A Friedman Prize for Courage

The 2016 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty has been awarded to Flemming Rose and will be formally presented at a dinner in New York on May 25. (Tickets still available!)

Flemming Rose is a Danish journalist. In the 1980s and 1990s he was the Moscow correspondent for Danish newspapers. He saw the last years of Soviet communism, with all its poverty, dictatorship, and censorship, and the fall of communism, only to be disappointed again with the advance of Russian authoritarianism. After also spending time in the United States, he became an editor at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. In 2005 he noticed “a series of disturbing instances of self-censorship” in Europe. In particular, “a Danish children’s writer had trouble finding an illustrator for a book about the life of Muhammad. Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. The person who finally accepted insisted on anonymity, which in my book is a form of self-censorship.”

Rose decided to take a stand for free speech and the open society. He asked 25 Danish cartoonists “to draw Muhammad as you see him.” Later, he explained that 

We [Danes] have a tradition of satire when dealing with the royal family and other public figures, and that was reflected in the cartoons. The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.

Rose promised to publish all the cartoons he received. He got 12. They were by turns funny, provocative, insightful, and offensive. One implied that the children’s book author was a publicity seeker.  One mocked the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party. One portrayed the editors of Jyllands-Posten as a bunch of reactionary provocateurs. The most notorious depicted the prophet with a bomb in his turban.

A firestorm erupted. Protests were made. Western embassies were attacked in some Muslim countries. As many as 200 people were killed in violent protests. Rose and the turban cartoonist were the subject of death threats. To this day Rose travels with security. 

Is Rose in fact a provocateur or anti-Muslim? No. When we discovered that his book A Tyranny of Silence had not been published in English, that was the first question we asked. From reading the manuscript, and from talking to contacts in Denmark and Europe, we became confident that Rose was a genuine liberal with a strong anti-authoritarian bent, sharpened during his years as a reporter in the Soviet Union. His book, recently reissued with a new afterword, confirms that. Chapter 10, “A Victimless Crime,” traces the history of religious freedom from the Protestant Reformation to the challenges faced today by Muslims of different religious and political views.

Through it all, and through future attacks such as those at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, Rose has continued to speak out for free speech and liberal values. He has made clear that his concern has always been – in the Soviet Union, in Europe, in the United States, and in Muslim countries – for individual dignity, freedom of religion, and freedom of thought. But he has insisted that there is no “right not to be offended.” He has become a leading public intellectual in a time when free speech is threatened in many ways by many factions. Today, in Politico Europe, he deplores a proposed law that would deny admission to Denmark to Islamists and criminalize anti-democratic speech. He worries:

What’s at stake in this controversy, and visible in similar developments across Europe, is the success of the Continent’s struggle to manage cultural and religious diversity. Most politicians believe we need to promote a diversity of opinions and beliefs, but manage that diversity with more tightly-controlled speech. That is wrong. A more diverse society needs more free speech, not less. This will be the key challenge for Denmark and Europe in the years ahead. The prospects do not look bright.

The prospects are brighter as long as free speech has defenders such as Flemming Rose.

The first few recipients of the Milton Friedman Prize were economists. Later came a young man who stopped Hugo Chavez’s referendum to create a socialist dictatorship, and a writer who spent 6 years in Iranian jails, followed by economic reformers from China and Poland.

I think the diversity of the recipients reflects the many ways in which liberty must be defended and advanced. People can play a role in the struggle for freedom as scholars, writers, activists, organizers, elected officials, and many other ways. Some may be surprised that a Prize named for a great scholar, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, might go to a political official, a student activist, or a newspaper editor. But Milton Friedman was not just a world-class scholar. He was also a world-class communicator and someone who worked for liberty in issues ranging from monetary policy to conscription to drug prohibition to school choice. When he discussed the creation of the Prize with Cato president Ed Crane, he said that he didn’t want it to go just to great scholars. The Prize is awarded every other year “to an individual who has made a significant contribution to advance human freedom.” Friedman specifically cited the man who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square as someone who would qualify for the Prize by striking a blow for liberty. Flemming Rose did not shy away from danger when he encountered it. He kept on advocating for a free and open society. Milton Friedman would be proud.