At The Boston Globe, I have a piece about the different ways in which the West (the U.S., really) and the Muslim world (and Europe) approach blasphemy.
Originally appeared in The Daily.
Landmark 1933 trial defeats would-be censors of racy ‘Ulysses’
It takes a fanatic to fight a fanatic. And in 1933, two gangs of fanatics faced off: on one side, a coalition of Christian moralists and guardians of decency, and on the other, a group of free-speech absolutists. At issue was the right to import and distribute a novel in which a leering Irish shopkeeper pleasures himself while watching a girl flash her undies at him from across a beach. The novel was “Ulysses” by James Joyce. On Dec. 6, a most unfanatical man, Judge John M. Woolsey of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, was called upon to pick a side.
In the UK, during the early days of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, a similarly buffoonish quasi-governmental body moved to stop the film International Gorillay from being released in Britain. A hit in Pakistan, the movie portrayed Rushdie as a whiskey-soaked Jewish lothario who intended to subvert Islam by running a network of discos and casinos. Rushdie himself intervened to lift the ban, saying the offense was real, but not worth the practical or moral harm done by banning what amounted to just an exceptionally dumb movie — even if it was a movie that encouraged his own murder. British audiences watched the film, and thanks to YouTube, you can too.
Before this morning’s arguments on whether Louisiana can execute Patrick Kennedy’ the Chief Justice read an opinion that must have made the condemned man’s lawyers’ hearts sink. In what might give a signal, however faint, of the Court’s disposition toward capital punishment, John Roberts delivered a judgment that roundly rejected the claim by two Kentucky death-row inmates that lethal injection would be a cruel way to kill them, and therefore prohibited under the Eighth amendment to the Constitution. A healthy majority of 7-2 sided against the inmates. And on a Court that thinks pumping a man full of toxic chemicals is not likely to cause a “‘substantial’ or ‘objectively intolerable’ risk of serious harm,” Kennedy could not expect a great deal of compassion.
Someone, somewhere, is hunting for rape statistics right now, to show that nationwide in the U.S., the rate of sexual assault is lower than the rate among contractors in Iraq. I would not be surprised if that is so. There are, for one thing, far fewer women per capita to assault among Iraq contractors than among the American population at large, and it’s far more probable that a female contractor is armed or has easy access to a weapon of vengeance. On the other hand, there does seem to be a connection between gruesome crimes like this one and the climate of lawlessness and license in which military contractors operate.
The L.H.C. could reveal the nature of matter and confirm physicists’ best guesses about the validity of string theory. These would be advances comparable to Einstein’s or Newton’s — but they are possibilities only because we do not know what will happen when we switch the contraption on. Scientists protest that the probability of their experiments’ causing the end of the universe is astronomically low, and they are telling the truth. But tinkering with the unknown is what experimental science is all about, and even the scientists must admit that there is a chance of doomsday (and, indeed, a chance of many other things) in any project like this.
A madman had his day in court yesterday. Ahmad Edwards, a schizophrenic who tried to kill a security guard in 1999, appealed his conviction on grounds that the judge hadn’t let him act as his own lawyer. The Indiana court that eventually convicted him appointed a public defender after Edwards filed nonsense motions and wrote a letter addressing the judge as “old man.” (Edwards has counsel representing him on appeal.) Is it possible, the Supreme Court asked yesterday, to be too crazy to represent yourself in your own trial, but sane enough to stand trial to begin with?
Henry Marsh, the sawbones in question, has traveled to the Ukraine serially for fifteen years, always with the goal of helping Ukrainian colleagues make do with poor equipment, or none. Cutting open patients’ heads and using screws and drills bought at a hardware store would be grounds for license-suspension and possibly imprisonment in England. Here, it appears to be an act of compassion — and one that reveals a pernicious double-standard in medical ethics.