James P. Cain misunderstands lessons from American history

Soon to be former American ambassador to Denmark James P. Cain was recently (2008, 12th Nov.) interviewed by late night debate programme DR2 Deadline. Among other issues the interview revolved around his views on integration and what the American experience could teach Denmark.

Former Danish foreign minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen saw the interview and agrees with Mr. Cain. I don’t.

Speaking of the Mohammed cartoons and the fact that large parts of Danish society insist on being able to criticize an ideology such as political Islam, he said that any serious newspaper in the States would be unlikely to publish the cartoons. The reason for this, he said, was that at some point in American history the Americans decided that it was more important to maintain a “stable, harmonious and diverse society”. (BTW, Chinese leader Hu Jintao uses the term “stable and harmonious society” in the same way as Cain does here: as an excuse to clamp down on criticism)

James P. Cain says that America has to some extent “compromised the faith in freedom of speech and a free press in favour of respect, order and security in society. If that means not going out you way not to insult someone or incite someone for no reason then most media and most Americans would not (have printed the cartoons).“

First of all, whether the cartoons were “for no reason” at all or not is a different discussion and I happen to think that there was plenty of good reasons to publish them.

Secondly, although he acknowledges that the experience he is talking about is derived from problems with race and the current are not, he still thinks we can and should transfer the conclusions from dealing with race to the present ideological conflict.

American media and society were right to stop criticizing people for their race. Race is not important to other people besides the individual and has no real effect on the society at large. Taking race as an issue out of the debate basically removes the problem and allows blacks to integrate into society as they are.

The problems lately (esp. exposed by the Mohammed cartoons) are not about race but about politics, culture, and religion. In other word, aspects that do have a wider impact on society at large.

I don’t think American media are holding back from criticizing people over their political opinions and that is the way it should be. But religion is off limits? When religion acts as and feeds politics there is every reason to point it out and criticize that as well.

In the interview Cain draws on the American experience of the racial riots and says that back then it was young men who did not feel part of society and then proceeded to attack it in order to gain freedom to exercise their political rights. The same thing is happening today where young people who feel disenfranchised and alienated become terrorists, he says.

His conclusion is therefore to apply the same tool: Stop singling out the troublemakers and allow them a place in society.

I think that in a time where Muslims and no one else are killing other people in order to gain political rights, it would be foolish not to point out that fact.

Secondly: the political rights that the blacks fought for were ones such as freedom from slavery and the right to sit down in a bus even if a white man steps in. Hardly anything to disagree about.

Muslims are fighting for the right to marry off their daughters without her consent or the right to stone homosexuals? Are we just going to let that slide?

Muslims and the sort are welcome to become a part of Danish society. How you do that is by contributing to it. Fighting for a place for Pakistani tribal norms in Denmark or setting fire to cars because not every one here thinks Mohammed was the greatest man ever is not contributing to society.

Some may think that they have a right not to be offended – but they are wrong. Some may think that ideas have rights and it is their place to fight for them. Well, ideas do not have rights and if they choose to fight for whatever idea they like here in Denmark then they are going to be told an honest opinion.

For foreigners to feel like a part of this society they first have to understand it and then want to feel part of it. Parallel societies with opposite norms are simply way of keeping conflict out of sight – not resolving it.

James P. Cain and Uffe Ellemann-Jensen have failed in convincing me that certain ideologies, groups, forces, organisations, or religions should be exempt from criticism.

Especially the fact that Uffe Ellemann-Jensen holds this opinion continues to surprise me. All through his career he had a clear, informed and tough opinion on what to do with the Soviet Union and now the Russian regime. No one thinks that being tough on Communism caused groups like Rote Armée Fraktion or the Red Brigades to take up arms. That would be just stupid.