Jacob Mchangama on Free Speech in Europe

In 2005, editors at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were concerned about a seeming climate of self-censorship on the subject of Islam. To assess the extent of that climate, they commissioned and published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. The ensuing political crisis and violent protests around the world — the so-called cartoons crisis — underscored that the principle of freedom of speech is little understood or valued. That fact was on stark display, again, in the aftermath of the 2015 jihadist massacre at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

These crises were part of a pattern dating back to the 1989 Iranian death decree against the British novelist Salman Rushdie. The dominant response of Western intellectuals and political leaders has been to betray the principle of freedom of speech at every turn. We at ARI have been fighting against this global trend by championing intellectual freedom and the freedom of speech.

Where do things stand in Europe today? That’s the question at the center of my recent conversation with Jacob Mchangama, a lawyer and writer based in Denmark. He’s a vocal advocate for freedom of speech, and I’ve found his support for that principle articulate. His work has been featured in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and several scholarly journals. During our conversation, we talked about:

  • the facts surrounding the cartoons crisis, and the intellectual climate today
  • the repeal of Denmark’s blasphemy law, and how, while in effect, it had enabled oppressive regimes to justify their own blasphemy laws
  • a recent notorious case at the European Court of Human Rights concerning an Austrian woman’s disparaging comments about Mohammad

From the interview I came away with a renewed appreciation for the First Amendment’s protection for intellectual freedom — but also with a heightened concern that free speech in America is, at best, taken for granted, and at worse, devalued.

The Dramatic Story of Making “The Fountainhead” Movie

The movie adaptation of The Fountainhead was first released in theaters in July 1949, and it featured two of the era’s biggest stars, Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. But the making of that film was itself a dramatic story.

It’s a story of “how Ayn Rand sold the screen rights to The Fountainhead — without selling out.” That’s how Shoshana Milgram, a scholar who has studied Rand’s life and writings in depth, has described it. To learn about the making-of story, I turned to Dr. Milgram, a professor at Virginia Tech, whose knowledge of Rand’s intellectual and literary development is truly encyclopedic.

During our conversation, Dr. Milgram shared a wealth of fascinating details about Rand’s role in adapting her novel to the screen. Warner Bros. Studios hired Rand to write the script. Although the scope of a two-hour movie required a considerable delimitation of the story, Rand was intent on ensuring that the film would convey some of the distinctive thematic aspects of the book.

During filming and then in editing, there were further challenges that Rand had to navigate gingerly. For example, there was the attempt to substantially alter the meaning of a climactic courtroom speech that Rand viewed as critical to the theme. (Rand wrote about that conflict in a previously unpublished letter, now available on ARI’s site.)

Finally, we also talked about Rand’s delimited purpose in selling the film rights and her evaluation of the finished product. Near the end, Dr. Milgram shares her own thoughts about the film and a 2017 Dutch-language stage adaptation of The Fountainhead by the director Ivo van Hove.

The interview assumes some knowledge of the basic plot of The Fountainhead novel — though we tried to fill in some context and avoid plot spoilers for those who’ve not yet read the book.

Remember DVDs? Along with the feature film, these sometimes included a short behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the film. My interview with Dr. Milgram offers something like that kind of background for The Fountainhead adaptation.

A Conversation with Graeme Wood: What ISIS Really Wants

The Islamic State, or ISIS, was a grotesque enigma when it burst on the scene in 2014. After conquering vast tracts of Iraq and Syria, ISIS became notorious for beheadings and crucifixions, and for reinstating the practice of slavery. But to what end? What did ISIS really want? It soon became clear that our political and military leaders lacked anything like real understanding of the ISIS phenomenon.

Graeme Wood, a staff writer at The Atlantic, set out to answer a few simple, yet crucial questions: What is the Islamic State? Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The resulting article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” went viral. By one reckoning, it received more than a million pageviews the day it went online. It became one of the most-read digital articles of 2015, garnering nearly 100 million minutes of reading time.

Wood’s article was remarkable for debunking a common perception of ISIS as essentially a collection of psychopaths who had hijacked Islam for their own decidedly secular ends. His research led to a different conclusion: ISIS is in fact deeply Islamic. Its ends and means are bound up in sincerely held religious belief.

Building on that article, Wood wrote The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, and recently I caught up with him to discuss his writings on jihadists. We explored the findings of his research, some of the opposing views, or counter-arguments, regarding what’s essential to the Islamic State, and the unwillingness of some scholars to take seriously the religious character of ISIS. Among other topics, we touched on the issue of “Islamophobia” and how it impedes discussion of jihadist ideas (an issue that came up in the attempt to shut down a panel discussion on Islamism that Wood and I took part in at University of Rochester).

A key takeaway from this conversation is that our intellectual and political leaders vastly under-appreciate, if not ignore, the role of ideas in animating the jihadist phenomenon.

Why Economic Nationalism Is Un‑American

In the name of “economic nationalism,” the Trump administration has called for “fair trade” and has launched a “trade war” on Chinese goods, seeking to impose a variety of tariffs to “protect” selected American industries.

But Harry Binswanger argues that the seemingly patriotic goal of protecting American industries and encouraging people to “buy American” is in fact profoundly un-American. It is “un-American in its goal and in the coercive means employed to achieve it.”

Why? What animates “economic nationalism”? What approach is consistent with America’s founding ideals?

Listen to the podcast.