For Once the Right is Right

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.

14 thoughts on “For Once the Right is Right

  1. This one is a tough call. If a Toronto newspaper had, I don’t know…run a cartoon depicting Jesus having sex or sumthin, many Americans would want to invade. More likely, Americans would boycott Canadian products, because that is how a rich people strike back. People living in a different century, with no monetary clout, riot. Doesn’t make them any more right or wrong about the issue. Of course we find the idea of rioting over this offensive. Then again, we have other paths toward recourse. They do not. I could be way wrong here, it happened once.

  2. I see what you’re saying and I agree, but I don’t think that creates any obligation on the part of the Press here to not publish those cartoons.

  3. I think that we need to publish the cartoons widely, in response to the violence. We need to make sure that any modus vivendi that we reach with the Muslim (esp. Arab) world cannot be misconstrued as allowing intolerance to trump freedom.

    Another approach would be to convene a whole bunch of influential Islamist clerics and get them to watch Kevin Smith’s Dogma. They will find a little bit to be angry about (since it is targeted at Christianity, not Islam), but the important lesson is that no theaters were burned and there were no riots in the streets when this picture was released. Kevin Smith gets to have his say, Pat Robertson gets to bitch about it, and nobody has to die.

  4. ‘Tolerance is a great virtue.’

    No, it isn’t. Tolerance is merely what you need to get by in the world. Tolerance is not some great, magical end-all, be-all goal. I tolerate bad drivers. I tolerate children behaving badly. I tolerate the asshole who takes the last of the coffee without making more. It doesn’t mean I like them or have to.

    I think understanding and not setting shit on fire is a better value than tolerance.


  5. I have to come down on the side of the NY Times on this one, B. Those cartoons seem less analogous to “Piss Christ,” and more analogous to, say, racist cartoons published in the South around Reconstruction and even in the pre-Civil Rights era. Yes, it’s offensive to their religion, but it’s also horrifically stereotyping all Muslims as terrorists (if Mohammad himself is apparently one). This borders on a similarity to propaganda against the Jewish religion published in Nazi Germany. I’m all for free speech, as are newspapers like the NYTimes. But this means that we all agree that, say, the KKK can hold a demonstration or publish hate literature on a website, but not that major newspapers have to publish that propaganda. That’s how I read the situation anyway.

    Like mack, I think it’s hard for us to get this because our culture (both religious and political) is so different.

    Miss J

  6. SayUncle, a great virtue doesn’t have to be difficult to put into practice.

    And I think we’re in agreement. Tolerance means, at its core, not harming people we don’t like. It’s important not to confuse this with appeasment.

    Miss J., the people who are rioting are rioting because they consider the cartoons to be blasphemy, not because they consider them to be stereotypical and biased against Muslims. I think that our desire to understand them as being similar to racist charicatures comes from a desire to believe that the anger the rioters are showing makes sense.

    But after seeing these cartoons, it’s clear that the violence doesn’t make sense as a reaction against them. What then becomes clear is that the rioting and violence, though sparked by the republication of the cartoons, is really a reaction against the West.

    That’s the only way the depth of their anger makes sense. Our secular cultures are deeply threatening to conservative religious cultures. Look at our own crazy religious whack-jobs.

    And not publishing these cartoons and speaking out against the press publishing them seems to conceed that these religous whack-jobs have a valid point. But the point they’re making is that our secular culture is deeply offensive to them.

    Even if that’s a point they want to argue, what of it? There’s no way we can cease to be offensive to religious whack-jobs without ceasing to be. So, really, tough for them.

    Capitulating to them isn’t going to make us any safer, because this isn’t just about those cartoons.

  7. Picture the world as a bar. Picture radical Muslims as a gnarly ugly guy with a chip on his shoulder. Picture the cartoons as talking trash about his mom. If you want to end up out in the alley duking it out with whatever painful objects come to hand, fine.

    We’re not talking about reasonable people in reasoned discourse. We’re talking about people devoted to a rigorous and demanding belief system, who feel far more self righteous than any priggish liberal. Insulting their beliefs in the name of free speech does not further anyone’s aims for a better world. It just cranks up the angst.

    Terrorists and fundamentalist clerics don’t create a friendly image for their faith, but they have no interest in creating such an image. Nothing will ultimately please them except mass adherence to their authority as the expression of their God’s law. Why pur gasoline on a fire?

  8. To understand the problem with the cartoons, you have to remember the context of the controversy.

    The Danish paper printed those cartoons as a reaction against people being afraid to illustrate a child’s story book generally favorable to Islam.

    Why were people afraid? Because in nearby Holland, a documentary maker named Van Gogh (Vincent’s descendant) made a film concering Islam’s treatment of women. Van Gogh ended up with a knife in his chest, and stuck by the knife was a warning to all those who would insult Islam.

    The decision to not print is not about tolerance, nor understanding, but of cold fear. If conservative Christians started burning down embassies, and Kevin Smith was found stabbed with a threatening letter, I pray networks wouldn’t stop running ‘Dogma,’ or ‘South Park.’ I pary people wouldn’t cave in like they already have to Muslim extremists.

    People in Europe are currently afraid of dying if they, even accidently, say the wrong thing about Islam.

  9. I don’t know, guys. I’ve seen some non-“religious whack-job” Muslim commentators who said they, too, were offended by these cartoons. Granted, they’re probably not the ones rioting and burning shit. I’m just sensing a heavy-handed anti-Islam tone in a lot of the responses to this that makes me uncomfortable. If we’re so ready to make these kinds of judgments and so annoyed that papers won’t print this stuff, then maybe it does suggest a kind of anti-Islam trend in the West that perhaps deserves to be protested.

  10. J., I agree with you, but I don’t see how that makes any difference. Even if the protesting is justified, that doesn’t mean that it’s not justified for us to insist on having the right to see what the protesters are angry about.

    We, each of us, has a right not to look. We can decide that the moral thing to do is not to look. But I’m bothered that the media has decided this, for the most part, for me.

    And while it’s true that we might not understand the cultur and mindset of conservative Muslim fundimentalists, we certainly understand the mindset of our own brands of conservative religious fundimentalists.

    And I imagine they want pretty much the same things–for our secular cultures not to taint them.

    Even if that seems like a reasonable thing to ask–don’t impose your cultural values on me–how can we do that? Especially, how do we do that without curtailing our freedoms when the people who are asking this seemingly reasonable thing live among us, are us?

    Obviously, I don’t have any good answers to these questions, but I’m troubled by them.

    And I’m deeply troubled by the ways in which powerful people benefit from this unrest. Iran has moved the spotlight away from their nuclear program. Saudi Arabia has turned Muslim outrage from the Hajj disasters. Conservatives are using this to advance their Middle Eastern policy. And so on.

  11. “Iran has moved the spotlight….”

    Many think that this outrage was artificially whipped up exacty to take attention off the current problems area regimes are having.

    Arguably, the worst thing that could happen to these govenments would be the destruction of Israel. Not because of any repurcussions from the West, but because with the Jew gone, these corrupt and autocratic governments would have nobody to blame for their people’s problems except themselves.

  12. Corrupt and autocratic governments thrived there without Israel for many years. In any social model people find ways to get along. Depressingly often in corrupt systems the underdogs don’t want to make everything peaceful, cooperative and fair, they just want a chance to be the overdogs.

  13. If you’re going to make bar analogies, radical muslims are the drunk, obnoxious little napoleonic weasel beating his girlfriend at the end of the bar.

    Whatcha gonna do?

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