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A Finn crosses the line A Finn crosses the line
by Edward Dutton
Issue 14
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Why is that so many books, plays . . . even cartoons . . . that stir-up controversy and are defended in the name of 'freedom of speech' really aren't that good? The history of the battle between free speech and censorship is littered with such examples. Lady Chatterley's Lover, D. H. Lawrence's steamy sex romp that was banned in England until the 1960s, is generally seen as one of his least intelligent works. Critics generally agree that Salmon Rushdie has written far better books than the Satanic Verses. And Jerry Springer the Opera, which fundamentalist Christians have demanded be banned as blasphemous, is, in essence, not really saying anything new.

The same is true of the Danish cartoons that caused such controversy around the world. A picture of Mohammed with his turban as a bomb is significant because it's questioning the accepted way of things; it's challenging a taboo. The same is true of Duchamp signing a urinal and calling it art. It's symbolically significant and stirs-up a debate over free-expression but it does little else. As a result of publishing these cartoons, Danish Embassies have been destroyed and, amazingly, a Finnish rightwing website Suomensisu.fi is under investigation by the police for republishing them. Many commentators have asked, 'Was it really worth it?' Was it really worth all this trouble for some not particularly good art?

But sometimes it is worth it. It is worth defending free expression if the example of artistic expression that you're defending doesn't just break taboos (like the artistic equivalent of saying 'Fuck' in front of the teacher) but is also, basically, good. It is worth defending if, even if it wasn't breaking a taboo, it would still have something intelligent and original to say.

This is true of the 1979 Monty Python film The Life of Brian. Of course, it crossed an important boundary in poking fun at Jesus and various cinemas in Britain refused to screen it. But it was also extremely funny and a profound satire of the Christian church and Christian belief. It remains so even now, even though it is hardly as shocking as it would have been in 1979. The same, I would argue, is true of the Brass Eye Paedophile Special, a satire (little known outside the UK) of the British media's hysterical reaction to paedophilia. It wasn't just shocking . . . it was clever, looking at the arbitrary way that 'child pornography' is defined or examining the possibility of a rap artist like Eminem promoting not violence or street crime but paedophilia.

And strangely, it seems that the only country in the world that has published an intelligent and interesting cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed is not Denmark but Finland. Indeed, what makes it stand-out is that it dares, very explicitly, to argue the case for free speech, lampoon the hypocrisy of Finnish politicians such as Tarja Halonen in their reaction to controversy, and portray the Prophet Mohammed - drawing upon the Koran - in one cartoon strip. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it was that it centred around a cartoonist debating free speech with Mohammed himself, who was deliberately drawn in such a way as to obscure his face so that he couldn't be accused of drawing of Mohammed.

It also showed the Finnish President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister condemning free speech and prostrating themselves before Muslim extremists. The cartoon was published on the website of the Oulu (Northern Finland) based cultural magazine Kaltio and, needless to say, the editor Jussi Vilkuna, was sacked for refusing to remove them. Oulu City Council, who had commissioned some pictures from the Oulu-based cartoonist himself (one Ville Ranta) of the arch-free-speech defender and Finnish statesman J. V. Snellman, responded by telling the cartoonist that his services were no longer required. Subsequently, and probably due to the terrible publicity it caused for the Council, Ranta has been re-employed by them.

There's no point trying to describe the cartoon. I might as well try to paint a picture of a novel. But it is very good. And it's not Denmark (famed for its free speech) that has produced no. No. It's by a cartoonist from Finland (a country with a long history of self-censorship which was a semi-dictatorship until the end of the Cold War).

Various commentators such as the Finnish blogger 'Frog's Eye View' have recommended that companies that withdraw their adverts from Kaltio because of the cartoons, such as Sampo, should be boycotted, as should the magazine itself. That may be so. I would simply say that we should defend the Danish cartoonists but we should be even more vociferous in defending Ville Ranta. Because his cartoon goes much further than theirs. It lampoons the government response, examines free speech in detail. Beyond the iconoclasm, it has something, something intelligent, to say.
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Dave Sutton2009-09-24 21:30:37
I think Mr.Dutton is seriously mistaken in his view of Finland in the cold war period. I've heard his comments before about it being a kind of sidekick of the Soviet Union. During the cold war Finland was independent like any other western country, it had its own government, currency, it had freedom of speech, freedom of movement etc.. Duttons comment, "No. It's by a cartoonist from Finland (a country with a long history of self-censorship which was a semi-dictatorship until the end of the Cold War)". This comment is utter nonsense. If this were true then why is Finland 4th best in the whole world for media freedom. If Mr.Dutton were right and Finland was so bad during the cold war then it would be impossible to climb the league table so fast in such a short space of time. Virtually every article Mr.Dutton writes about Finland is filled with inconsistencies, mistakes and quite frankly ridiculous arguments.


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