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« In a word: Truthiness | Main | Refresher: Fourth Amendment »

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


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Ben Brazil

You really think the reactions to the Mohammad cartoons and "Piss Christ" are comparable? That would seem to equate boycotts and threatening the National Endowment for the Arts with lost funding with torching foreign embassies and riots that have killed eight (though I may be wrong on the number).

Come on - the protests against "Piss Christ" fall well within the limits of democratic discourse and civil society. Rioting, arson and murder does not.

Of course the cartoons are insensitive - and of course no one has to reprint them. But the reactions are not comparable.

Ben Brazil

A more thoughtful (I hope) reply:

There are two issues here: responsible media conduct and reasonable responses to media misconduct.

Your main point is on the former, and I agree that the newspaper was insensitive and offensive; they were baiting the extremists. Certainly, the righties have a double standard when they call for reprints of cartoons that lampoon their favorite bogeyman in the name of free speech.

On the latter, I know you're not justifying riots, etc. But I do think the Iranian newspaper example misses the point: Western free speech advocates would be horrified by holocaust cartoons - as we are by holocaust deniers, like the Iranian president. But I don't think most Western societies would countenance rioting and arson in retaliation. If the P&C published one of the examples you mention, you'd see protests, denunciations, loss of advertisers and readers - but you'd live.

The New York Times has a good article today (I'm on Apple's Safari browser, which doesn't allow me to link) about how European societies are beginning to feel like they live under an unwrittten blasphemy law. From Salman Rushdie on down, anyone who blasphemes Islam is marked by extremists for retaliation.

In an insensitive matter, the Danish paper and the reaction to it makes the point that such threats are causing self-censorship in Europe. Good taste and a sense of fairness and responsibility are GOOD motivators for self-censorship. But fear of fatwahs and murder is not -- I think that's the main point here.


It's not lost on me what started this whole chain reaction: the murder of that Dutch filmmaker by a militant Islamist. The Danes -- like most of us -- were pissed by that, and the editors at the newspaper in question chose this provocation to prove a point.

They can do that, and from a particular perspective, their cartoon contest evidences a form of courage. But pure idealism aside, I think courage without practical responsibility is foolhardy. The global mess here is far beyond the clean-up abilities of a few Danish newspaper editors. I accept what they did and support their right to do it. Just don't demand, as some are, that I do it too.

That Islamic militants would be pissed off and do violent things was utterly predictable. That's why we don't like Islamists in the first place. And if anyone is just now getting around to the fed-up-with-these-Midieval-mullahs position, they're late to the party. Things haven't improved since "The Satanic Verses." They've gotten worse.

But how many times do we have to make this point? Is the rioting now any worse than the rioting over the Newsweek Koran-flushing story? Newsflash No. 1: These people riot when you offend them. Newsflash No. 2: Anything we do in the West that insults Islam is bulletin-board material for radical mullahs who will rile up their faithful and issue fatwahs, etc. I'm tired of talking about them. They're scumbags, but they're not American scumbags.

I'm not comparing the reactions to these cartoons to the reaction to Piss Christ and finding them equivalent. I'm comparing the points made by both sets of critics. To wit: 1. Don't insult my religion; 2. Don't think your freedom of speech gives you the secular-sanctified right to mock us in the media and be praised for it. Different religions, different reactions, same root points.

And in these cases, I think the offended religionists (both Christians and Muslims) have an excellent point. The intent of Piss Christ was to make Christians angry. The intent of the Danish cartoons was to strike back at the Islamists and prove that Europeans were not afraid. If you taunt a mentally ill homeless man, that doesn't justify his violent over-reaction, but it does raise the pointed question: How did you think this was going to turn out?

I might someday draw a cartoon that offends people. If so, I'll have to stand by it. But I won't do it lightly, because as this incident proves, the forces that are benefitting from this "free speech protest" aren't free speech advocates: Extremists, at home and abroad, are stoking these fires.


OK, I just became aware of and got into the whole cartoon debate yesterday but this is smack in the middle of where my thought hang out.

Everyone is accusing "the press" of being irresponsible. I don't see it quite so simply.

