By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Two on the cartoon controversy

I’m slightly embarrassed at not having weighed in on the Muslim cartoon controversy in any significant way. The Boston Globe and the MetroWest Daily News spoke with me, but if you read my comments, you will see that I — like a lot of people — am having a hard time figuring out just what to think.

So let me recommend two op-ed pieces from yesterday’s New York Times that are brilliant, nuanced and — best of all — freely available, and not hidden behind the TimesSelect wall.

The first, by Emran Qureshi, a fellow at Harvard Law School, takes his fellow Muslims to task for the violent protests that have broken out over the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. And he sees a motive, writing:

Within the Muslim world, the cartoon imbroglio has given ammunition to the two entrenched forces for censorship — namely, authoritarian regimes and their Islamic fundamentalist opposition. Both would prefer to silence their critics. By evincing outrage over the Danish cartoons, authoritarian regimes seek to divert attention from their own manifold failures and to bolster their religious credentials against the Islamists who seek to unseat them.

But Qureshi adds:

[T]he answer is not more censorship. But it would be nice if Western champions of freedom of speech didn’t trivialize it by deriving pleasure from their ability to gratuitously offend Muslims. They view freedom of speech much as Islamic fundamentalists do — simply as the ability to offend — rather than as the cornerstone of a liberal democratic polity that uses such freedoms wisely and responsibly. Worse, these advocates insist on handing Muslim radicals a platform from which to pose as defenders of the faith against an alleged Western assault on Islam.

The second, by law professor Stanley Fish, portrays the controversy as a clash between religions — with the West, and particularly Europeans, finding comfort and solace in the religion of liberalism. Fish writes:

Strongly held faiths are exhibits in liberalism’s museum; we appreciate them, and we congratulate ourselves for affording them a space, but should one of them ask of us more than we are prepared to give — ask for deference rather than mere respect — it will be met with the barrage of platitudinous arguments that for the last week have filled the pages of every newspaper in the country.

As a nominal member of the religion of liberalism, I found Fish’s analysis both counterintuitive and bracing.


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5 Comments

  1. Neil

    The religion of “letting it all hang out” has its limits too. Robert Wright noted that media in the secular west indeed do have taboos, and self-censor. No western paper would have published a collection of racist cartoons for example, just to get us all talking about self censorship. I think these points stand:–Publishing the cartoons served only the feeblest of justifications, as Fish rightly points out: as a catalyst for discussing self censorship.–The already-pissed off excitable faithful are eager for pretext to kindle their next violent episode.–Religious leaders are only too happy to provide this pretext for political gain, even to the extent of adding to it by including more cartoons than were originally published.Unlike Qureshi who explores the motivations behind the reaction, Fish too easily takes the “offendees” at their word. Is he not curious at the ease with which the faithful are manipulated by their leaders? Did the leaders not go “shopping for outrage”? He doesn’t mention any cynicism on their part. Does he really think the outrage is so pure? The theatrical act of offense-taking is fundamentally political. I think of the current custom of saying “I’m allergic to smoke”, when what you mean is that it bothers you. Thirty years ago people just put up with smoke because merely being bothered by it gained nothing. Then people discovered they could up the ante–now they are “allergic”, because asserting a medical condition confers political advantage.Likewise with being offended. It isn’t enough that Muslims are bothered by these images. Oh no! As John Carroll said in the Globe today, doing his part to inject the requisite melodrama, “the insult Muslims feel is nothing less than insult to God.” But of course! Because interpreting the insult in that manner confers righteousness upon themselves and gains them the most political advantage–a high ground that simply being bothered does not. What better platform from which to denounce others than that of being the defender of God against insults! And isn’t it convenient that you get to be the judge of that which offends God?Like everything else, offense suffers from inflation. Everything vying for attention must become more grand. The garbage collector is a sanitation engineer. Clerks are sales associates. I don’t like, er, no, I have an allergy to smoke/cats/perfume. And a cartoon that offends me is an insult to God himself! It’s this “because I sez so” aspect that Fish should challenge but does not.So Fish has a point that liberalism is impertinent, and forces you to wear your religion lightly, and that this can conflict with the expectations of those with “strongly held beliefs”. On the other hand, he shouldn’t in his accommodation to these religious beliefs overlook the expedient aspect of the taking of offense, either.Also the rationalization he makes for the publishing of anti-Semitic cartoons by the Arab press–that the content is “believed” so it’s okay, is pandering. Unlike the standards he expects of western media, he absolves the media of Arab countries of the obligation to defend historical truth, when it conflicts with their prejudices. And he refrains from criticizing those prejudices because they are conveniently wrapped in the inviolable mantle of supposed “belief”.This too is a kind of condescension. If a simple claim of belief exempts you from the obligation to behave rationally, it’s no wonder religion is so popular. Maybe the “religion of liberalism” hopes for something better.

