Thursday, February 09, 2006

Cartoon Violence

Sorry not to have posted earlier about the great Mohammed cartoon controversy, but I find the whole thing such a bummer--one of those stories devoid of heroes that seems to offer very little hope of anything positive coming out of it. The extreme Muslim response is of course deplorable, but the cartoons themselves are pretty witless and difficult to defend. (If you haven't seen them, they're available on the excellent BAGnewsNotes blogsite, which specializes in analysis of photos and art from the news--you might also enjoy the tart comments about Bush's behavior at the Coretta Scott King memorial service.)

Oh, for the good old days of the First Amendment, when standing up for freedom of the press meant defending Ulysses or Lady Chatterly's Lover rather than Hustler magazine or the Danish publisher of the allegedly "satiric" cartoons whose sole purpose seems to have been to cause an intercultural furor.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of whole affair is the current revival of the concept of "blasphemy," which it once seemed the human race was in the process of outgrowing. (Then again, as George Orwell pointed out, by the mid-nineteenth century it appeared that we had outgrown the concept of slavery, only to find it revived on a massive scale by the Fascist and Communist regimes of the twentieth century.) The idea that a disrespectful or offensive statement about God ought to be a crime punishable by civil government is plainly based on a superstitious belief in the magical power of words or symbols to damage people's souls. Hearing charges of "blasphemy" seriously raised and used to defend violence and threats of violence in the year 2006 seems just plain weird. What's next, witchcraft trials?

On the other hand, I have no use for the likes of Charles Krauthammer, the right-wing pundit who is urging newspapers around the world to reprint the anti-Muslim cartoons as a gesture of solidarity with the beleaguered Danish publisher. (And there have been a few reprints supposedly driven by that motive.) I understand that most people choose which civil liberties causes to defend based on whose ox is gored, and I imagine Krauthammer gets a kick out of tweaking the "Islamofascists" he and his fellow neocons like to say they are at war with. (On his blog, Andrew Sullivan has been tooting the same horn.) But what's the point of deliberately repeating the provocation that caused the ugly overreaction in the first place? Would Krauthammer go out of his way to repeatedly insult a belligerent drunk in a bar just because he has "the right" to do it?

I don't remember any left-wing pundits demanding that newspapers print images of Serrano's Piss Christ as a gesture of solidarity against the overreactions of conservative Christians. Krauthammer's exhortation is just another bit of chest-thumping from a right-wing punditocracy that enjoys throwing its weight around and picking battles for other people to fight.

Like I said, the whole story is a bummer.

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