When 1950s comedian Lenny Bruce titillated his audiences with the F-word and crude sex talk, liberals came to his defense. They reminded us that vulgar speech is not a crime: The First Amendment was not just designed to protect uplifting expression, but also rarer blasphemous and indecent speech.
For liberals, the burning of a flag on campus and the full frontal nudity of Penthouse magazine were also First Amendment issues.
When artist Andres Serrano photographed a crucifix in a jar with his own urine ("Piss Christ"), the avant-garde Left not only protected Serrano's constitutional right to offend millions, but also saw no problem in the U.S. government subsidizing the talentless Serrano's sophomoric obnoxiousness.
But the worldview of the Left is self-contradictory. One of its pet doctrines is multiculturalism -- or the idea that non-Western cultures cannot be judged critically by our own inherently biased Western standards.
Female circumcision or honor killings in the Muslim world don't merit our attention in the way that a woman's right to free abortion pills from her Catholic employer does in the West. When it comes to the Middle East, we neither criticize strongly enough the region's sexism, homophobia or racism, nor do we defend without qualification our own notions of free expression as inherently superior to the habitual censorship abroad.
Fear plays a role, too. Championing the right of Andres Serrano to show his degrading pictures of Christ wins liberal laurels. Protecting novelist Salman Rushdie's caricatures of Islam might earn death.
The Obama administration went to great lengths to blast -- and even arrest -- an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian for posting on the Internet a juvenile movie trailer ridiculing Islam and offending Muslims. After riots across the Middle East and the murder of the U.S. ambassador in Libya, American officials did not wish to concede that radical Islam hates the United States -- even when Barack Obama is president. And they did not want to admit that their own lax security standards, not a film trailer, led to the horrific murders in Libya, or that in an election year their Middle East reset policy is in shambles.