The crux of the "irresponsibility" matter seems to be that most people don't see sufficient value in the cartoons to warrent the risk of publishing.

Let me start with my two main disagreements, after which you can get bored and stop reading :)

1) Allowing the course of our discussion to be dictated by violent reactions are a *really bad idea*. If we clam up because we don't want people to shoot us we're just training them that shooting is effective. Long term: tyranny of the violent minority.

It's ironic that this is flaming up at the same time the Rev. King is once again in peoples thoughts (albeit indirectly).

2) I've viewed what purports to be the 12 cartoons in question. I believe that many of them had legitimate place in the discussion of world events.

I haven't been able to get past the basic message of the Islamic Extremists: Live the way we believe you should or we'll shoot you.

Maybe the artists and newspaper in question were originally motivated by revenge. Maybe their motivation was to get exactly this reaction and demonstrate the type of "discussion" their oponents wanted to have.

Hell, maybe they're just communicating what they perceive to be the truth.

In any case, these cartoons were not merely "lampooning" religious beliefs -- they were making a direct statement about behaviors that touched their lives.

Taking the analogy of the "taunting the homeless man" -- the equivalent here is not taunting the fellow. The equivalent is posting a sign up for all to see that says "stop homeless violence" -- and *then* the guy attacks you because he doesn't want you to say that.

The actions I find questionable are people who've been publishing these cartoons just to say "fuck you". I find myself with the strong presumption that the original publishers were well in the right.

When I think of the original publishing I keep coming back to what Burke allegedly said:

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Ben Brazil

Of course you don't have to publish the same cartoons. I think we all agree that you can still love free speech (and freedom! and America!) without doing that.

But the taunting a homeless man example isn't a good one. There's a difference betweeen mean-spirited taunting and incisive, cutting satire and political commentary.

The homeless man is not, except perhaps in what he symbolizes, a force in world events. Militant Islam is.

I think Dewey touches on the real problem here: The line between valid political commentary and offending for offense sake is blurry. To some degree, it all comes down to motivations? Are you NOT running critical commentary about (militant) Islam because you're afraid? Well, in that case the violent extremists have caused self-censorship of an important viewpoint.

On the other hand, are you doing it just to piss people off? That seems kind of stupid.

The strategy is tricky. We want to improve relations and cultural understanding with the Muslim world, but we don't want to surrender our free speech rules, and certainly not within our own countries.

When do you fight and when do you negotiate?


Dewey is a pretty smart guy.

Look, I've seen the cartoons. And if anybody who is a Xark author wants to post them here as an act of free speech, do it. There's nothing offensive about them FROM MY PERSPECTIVE. Then again, I don't ascribe to a religion that has specific prohibitions against visual depictions of the prophet. And because I perceive the controversy to be largely contrived, I think that supercedes whatever free-speech point one might want to make about the individual cartoons.

I make my point by pointing to someone who thinks that publishing the 12 "forbidden cartoons" is a Really Big Deal: Michelle Malkin. Do you really, truly think that Malkin is in favor of abstract freedom of expression? No. She just hates the Muslim world and wants to do whatever she can to enflame the situation into an all-out war of civilizations.


And here's a better thought-experiment example than a crazy homeless guy:

There's a shooting in a black ghetto in your town, and a TV news crew gets roughed up while trying to cover the angry crowd, live on the air. Afterward, a black politician says the violence was no surprise, because black people are angry about the way they have been portrayed by TV news.

When the local paper criticizes that stance in an editorial, a group of black citizens protests outside the newspaper building. Tempers flare as police try to control the crowd, and some windows are broken and property is damaged.

So the newspaper decides to frame the subject in terms of free speech. It's not going to be bullied by threats of mob violence. So it invites readers to send in cartoons about blacks. Most of the images are topical to the violence, but black people who see them or are told about them are furious. Tensions and violence escalate.

My question to everyone is, where do you think this kind of thing is going? What lesson are you trying to teach Muslims? What lesson do you think they will learn? Is it the lesson you intend?

Are you acting out of love of free speech, or anger at Muslims? Are you trying to open a constructive dialog, or are you happy to give the extremists the tools necessary to make matters worse?

And what WOULD Jesus do?

