to put their own names on their own cartoons, and she was continually falsely accused of being an organizer of the event.
Norris was trapped by a media narrative, quite literally, and destroyed by it so directly that it can hardly even be called accidental. When Nakoula is inevitably killed or driven into perpetual hiding, there will be absolutely no wiggle-room at all: his rights were declared unimportant, his safety undermined, because we did not like what he had to say, and because mobs of murderers scare us more than a single cringing filmmaker.
Many of those who comfortably enjoy the right to free expression are more than willing to discard their own champions, be they erudite novelists, sweet young cartoonists, or big ugly bigots. It of course turns out that a laughable YouTube video doesn't have quite the power some had assumed, but the narrative hasn't changed in tandem with the facts: Nakoula is responsible, and he must be brought to justice. The fear seems to be that Nakoula's Islamophobia might be catching.
It's clear, though, that if we isolate him completely enough, Nakoula will eventually go away. Just like Molly Norris did. Then we can all forget, go back to our lives, and resume our happy coloring -- strictly within the lines.