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The freedom to offend

By Jim Bennett

Published: Friday, Sept. 14 2012 5:32 p.m. MDT

Indonesian Muslims shout slogans as they hold a banner reads "Innocence of Muslims is the result of secular democracy" during a protest against the film that has sparked anger among followers, outside the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, Sept. 14, 2012.

Associated Press

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A proposed movie about the Prophet Muhammad sparked riots at the United States Embassy in Cairo and ultimately led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, including U.S. envoy Chris Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya. Our embassy in Egypt initially released an apology for the film, an apology that was quickly and wisely retracted by the Obama administration. After all, why on earth should the diplomats in Cairo apologize? The American government had no hand in producing the material in question beyond protecting the First Amendment freedoms that allow people to make movies and other artistic products with the capacity to offend.

As it turns out, that's the problem.

The Egyptian government issued a statement calling for the United States "to take a firm position toward this film's producers within the framework of international charters that criminalise acts that stir strife on the basis of race, color or religion." Or, to paraphrase, "don't let your loyalty to a quaint notion like freedom of speech get in the way of locking folks up."

To be fair, American cinema provides a cornucopia of cinematic offal sure to offend people from any and all non-Kardashian walks of life. Movies that ridicule traditional values are more likely to get an Oscar than a restraining order. The temptation, then, is to put guys like Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Moore in a big steel cage and only let Pixar make all our movies, just as long as they don't do any more "Cars" sequels. Even then, however, Pixar would have to get approval from the government for everything they say and do.

That's essentially the North Korean approach to moviemaking.

All potential blockbusters in the Orwellianly-labeled Democratic People's Republic of Korea are overseen and censored by a rigidly totalitarian government. Even North Korean radios are pre-tuned at the factory to approved government broadcasters. So the movies that come out of this system include such hard-hitting, truth-to-power documentaries as 2008's "The Respected Comrade Supreme Commander Is Our Destiny," which the North Korean State news agency film critic wisely gave two thumbs up, as less enthusiastic reviewers generally find themselves strung up by their thumbs in a forced labor camp.

No, I still prefer our system, even with all the garbage and the dreck and the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" flicks. To make masterpieces, you have to have the freedom to turn out a few turkeys. That means religions aren't always going to get the silver screen respect they deserve. So for every "Ben Hur," there's going to be a "Last Temptation of Christ," and for every "Ten Commandments," you'll end up with a "Monty Python's Life of Brian," which, I should note, isn't nearly as blasphemous as its reputation would have you believe. Jesus only appears in the film for a few seconds as He recites the Sermon on the Mount. Quickly, the camera then pulls back to show the people way back in the cheap seats who can't be sure if He said "blessed are the peacemakers" or "blessed are the cheesemakers," and if that includes all makers of fine dairy products.

Now is that joke offensive to some devout Christians? Sure. But kindness toward opposition is the proper response, not cowardice in the face of bigotry. The freedom to defy God, even in the movies, is a freedom given to us by God Himself. That's the reason we have a First Amendment in the first place. Abandoning that principle, especially to appease an angry mob, is never a good idea.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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