Ben Brazil

Yes! The Muslims and secular Europeans have both forgotten to look at their WWJD bracelets!

Agreed on Malkin and the right. The hoopla is mostly about doing what the right does best: defining someone else as the Evil Enemy. Without an enemy, they don't know what to do. Radical Islam replaces the USSR. Good v. Evil II.

Taking your WWJD question more seriously than you probably intended, here's my guess:

1) Jesus probably does not engage in violence on one side or the other
2) He mostly thinks this is missing the real issue of injustice breeding contempt; of the difficulty with loving your enemy, etc. Not so good for either side here. Message to both sides: He who is without sin, cast the first stone.
3) But Jesus did get crucified for making political statements and taking political stands. When he questioned the Pharisees, cleansed the temple, etc., he was not just making a warm, fuzzy spiritual point. He was challenging the power structure and pissing people off. And it provoked violence - it got him killed.

But this isn't a good parallel. Jesus usually took the side of the poor. So he probably wouldn't run cartoons that provoked a poor minority. He'd rather criticize the rich in the West.

Maybe he'd encourage non-violent yet confrontational protests from the Muslims? MLK style? Just a guess.

Your broader point is well taken. If the question is effectiveness, then what did they really accomplish? But it still leaves the question: What can we say negative about you without you deciding to burn things?

The counter example is good. Honestly, though, we complain about political correctness hear on Xark, and honest discussion of race by either blacks or whites is a casualty. Yeah, you don't want to escalate that situation further, but how do you criticize the violence without pissing people off? You probably don't.

I think, all in all, mine is sort of an emotional response to this situation. I'm very critical of the US, and I quite understand why Muslims are pissed that we invaded Iraq, blindly support Israel in almost all cases, and prop up dictators who are friendly to our policies. In those cases, I think: Wake up America! Of course they're angry!

But this ... I think it's just a principle of decency that you don't get to burn a nation's embassy down because a newspaper said something negative about your religion. You don't get to murder film makers. You don't get to put fatwahs on authors.

This bothers me, in part, because it challenges my (liberal) belief that most of Muslim anger toward the US stems from real grievances and RATIONAL concerns (Israel, Iraq, House fo Saud, whatever). Newspaper cartoons just don't rise to that level, and it makes me have to concede some space to the righties:

Some of these people really DO hate freedom.

It's not that simple, of course, which is what the right misses.


I actually have a WWJD loop that runs through my head, even though I'm not Christian. I was raised in the church and still tear up over parts of that story. WWJD is a good loop, regardless of your religious convictions, but I also have a "What Would Billy Jack Do?" loop. Kinda balances it all out.

And I'm riled here because I see two stories taking place -- the media story, in which crazy muslims act like barbarians and we're all encouraged to hate them -- and the meta story, in which the RightMarches and Malkins are stoking the hate-fires on behalf of free speech, a liberty that they always, ALWAYS rate below taste and decorum when it's their constituency being skewered.

I am not now, nor will I ever, apologize for bad behavior by Islamic extremists. I don't think radical Islamist anger toward Americans stems from meaningful greviances -- I think those bastards are crazy. But I also think the neocon cabal is crazy, and I also know that not all Muslims are radical Islamists.

The net effect of these phony issues is that they divide us, and are meant to. I think Jesus would be too smart to fall for that. The thing I like about Jesus was he always spotted the traps that people laid for them, and he rendered them powerless by calling them exactly what they were.

I'm not as smart as Jesus. But that's what I'd like to do -- go around shouting "TRAP! IT'S A TRAP!" and steering people away from the snares.

Race, as you point out, is an example, but here's the thing we don't say, as white guys: We're not afraid of a black mob -- we're afraid we'll be branded as racists if we challenge conventional wisdom, which says that black leaders get to decide what kind of behavior gets counted as racially appropriate. This is why when you go to the NAACP Freedom Banquet, the room is full of honkies. The corporate guys are all there getting their racial sensititivy ticket punched. It's like buying indulgences. It's not sincere, but the world isn't sincere.

I want to talk about race because it's the inability to talk about race that keeps white people convinced that black people are the political and cultural "other."

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