From Irish Political Review: March 2006

John Waters' Cartoon-Liberalism

The debate on the offensive cartoons depicting Mohammed, which were first published in a Danish newspaper, has been conducted on an unrealistic basis: and no one has been more unrealistic than The Irish Times columnist John Waters. The impression has been given that the West is a beacon of enlightenment and free speech, while the Muslim world is shrouded in obscurantism and intolerance. Waters, in a discussion on the Late, Late Show, suggested that if he were an editor he would publish the cartoons on principle. But what is the principle?

Waters indicated that the principle was "free speech". He then gave a brief homily on how the West had developed through the conflict of ideas. But what ideas would be suppressed if the cartoons were not published?

There are no ideas in the cartoons. They are merely offensive to adherents of the Muslim faith. Perhaps it is part of the western tradition that people have a right to be offensive. If that is what Waters is saying he is on very shaky ground. While the debate on the cartoons was being discussed, the English historian David Irving was given a prison sentence in an Austrian court for the crime of "holocaust denial", and Ken Livingstone was suspended from his office of Mayor of London for a month for insulting a sensationalist journalist by comparing him to a "Concentration Camp guard".

Of course, there are other, more informal methods, of censorship besides legal censorship, as John Waters well knows. In 2003 an article by Waters on the remuneration packages of Executive Directors of The Irish Times was suppressed. But the hypothetical editor of 2006, who was prepared to go to the stake to defend free speech, appeared to be less heroic in the actual situation he faced in 2003. According to a Sunday Business Post report, the Editor of The Irish Times, Geraldine Kennedy said that:

"…she had withdrawn the article for reasons of ‘libel, accuracy and taste’, although it is understood that Waters offered to make any changes the editor thought fit" (Sunday Business Post, 16/11/03).

In our view he showed a much more realistic view of liberalism in this country in an email he wrote to a French academic on 2nd June 2001. Not only does he give a more realistic view, but he also shows a keen awareness of his role in the general scheme of things:

"It is important to understand that The Irish Times is not so much a newspaper as a campaigning institution committed to making Ireland come to resemble the aspirations of its more privileged citizens. There is, accordingly, no tradition of giving voice to different opinions in The Irish Times. What there is, is a desire to present the "truth", to have this "truth" accepted, and to discredit all viewpoints, which do not accord with this. In order to achieve this, paradoxically, it is necessary to create the illusion of democratic debate. This is where I come in. The purpose of my column in The Irish Times is to demonstrate to the readers the consequences of error, while at the same time illustrating the "tolerance" of those who know and love the "truth". In this way, the "truth" is affirmed all the more. My views in The Irish Times, have a function analogous to a vaccine, which aims to immunise the patient to the effects of certain conditions by implanting the essences of these conditions in their systems. Thus, the readers of The Irish Times are immunised against any dangerous forms of thinking which, if allowed to take serious hold of their consciousness, would render them incapable of acting in their own best interests" (cited by Jean Mercereau in Évolution et singularités d'un journal de référence irlandais: L'Irish Times 1859-1999).

So much for western-style, cartoon-liberalism!

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