Broadly speaking, liberals hold two beliefs that, on the surface seem reasonable, but when looked at closely, annoy me. One is that, if only people knew better, they would stop being such dumb fuckers to each other. The other is that a good way to show tolerance for others is to work hard to understand them–their gender, religion, ethnicity, culture, etc.–so that we avoid offending them.
I’m not going to get too much into the first one, because I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, except for to say that it’s one of the reasons we constantly come across as such smug sanctimonious jackasses.
But I think we need to dwell for a while on the second. Right now, over at Pandagon, there’s a debate raging on what the “proper” way to deal with the Danish cartoons is.
Marcotte, is, as usual, trying to make a nuanced argument about how publishing the cartoons and inciting more violence helps further the Republicans’ agenda of demonizing Islam so that Westerners will get get behind our crappy foreign policy in the Middle East.
Then she passes along this suggestion for how newspapers might “properly” contextualize the situation.
The best suggestion I’ve heard so far is to run the cartoons in one article and right next to it have a “blasphemy controversies in America” article for historical context, with lots and lots of pictures of art that conservative Christians have tried to censor in the past, like “Piss Christ”. That would help deflate the self-righteous windbags on the right–what to do? Claim victory for “freedom of speech” or start a letter-writing campaign demanding an apology from the paper for insulting Jesus?
I respect the hell out of Marcotte, but this is apples and oranges. This isn’t about a blasphemy controversy just in the U.S. This isn’t about what kind of art taxpayer funds should go towards–which was, as you recall, one of the central issues behind the “Piss Christ” controversy. This isn’t even about making sure everyone knows that we on the Left have the proper moral high-ground above those on the Right.
This is fundamental cornerstone of our country–we have freedom of the Press. If a newspaper wants to run the cartoons without any commentary, it ought to. If a newspaper wants to run the cartoons with the kind of commentary Marcotte suggests, it ought to. If a newspaper wants to run the cartoons with anti-Islam commentary, it ought to.
No one in our country has the right to go through life without ever being offended. They don’t have the right to go through life never realizing that other people hate them. Tolerance for others is not pretending we think they’re just like we are and sheltering them from any unpleasantness. Tolerance about putting up with people vastly different than us as long as they don’t pose an immediate physical threat to us.
Tolerance is a great virtue.
But as I was reading the Wayward Boy Scout last night, I realized that he’s right*. What do we hope to gain by not running those cartoons?
One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers writes:
I have no way to know for sure but I have to believe that the New York Times’ decision to refrain from publishing the cartoons in some way reflects the heroic way the city has put forward its tolerance as the best answer to the mass murder in our midst. You may see it as a sellout, a craven surrender to the intimidation of the extremists, but I prefer to see it as a concession (and a small one at that), one that will empower moderate Muslims, especially in the West, to grasp that we do respect their religion and its teachings of peace and love, even as we confront a dangerous minority’s attempts to use it to civilization war.
A concession? Not practicing one’s fundamental rights because it might offend folks is a concession? No, it’s more like what the Wayward Boy Scout says it is–“We’re sorry we offended your religion. We deserve it. We won’t do it again. Just please don’t be mad at us anymore.”–appeasement disguised as tolerance.
A secular culture cannot be in the religion appeasement business. Period. We can’t go around appeasing the Muslims by making sure our culture doesn’t offend the sensibilities of the most conservative of them. And we can’t go around appeasing the Christians by making sure our culture doesn’t offend the sensibilities of the most conservative of them.
Here’s the deal. You cannot interact with America and not be tainted by us. It’s just how it is. When your religion comes into contact with a large, rowdy, fun-loving secular democracy, unless you destroy us, your religion is going to lose.
Look at Christianity. The U.S. has been predominately Christian for the length of its history; many of our colonies were founded as little Christian refuges. And we’re greedy and slothful and fuck around with each other on each other like there’s no tomorrow. Christianity has been our major cultural religious influence for all our roughly 230 years and it’s not managed to keep us on the straight and narrow.
No, we taint religion. Look at the Catholic sexual abuse scandal. Catholic priests all over the world molest kids (not all, obviously, but it’s a wide-spread problem). Why is it a big deal here? Because we believe the people who have power over us are accountable to us, that they have to answer to us. That’s an idea U.S. Catholics have that Catholics in a lot of other places don’t.
We believe, even if we don’t always practice it, that the powerful have to answer to the powerless.
I believe in tolerance. I believe that, if a country is not a direct threat to us, we ought not to invade it. Live and let live, I say. I don’t force you to change your ways; you don’t force me to change mine. But once you start threatening to hurt me if I don’t change my culture to never offend you, we’re going to have problems.
Marcotte seems bothered that it’s folks on the Right who are championing this as a free speech issue, since they are rarely that excited about it and she’s rightfully suspicious of their motivations.
But I keep thinking that part of being in a democracy means that a lot of people with a lot of different motivations can come together on issues they agree about. No one thinks that the vegan anti-war protesters and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Iraq have much common ground other than being against the war.
And even if the Right is right for the wrong reasons, they’re still right about this.
[Edited to add that, after Miss J.’s comment, I went in search of the cartoons to see if I agreed with her characterization of them, since I hadn’t seen them.
Honestly, I was expecting to see something, not along the lines of what you might see in Klan propaganda, but at least something clearly derogatory. For example, here’s a really interesting site on racist cartoons in the US from Ferris State University’s Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Some of these I hadn’t seen before, but I sure had seen a bunch of the other ones. Especially the maid from Tom & Jerry.
By comparison, here are the cartoons people are rioting over right now. Maybe I’m dense, but I can’t see how those are comparable. And I also don’t see how refusing to publish them is any great moral stand, precisely because seeing them makes the controversy so absurd.
When you see them, you can see that maybe they aren’t the greatest political cartoons of all time, but they’re clearly the kinds of political cartoons that run in papers all the time. And if newspapers and stations are going to run stories about the rioting, I’m more convinced that they have an obligation to inform people what the rioting is about–not by telling them about the cartoons, but showing them.
I mean, to take it back to “Piss Christ,” if that were showing someplace and people were protesting, I’d think the media would have an obligation to show it so that people could be fully informed. Because, with “Piss Christ,” the description of it does make it sound gross and offensive. But when you see it, you really understand why it’s great art and, I think, an incredibly loving statement about the transformative power of religion.
I think this is a similar situation. When you hear that one of the cartoons depicts Mohammed as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban, that sounds offensive. But when you see the cartoon, I think it makes a much more sophisticated point–that these actions, like the bombings, that are supposed to be in defense of Islam end up harming it.
And I’ve got to tell you, seeing the cartoon and seeing that it’s clearly open to that interpretation, makes me a lot more suspicious of the motivations of those who want to keep Muslims from seeing it.]
*About this one thing. In general, no. Don’t even get me started on his take on the King funeral. He appears to be outraged that people would take their one chance to speak about the state of the country with Bush as a captive audience, as if the Civil Rights Movement was well-known for refraining from making the people in power uncomfortable. Anyway, he’s wrong about that, but right about this.