  2. Neil

    While I’m in here palavering, has anyone else noticed a similarity. That is, that this act was not perpetrated by a state, but only by a small number of idiots. Yet the “victims” of the act lashed out at the nearest convenient institutions of a state–burning Danish flags and haranguing Danish embassies, even though “Denmark” had nothing to do with the act.Al-Qaeda is likewise stateless, and its victims lashed out at the nearest convenient state–Iraq, even though it had nothing to do with the act.The blaming of the offending act on a state, or on “western values”, or as Fish does on the “religion of liberalism”, misses the point that the act was not done as the result of the policy of any institution of the west, but only by a handful of knuckleheads.The internet propagated and prolongs the offense. The cartoons are easily available to anyone who wishes to be offended, and will be available at our fingertips forever. I guess then the internet is a more accurate entity to blame than liberalism. Yet the internet cannot be effectively attacked because it is nowhere yet everywhere. Similar to the problem with fighting terrorism. As such it may represent the equivalent to those quick to take offense, of the terrorist threat to the west–something to rail against, that is impossible to exterminate, because it exists in a different dimension, beyond the control of any particular ideology or world view.Of course, I can think of one difference. Unlike terrorist acts, those who think the internet is a conduit of all that is blasphemous can retain their innocence by choosing to ignore it. What a concept.Okay, insert the usual jokes about getting back onto my medication, and we’re done! For now. 🙂

  3. mike_b1

    Dan, was that your letter that Richard Chacon published in his blog?

  4. Dan Kennedy

    To Mike_b1: No, that wasn’t me. Amazing, though. Same name, from a couple of towns over, expressing a view that I largely share. Here’s the link to the other Dan Kennedy’s comments. (Or maybe I’m the other Dan Kennedy.)

  5. Anonymous

    This is another post showing how intent the press and its members are to chase their tails.Today, Dan is giddy that a “Harvard Scholar” wrote this ‘fantastic ground-breaking’ column, AND it is in the paragon of liberal rubberstamping the NYT AND is from his hometown university.I understand Dan and others need validation from the NYT and Camrbidge’s own Harvard. Suffice to note that the points raised by the Queresh column are already laid out by participants between Dan’s and Mark’s blogs.This cartoon talk is getting really tiring.The keys to decode and read the situation, even remedy it, are right smack in front of our eyes and are often touched on many media pieces. But many choose to ignore them or discredit them or doubt them and look for some more somewhere else.This is self-defeating and for media members and the public at large, it shows how clueless they are to decode things like this scandal.Chasing our tails is what we love to do. That is lucrative to many commercial media outlets as well as political corners and advocacy groups with different goals.It would be too easy to acknowledge the obvious and act to solve the solution.We have to instead debate incessantly, pontificate to no end, affirm or admonish differing views and use it to beat opponents over the head.Enough already!Obviously media persons don’t have the brains, historical perspective and training, critical thinking nor the HONESTY to deal with this correctly, so let’s just stop talking about this, ok?I don’t need to hear from a clueless and misguided Cathy Young or Brooks or any other jerk-off about it anymore. It ain’t helping anymore. It is turning into a big counfused soup with a lingering horrible stench.Can’t handle it, then let it go!N.

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