Monday, February 13, 2006

Why can't we be friends?

It's about the Danish cartoons again.

Based on the comments I received for this post, I'm going to have to assume that among the handful of readers I enjoy there's a sadly high proportion who may not know what's going on in the world. No offense intended to those who do; please, keep up the good work. The great advantage we have over our philosophical parents and grandparents is that we can inform ourselves so much more completely than they could. But for those who aren't "up" on the story, here we go:

The original cartoons were published in September 2005 in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. You can see them here - and I'm linking to Michelle Malkin's site both because she, unlike the New York Times and unfortunately so many others, had the cojones to show the images, and because I know she's a tremendously polarizing figure, as they say. In other words, for fun.

The paper invited Danish caricaturists to draw Mohammed to make the point that non-Muslim Danes felt "chilled" by the disproportionate and often violent responses of European Muslims to perceived cultural or religious slights. There is a proscription against portrayals of Mohammed in some Muslims traditions (but not all - see for instance Omar's comments here on IraqTheModel); this proscription was the pretext for - eventual - widespread demonstrations, riots, arson, and deaths. However, it's come out that the means of distribution of these cartoon images wasn't what we might expect - a genuine grass-roots Internet-fueled viral-meme campaign wherein Danish Muslims told their coreligionists elsewhere, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on... (If you're too young to remember the reference, it's a shampoo commercial.) Instead, sometime in December 2005 or so, a group of Danish imams created a pressbook including these cartoons and others, including three particularly egregious images of diverse origins (one of them was a bad photocopy of a French contestant in a pig-squealing contest, who, in a burst of high spirits, donned a pig nose - this image was passed off as an insulting caricature of Mohammed). The imams toured the Middle East with this dossier, but (in spite of the cartoons' appearance in an Egyptian newspaper as early as October 2005, which appearance resulted in verbal denouncements but no violence) failed to stir up a lot of publicity until January 2006...

...when, suddenly, they were the spark to the tinder and the fundamentalist fraction of the Muslim world took to the streets. Most American newspapers and as far as I know all British newspapers to date have refused to publish the images; the BBC showed them briefly; some European newspapers I wouldn't have expected to show spines have shown spines and republished. The competing values to be balanced at those journalistic organs that have not republished the images are, as Andrew Sullivan says not "risible"; they're justifiably concerned about their staffs' safety. But the mass walkout of the editorial staff of the New York Press when the paper's owner refused to allow the republishing of the cartoons is a sign that not all journalists - indeed, I hope not even most journalists - would find that their own safety overbalances the scales against informing their reading or viewing public about this issue.

And at last we've reached the point where my title comes in: if there's one issue on which the American Right and the American Left ought to be united, it's press freedom. We do share this value. We also share the frustration of not always having it work in our favor - which we all recognize is par for the course when freedom of expression is at issue. We rail against some instances of free expression, we sometimes demonstrate to protest them, we write angry letters, make placards, march, lobby, and get all ticked off - but can we not agree that that fraction of the Muslim world that flew right the heck off the handle here was wrong to do so, by the standards of modern civilization?

Because if we can't find common ground here, perhaps there's no common ground anywhere for us. I fully support the right of Muslims who feel so inclined to demonstrate peacefully, to record their disgust and send it to the editor, to march for more "sensitivity" on the parts of newspaper editors. But. But. My support stops when the match is lit. We must not allow freedom of speech and the press to be chilled by the threat of violence.

In the United States, where by and large violence does not accompany angry protests against disrespect of one religion or another, it is possible, appropriate, and often wise for the media to be "sensitive" to their viewers; take for instance the Will & Grace episode that was slated to appear on Good Friday this spring, in which Britney Spears was to play a Christian TV chef making "cruci-fixin's," for some reason. (Pause: whew. That was a stretch.) The episode, I understand, has been pulled because it's singularly insensitive to Christians on the most solemn day of the Christian calendar. It would have been perfectly legal to air the episode - but I'm guessing the show's sponsors decided they didn't want to lose quite that much business. However, the self-censorship, if you will (and no doubt some will), of that episode can be assumed to spring from a different motive from the self-imposed media blackout on the Danish cartoons, where it's occurred, because fundamentalist (and other) Christians who would doubtless be offended by Will & Grace's tasteless joke at their expense were not about to saw any heads off over it, and everyone on both sides of the table knows it; we have no such assurance concerning the Islamist/Wahhabist/fundamentalist Muslim groups fomenting violent riots. To be silent on the issue of the cartoons is tacitly to admit that free speech is a value for us only so long as our own ox isn't gored. Or our own editor isn't kidnapped. It's not a decision to make lightly - but it is a decision to make, not to softsoap and avoid and couch in terms of "nuance."

So, I salute you people of the Left who are not sitting squarely on "sensitivity" but rather standing up for this proud, secular, foundational principle that we share - freedom of the press, without which there is no America. I hope that you realize, believe, and perhaps even are willing to acknowledge right out in public that we do indeed share it.

Ball's in your court.

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