06/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Real Culture Wars: A Funny Kind of Fear

We all know by now the running narrative about the sanctity of free speech in America, which we've been media-trained to accept in lieu of an actual defense of free speech when that right happens to come under threat. So when Comedy Central redacted non-obscene words and images from a recent South Park episode in response to an Islamist's death threats, we were all prepared for the talking heads to pop up posing as freedom-fighting heroes and assure us that despite the blow, the lovers of freedom are still on top.

Thus, Jon Stewart, the media's new hero of the hour, could sell Americans the idea that the reason Islamists could get away with threatening the lives of the South Park creators is that we Americans so bravely, so admirably "value and protect even their freedom of expression."

You would think that "their freedom of expression" was referring to South Park's Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and that the comment was about how daring the network was in spurning the death threats and airing the episode in full, even if just to make a point. But in reality (and beyond belief), Stewart was praising American society because it protects the freedom of speech of fundamentalist psychopaths -- and does so at the expense of two guys who make cartoons for a living. In other words, when precisely nothing is on the line, we're all for freedom of speech. But when some bearded kid from New York makes a threat, well, stop the presses!

It was only once a threat was made that the mighty media conglomerate, Viacom, swung into action, not to safeguard the freedom of speech of its show's creators -- in both a moral sense, by airing the episode again in full, and in the physical sense of beefed up security -- but to self-censor their content. Maybe someone even called Jon Stewart upstairs, not for a nude ice-dance in his boss' chalet, as Stewart joked, but to suggest "a little help" on this Muhammad thing: "Maybe make it seem as if the censorship is really about the safety of Comedy Central's staff."

If so, Stewart delivered. But this isn't at all about Jon Stewart, just as it's not about the safety of Comedy Central's staff. Rather, it's about the fact that freedom of speech in America has been perverted into a freedom to lightly offend. Yet the intention behind America's protection of speech -- a radical idea in itself, as so many world governments prove to us each day -- is to provide the freedom to express oneself without fear of injury. So much for that.

Where the law is concerned, we live in the most open society in the world. But what does American culture, at least its visible elite, do with all that freedom? Lady Gaga uses it to be "daring" with her lasciviousness; Michael Moore can "audaciously" suggest that the U.S. government had a hand in murdering thousands of its own citizens; and Jon Stewart himself can "boldly" make fun of Jews, lambast Christians, and attack a cable news network. And the risk to Gaga, Moore or Stewart? Heaps of money, piles of fame, and plenty of praise.

Our culture is risk averse. Our media touts the freedom of speech until that freedom becomes a burden, at which point it hides behind slogans of free speech. We can single out Viacom and Comedy Central today, but really, is there any American network that wouldn't have done the same? Is there an American newspaper that we could honestly point to and say that they would go all the way for the truth? Any writer, filmmaker, musician, or painter who would do so?

"Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings," was Heinrich Heine's haunting comment on censorship. And what happens when they begin to blank out a cartoon's images and bleep out its words because one person makes a threat? In this case, it's not a government decision to burn books or censor culture that is the cause for concern. Rather, it's that we now know that ours is a culture which silences the innocent when the guilty begin to shout.