Sunday, February 05, 2006

Democracy per capita

"The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us ...and our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in that vast, terrible in-between." - JMS

Congratulations to Tim Pankhurst, chairman of the NZ Commonwealth Press Union Media Freedom Committee and editor of the Dominion Post, for publishing the Mohammed cartoons. It was the right thing to do. Was the story newsworthy? Was publishing the cartoons helpful in communicating all the relevant facts, giving readers as much information as possible to decide for themselves? Was the story framed in a manner that gave least possible offense, while balancing the right to know? Did publishing the cartoons show solidarity with fellow newspapers around the world? Most certainly.

Perhaps the decision weighed more heavily on Mr Pankhurst than other NZ editors. Being boss of the NZCPU Media Freedom Committee is no bed of roses. It means you must stand up for the very best of reasons, leading where others fear to tread. Yesterday, he fulfilled the role admirably with an eloquent explanation of why this is all so important. I do not, and cannot, accept the view that the publication was gratuitous or in poor taste, as some commenters at DPF's submit. No doubt it's a touchy subject. Some Muslims were offended and that's understandable.

When I was working in a conference centre ten years' ago, we had a delegation of Japanese businessmen over for a few days. The restaurant manager (call her Edna) refused to work at any of the functions. As a Brit who had strong memories of WWII, Edna found it offensive to kowtow as a servant to them. Most, if not all, of the other staff disagreed with her sentiments. To bear a grudge against a race of people for past injustices beyond their control is futile and ultimately self-destructive. But we did support her right to express that deeply-held core principle, an integral part of her character. She expressed it forcefully to management, angry tears in her eyes.

The boss rostered Edna elsewhere and I looked after the Japanese functions. The restaurant manager came over once or twice to glare at The Japs from behind the servery door. On these occasions, I ensured that staff were prepared to jump her if she looked like she was going to throw a plate or knife at them. Fortunately, the only daggers thrown were mental ones. Later, we'd be in the pub and I saw that somehow the process had been cathartic for her. We all got over it.

I have faith that the NZ Muslim community understands all this, and it is not just the lack of numbers that keeps their anger in check. I disagree with most of what Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand president Javed Khan has been quoted in the NZ Herald:
"Freedom of expression does not mean 'absolute' freedom"
he mature and honourable thing to do now is for The Dominion Post to apologise and retract such printing."
There is hope in his calls for order. In the DomPost:
"We won't call for a boycott, and we don't want to see one, but news gets around the world pretty quickly. Muslims will make their own decisions and as you know, they've taken drastic action against Denmark."
Or in the Herald:
"The Federation would also like to call upon the Muslims in New Zealand to show restrain (sic) in the face of such flagrant provocation and seek God's grace for patience and forbearance," Mr Khan said.
They will endure this because that is one of the opportunity costs of living in a secular democracy like ours. We all own freedom of speech and a free press. Nothing is sacred. Everything is sacred. This is non-negotiable. It is part of what makes us us.

NZ's non-Muslim community is also on a sharp learning curve. Pankhurst's lead has forced some of our alleged representatives to finally speak for the nation. Chris Carter went on record accusing that the DomPost and The Press "had ignored their social responsibility and undermined New Zealand's reputation as a tolerant country." Jim Sutton was choosing his words very carefully last night, inferring that it shouldn't have happened. PC Eradicator Wayne Mapp is staying silent on a matter which would largely seem to over-qualify for his portfolio. Parliament's two Muslim representatives have remained curious by their absence on this crucial matter. Don't expect any help from any of them. No word from anyone important yet. The wordsmiths in the PM's office must be trawling dictionaries to find some words to negotiate through this.

Let's be clear about this. A free press and the rights to expression are bigger than the nuclear free thing, the last best example of NZ cutting its nose to spite its face. It would be helpful, though not necessary, if the MPs were on our side. There is precedent for artists, thinkers and other humans to say what we mean more articulately than the party hacks.

Perhaps this is what Geoffrey Palmer was getting at during his lecture the other night. For the things that really matter, like a constitution, it comes from all of us. It has to. Something to bear in mind during Waitangi Day tomorrow.

My captain! My captain!