Sunday, February 05, 2006

The M Word

The most sincere argument I've yet seen in defense of self-censorship in the Danish cartoon controversy is this one from Yemen:

Years ago, American society slowly and voluntarily gave up the use of the word “nigger” to describe African-Americans. The word is racist, insulting, and legal. It hurts people’s feelings, and that was reason enough for a nation to stop using the word. That’s also reason enough not to publish hurtful cartoons.

Except it doesn't work as a comparison, does it? The "N-word" was just one way one could choose to refer to a black person. It could be used with furious malice, or with utter indifference, as in Mark Twain, Faulkner, Harper Lee, etc. The irony is, the only acceptable public use of it now is by certain black entertainers and personalities (and their disciples on my street) -- though other black figures strongly object to this.

[Aside: When I was in college, I had a fraternity buddy who was Pakistani. Late one night he and some others from his dorm were in the local mini-market and got into a confrontation with some townies, and he got called a sand-nigger -- by a black kid.]

"Nigger" is not a necessary word. There are un-racist ways to express the same thought. Instead, "nigger" has become a pure magnet for "all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks" over the centuries of American history. It is a diseased tonsil cut out from the language with no sacrifice of speech freedom.

Denmark has no long history of lynching Muslims, or of burning their shantytowns or of obstructing their rights. Muslims never were slaves in Denmark, though a few wayward Danes found themselves enslaved by the Barbary Pirates and other Muslim powers.

What is it that Muslims ask of Denmark's media? That it not publish a cartoon of Muhammad with a fuze sticking out of his turban. That it not connect the Prophet of Islam and the violence done in his name. They don't ask that this idea be stated in gentler terms. They demand that it not be considered at all in the public realm. True or untrue, just or unjust, it is simply intollerable. The correct comparison is not me calling my black neighbor by the hateful "N-word," but me pointing out to my black neighbor, if the discussion we're having should turn in such a direction, that blacks, as well as whites, owned and sold slaves in historical times.

When Americans stopped accepting the public use of that word, it was a collective repudiation of our own past injustices and crimes. What the Muslims who are burning churches and embassies today seem to demand is that we refuse to take notice of their own.