Friday, February 03, 2006

Cartoons Republished, Muslims Reoffended

The Guardian offers a reaction to the Muhammad cartoon furor that is fairly typical of what I've read from the self-described liberal-left.

It's mainly a reasoned and tempered -- "conservative," you might say -- enunciation of the responsibilities of the free press to be, well, "responsible" in what it publishes. It's a familiar argument, and I've used it myself in many cases: It boils down to, "Just because you can say anything doesn't mean you ought to."

But no two will think alike about where the line is drawn between "ought" and "ought not," except in the "shouting 'fire!' in a crowded theater" cases which are already covered by the law. What I think is beyond the pale of decency is what the next fellow thinks is essential for the public to see and know: aborted fetuses with recognizable human features, U.S. servicemen bloody and dead in war, child pornography.

You make judgment calls based on relevance: A politician gets in hot water for telling an ethnic joke and people call for his resignation: Do you print the words he said that were offensive? If so, you spread the offense. If not, you rob the reader of an essential bit of the story that he or she needs to make an intelligent conclusion about it.

[As an editor, I always tend to come down on the side of giving people too much information rather than too little. And I always get punished for it by my bosses. So I've learned to be over-cautious.]

The "Guardian" itself, of course, is proudly provocative against certain targets. American soldiers routinely appear as crude criminal animals in Steve Bell's cartoons. Condi Rice gets called a "monkey on a chain" on the paper's Web site. In the run-up to the last U.S. presidential election, the "Guardian's" election preview column solicited the assassination of President Bush:

"On November 2, the entire civilised world will be praying, praying Bush loses. And Sod's law dictates he'll probably win, thereby disproving the existence of God once and for all. The world will endure four more years of idiocy, arrogance and unwarranted bloodshed, with no benevolent deity to watch over and save us. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr - where are you now that we need you?"

So it's no surprise that it's leader on the Muhammad cartoons opens with a tepid defense of the press' duty to publish and be damned:

If free speech is to be meaningful, moreover, the right to it cannot shirk from embracing views that a majority - or a minority - finds distasteful, even on occasions bitterly so. All those considerations point towards a case for wider publication of cartoons which, even though offensive and provocative, say something about uncomfortable issues that are central to the modern world and have triggered an anguished debate in Europe and elsewhere.

Which is followed by the quick back-away from all that, in the name of taking the high road and being sensitive. "There are limits and boundaries - of taste, law, convention, principle or judgment. All these constraints matter and cannot be automatically overriden by invoking the larger principle."

One is almost tempted to feel sorry for the poor "Guardian" editor trying to squirm through this assignment. Nothing so unpleasant as confronting the irreconcilable contradictions in the bedrock of your political philosophy. Multicultural tolerance is good; but here's a religious culture with intolerance in its core. Free speech is good and the right to offend is essential to our mission. But somehow that only feels right when we're slagging on the Americans as fat, violent, Chimpler-loving racists.

Especially after the "Guardian" has opened its columns to the fierce defenders of offensive artistic expression -- so long as those suffering offense were U.S. fundamentalist Christians, as was the case a few years back when the "Guardian" published this during the "piss-christ" controversy:

We have another choice. We can accept that artistic freedom of expression is so intrinsic to our national life that we can never tamper with it, just as with press freedom. That as long as artists remain within the law, they are free to shock, disturb and to offend any group without fear or favour.

There is simply no third way here. You either censor or you don't. Once you've censored one thing, you set a precedent to use again and again.

So, back to the present controversy. On what basis are the Muhammad cartoons inapproriate, in the "Guardian's" view? The leader never quite says, but it holds up several examples. I suppose that's an excuse for proof.

It would not be appropriate, for instance, to publish an anti-semitic cartoon of the sort that was commonplace in Nazi Germany. Nor would we publish one which depicted black people in the way a Victorian caricature might have done. Every newspaper in the country regularly carries stories about child pornography, yet none has yet reproduced examples of such pornography as part of their coverage. Few people would argue that it is essential to an understanding of the issues that they should do so.

OK, wait a minute. By now, most of us have seen the cartoons. Most of them are pretty benign. Some remind me of illustrations of Jesus that you'd see in Christian literature. Very few have the faintly offensive quality of "Little Black Sambo," much less the cringe-making quality of child pornography, which is offensive to the whole mass of human beings except the few sad people who have a pathological twist in their sexuality that makes scenes of sex with children the height of desire.

This is not about pathology. This is about millions of people who have dedicated themselves to a religion that prohibits any image, insulting, benign, or even worshipful, to be made of a certain historical figure. It is not enough that they forbid themselves from doodling a picture of Muhammad on their sketchpads: They forbid you to do it, too. And they loudly proclaim their intention to kill you for it. And the "Guardian" all but says you deserve it.

As for comparisons to the vile anti-Semitic artwork of Der Stürmer, that one backfires pretty quickly, because the same people who have burkas in a twist about Danish pictures of Muhammad walking in the desert are the world's leading purveyors of Jew-baiting artwork today.

And we're not talking about demonization of Muslims -- who are not a race. Comparisons to racist literature are completely off the mark. We're talking about mere pictures of a man (Islamic theology insists on the entire humanity of Muhammad).

The "Guardian" knows all this of course, yet it makes a pathetic attempt to weasle through the loophole it imagines it has discovered:

It is one thing to assert the right to publish an image of the prophet. As long as that is not illegal - and not even the government's amended religious hatred bill makes it so - then that right undoubtedly exists. But it is another thing to put that right to the test, especially when to do so inevitably causes offence to many Muslims and, even more so, when there is currently such a powerful need to craft a more inclusive public culture which can embrace them and their faith.

Please! Wasn't it the anti-war left that perfected the retort about, "what good is the right of free speech you claim you're fighting to give me if you ask me to muzzle myself from criticizing the conduct of your war." Instead, the "Guardian" advocates self-censorship in the name of building a culture "inclusive" of people who would censor others. Good luck with that.

By the time it peters out, the "Guardian's" attempt to think its way through this matter is paralyzed by the tangle of contradictions.

That is why the defiant republication of the cartoons in some parts of Europe (some of them with far less good histories of intercommunal relations than this country) is more questionable than it may appear at first sight.

Translation: Britain is more sensitively multi-cultural than Denmark, France, etc.; therefore it is morally superior and the press in those other nations has less right to publish provocative matter than the British press does.

But the British press is right to not publish it. Huh? The "Guardian" reserves to itself, in its leftist purity, the right to publish what it is too sensitive -- I won't say "cowardly" -- to publish. Free speech only for those too tender to use it, eh?

There has to be a very good reason for giving gratuitous offence of this kind.

That presumes the only motive of the papers that picked up the cartoons was to give offense. It seems never to have occurred to the "Guardian" that those brave editors and publishers were standing up for the right of free speech itself, under direct death threat from Islamist thugs. In the famous World War II story (alas, apocryphal, but certainly illustrative of the point) the king and people of Denmark, under Nazi occupation, all wear the yellow star that the Nazis have assigned to the Jews as their badge of infamy. To the "Guardian," I suppose, the only point of doing that would have been to give "gratuitous offense" to Hitler.