Continuing yesterday’s posting, what I find most difficult to sympathize with are the other newspapers that later reprinted the Jyllands-Posten cartoons that have inflamed some Muslim sensitivities. Far from being free speech champions, they seemed to simply want to provoke anger in the Muslim world. They were not defending free speech rights because, as far as I can tell, those were not in any danger. It is true that some who opposed the publication of the cartoons were asking the government of Denmark to take action against Jyllands-Posten but there was no indication that this was a serious request or that there was any chance of the Danish government was doing so. And even if it made moves towards doing that, there are other ways to defend the rights of that paper.
In fact, the free speech claims spouted by these newspapers have a strong flavor of hypocrisy. Many western countries have compromised their free speech rights long ago by enforcing them selectively, reinforcing the sense in the Muslim world that only they can be targets of such humor. Some are quite brazen about the fact that Muslim sensitivities can be ignored while those of others are protected. And Muslims are told they must either accept this state of affairs or leave the country.
Roger Koeppel, editor in chief at German newspaper Die Welt, which published the cartoons last week, says that European societies have a right to make their own choices. “Every society has the right to have taboos, the things they don’t talk about,” he says. Mr. Koeppel says the cartoons were not published to annoy but to question a growing tendency for press self-censorship in delicate matters.
At times, he says, it may appear there is a double standard. “Evenhandedness cannot be a goal,” he says. “It has to be clear that the majority culture rules and the minority culture has to accept the rules. If the rules are not acceptable, no one is forced to live there.”
This is an amazingly frank admission of the dirty little secret that the media picks and chooses whose feelings they wish to protect and whose they can ignore. It is also startlingly self-contradictory. On the one hand, Koeppel says that they were challenging a growing tendency to “self-censorship in delicate matters.” On the other, he justifies the existence of “taboos, the things they don’t talk about.” What are such taboos if not topics that are self-censored?
What this proliferation of republication of the cartoons has done is to further strengthen the suspicion that there is a deliberate campaign going on to disparage the beliefs and sensibilities of Muslims. And there are those on all sides who are intent on promoting this so-called “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the west and see benefits to be gained from fanning this conflagration. On the one side, it makes it easier, for example, to build the case for a US attack on Syria or Iran, the enemies du jour of the US. On the other side, it may make it easier to portray the west as uniformly anti-Muslim and to justify attacks on any westerner and to strengthen the hands of those who seek to impose theocracies on predominantly Muslim countries.
So what can be learned from all this? For me, it reinforces my belief that while people have the right to be offensive if they choose, they should not expect to be admired for doing so. I do not admire the newspapers for what they did, even though they had every right to print the cartoons.
People have all kinds of hot buttons. It seems to be an ironclad rule of human nature that the more buttons you have and the hotter those buttons are, the more people who will be eager to push them just to see you explode. Any person who can remember their middle school years can recall the hapless students who could be counted on to react angrily to some particular slight, and how others would exploit this for easy amusement. The taunts directed at the parentage of someone is a schoolyard staple and you would think that by the time people reached adulthood, they would have wised up and got hardened to this tired ploy at provoking them.
But no. Even adults fall for this kind of provocation and it is worse because now they have the ability to wreak great damage in response, as we have seen with these riots. There is nothing you can do to prevent this except to stop being such an easy target. This means realizing when someone is deliberately trying to provoke you, and ignoring them. The more you react, the more they attack.
Practicing such restraint is not easy. All of us have our personal sacred cows and are prone to anger over some slight directed at them. It takes considerable self-control to not blow up in response. But there is something about religious sacred cows that make things worse. I think that this is because when people’s religious sensitivities are slighted, their anger is fueled by a sense of righteous indignation, that they are defending the honor of god, and that god will look favorably on them for their outrage. A moment’s reflection should convince any rational person that the idea of any mere mortal defending god’s honor is laughable on its face since god can presumably take care of him/herself.
Now we are seeing that other publications have decided that they too can play the same game as Jyllands-Posten (the original publisher of the cartoons that caused the controversy). Syndicated cartoonist and columnist Ted Rall reports that:
A European Muslim website has posted a cartoon depicting Anne Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler. “If it is the time to break taboos and cross all the red lines,” the site explains, “we certainly do not want to fall behind.”
And an Iranian newspaper has solicited cartoons about the holocaust of Jews and is challenging the newspapers that published and republished the Prophet Mohammed cartoons to show their true commitment to free speech and their religious impartiality by publishing the twelve “winning” cartoons as well.
“It will be an international cartoon contest about the Holocaust,” said Farid Mortazavi, the graphics editor for Hamshahri newspaper – which is published by Teheran’s conservative municipality.
He said the plan was to turn the tables on the assertion that newspapers can print offensive material in the name of freedom of expression.
“The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let’s see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons,” he said.
Jyllands-Posten has already said that they will not publish the holocaust cartoons, further reinforcing the belief in the Muslim world that it is only Islam that can serve as a target for religious skewering in the west.
As Justin Raimondo points out about the proposed holocaust cartoons:
Of course, the publication of such cartoons would be illegal in most states of the European Union, as well as Canada, and the publishers, as well as the artists, would probably be thrown in jail and forced to issue a groveling apology. Rose is supposedly against any religion demanding “special treatment,” but apparently there is at least one exception.
This issue has nothing to do with “freedom of speech.” The government of Denmark is not about to prosecute Jyllands-Posten, nor will the EU – although they could do so, given the existence of “hate speech” legislation signed into law in both cases.
The violent reaction is being portrayed as something that happens mainly with Muslims. But in becoming violent in their actions, the Muslims who were doing so were following in a long tradition of religious groups taking to the streets in response to seeming provocations. Juan Cole points out that such violent reactions were routine in the Protestant-Catholic clashes in Northern Ireland.
It seems amazing to me that we have reverted to middle school playground behavior, where the taunting and goading of one child by another is repaid in kind. We are now in a race to the bottom of offensiveness, competing in a game of chicken to see which group can come up with religiously offensive cartoons that others will not publish.
It is not easy for people to take a detached view when their cherished beliefs are ridiculed. The people who like to push other people’s buttons are often ingenious about finding out what works and don’t hesitate to do use that information to create anger.
Which bring me to the infamous Reverend Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. More about him and his group tomorrow.
POST SCRIPT: Film Winter Soldier
The Cleveland Museum of Art is screening the film Winter Soldier on Wednesday, February 15 at 7:00pm and again on Sunday, February 19 at 1:30pm. A panel discussion with some Vietnam vets will follow the 2/15 screening.
Both screenings are being held at Strosacker Auditorium on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, since the Museum of Art is closed during its major renovation. Tickets are $7.00 per person.
In February 1971, one month after the revelations of the My Lai massacre, a public inquiry into war crimes committed by American forces in Vietnam was held at a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit. Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized this event called the Winter Soldier Investigation with support from Jane Fonda and Mark Lane. More than 125 veterans spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed. “The major that I worked for had a fantastic capability of staking prisoners,” goes one piece of testimony, “utilizing a knife that was extremely sharp, and sort of fileting them like a fish. . . . Prisoners treated this way were executed at the end because there was no way that we could take them into any medical aide and say, ‘This dude fell down some steps.’”
Though the event was attended by press and television news crews almost nothing was reported to the American public. Yet, this unprecedented forum marked a turning point in the anti-war movement. It was a pivotal moment in the lives of young vets from around the country who participated, including the young John Kerry. The Winter Soldier Investigation changed him and his comrades forever. Their courage in testifying, their desire to prevent further atrocities and to regain their own humanity, provide a dramatic intensity that makes the film Winter Soldier an unforgettable experience.