Laugh Riot
Defending the World from Parody
Allan Uthman

So it’s come to this: the two main stories of the week sound like satire: Dick Cheney shot a guy in the face, and there’s widespread international rioting over Danish editorial cartoons. If things keep going this way, pretty soon all the joke writers will have to find real jobs.

I was afraid this cartoon thing would be over by the time this issue came out, rendering our material stale. Luckily, riots in Pakistan yesterday killed three, including an eight-year-old boy, shot in the face by a protester. Way to go, holy man.

In addition to killing people, the demonstrators also expressed their reverence for Allah by burning down a KFC, a couple of movie theatres, and a bus station run by a South Korean company, and trashing a couple of cell phone companies’ offices. An excellent rebuttal to the message implied by the now-famous but largely unseen Mohammed-bomb drawing, that Muslims are violent.

Of course, the common perception that these raging throngs and their poorly translated banners represent most Muslims is false. It looks like a lot of people on TV, but 99 times as many Muslims are at home scratching their heads. Despite the drumbeat rhetoric of nearly every conservative this week, the large majority of Muslims are just trying to get along like anyone else. They observe their religion, like a lot of Christians, in a somewhat half-assed manner. They don’t want to kill anyone, and think, like the rest of us, that these guys running around burning effigies of Danish politicians are just nuts.

But some conservatives are now questioning what they call the "myth" of the moderate Muslim. If there are so many, they ask, why don’t they speak out? The answer is simple: they’re scared. After all, if the editors of American newspapers are too scared to print the damn cartoons, imagine what it’s like to actually live among people who will kill you for disagreeing with them. Talk about a chilling effect.

What’s remarkable to me is not that cooler Islamic heads might be hesitant to open their mouths, but the near total capitulation of the "free" press here in the West to the intimidation of fringe lunatics. The disingenuous excuse offered by both print and TV outlets is that they’re refraining from displaying the cartoons out of "respect for the religion."

I’ll admit it: I have no respect for religion. I think they’re all fundamentally insane. I respect any person’s right to think insane thoughts, but not to commit insane acts. Fantasize about shooting up your workplace all you want, but if you bring a Glock to work, here’s hoping the security guard takes you down first. The people burning embassies, and those offering money for the murder of cartoonists, deserve no respect at all.

Neither does the editorial reaction to all of this in the American press. Conservatives are taking a break from vilifying anybody to the left of Joe Lieberman as Maoist traitors, and are suddenly free speech advocates, railing against religious intolerance (on the other hand, I haven’t seen any turban-bombs lately in the Wall Street Journal or the Weekly Standard). But that’s to be expected. Serve Ann Coulter an excuse to stir up hatred for foreigners, and she’ll ace it every time.

Particularly disappointing, however, is the stereotypically weak reaction of the left. Many of the same people who condemn domestic Christian intolerance in no uncertain terms are having trouble recognizing it abroad. On February 8th, righteous lefty crusader Amy Goodman did a segment on "Hardball with Chris Matthews," and she even managed to make Tony Blankley seem reasonable:

"Well first of all, I don‘t think that this has to do with west versus east.  The question is, does a paper have a right?  Yes.  Is it right?  No.

"…This is about people who are feeling maligned, people who are feeling marginalized, and this has very much to do with the global situation, specifically the war in Iraq.

"This has to do with the occupation. This has to do with hundreds of Muslims who are held at Guantanamo without charge, with the Koran being desecrated. This is just one more issue. The cartoon cannot be seen in isolation."

Now imagine this situation: Southern evangelicals are outraged by the unabated teaching of Darwinism in public schools. A few radical preachers whip them into a frenzy, and turn them loose upon various universities, which they burn down, killing a few people in the process. Jerry Falwell offers 20 grand to the first guy who can kill Stephen Jay Gould. What would Amy say that night on "Hardball?"

"Well, the thing is, this isn’t really about just faith vs. reason. These people are poor, they’re undereducated, and they’re feeling maligned and marginalized by the press.

"This has to do with millions of Christians who feel that their values have been disrespected, and who are forced to tolerate homosexuals and rap music by a society that they feel doesn’t appreciate them. The university burnings cannot be seen in isolation."

Yeah, that sounds about right, huh?

The true answer to the rhetorical question Goodman poses, whether it was or is "right" to publish these cartoons, is not "no;" it is "who cares?" A free press isn’t free only to be right. Killing people for drawing cartoons is not only categorically wrong, it is downright silly. Offering any kind of apology for the monstrous idiots who encourage or even approve of such acts puts Goodman in the moral neighborhood of someone who excuses a rape-homicide by saying "she was bitch." The war is wrong, Abu Ghraib was wrong, Gitmo’s wrong, and killing cartoonists is wrong. None of these things are excusable in the slightest.

But Goodman’s not alone. Lots of progressives, or liberals, or whatever we’re called these days, are struggling with the cartoon issue, their ideals about freedom from religious oppression banging up against their desire to disagree with the Right. Take the Nation’s editorial response to the debacle, titled "the Cartoon Bomb," as if these doodling Danes had lobbed them into Iran, killing hundreds:

"The cartoon scandal is about much more than freedom of speech. At its heart the controversy is about power--the power of images; the power that divides Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans, the West and the Middle East; the power of radical Islamists to silence more moderate voices--and the responsibility that comes with power. In today's volatile political climate--charged by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, by Israel's construction of the 'separation wall' in Palestine, by the controversy over the hijab and the revolt in the French banlieues, by the growth of anti-immigration politics and radical Islam in 'liberal' Europe and by the velocity with which news and rumor travel on the Internet--the point is not Jyllands-Posten's right to publish but its editorial wisdom, its sense of civic responsibility."

What bullshit. This is not about civic responsibility, or Israel, or the war, or the moral lessons of Spiderman. This is about the most fundamental principles of our society: say what you think, don’t kill anybody, and don’t burn down my shit. I don’t care if the staff at the Jyllands-Posten are goose-stepping Nazis. The cartoon "scandal" is not about "much more than freedom of speech"—in fact it is about nothing but freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech is not a guideline or a suggestion. It is not the freedom to say things that don’t upset people—there’s no need for a constitutional amendment ensuring that. It is nothing less than the freedom to be arrogant, disrespectful assholes, or it isn’t anything at all. Suggesting that the press shares blame in this is self-castrating cowardice, or at best a reflexive reaction to the Right’s sudden embrace of the first amendment. To make the obvious comparison yet again, if Pat Robertson’s followers were destroying property and advocating the assassination of cartoonists over some similar disparagement of Jesus, I doubt that the Nation’s editors would be so understanding.

We don’t need to be more sensitive to their culture, not this time. Freedom of expression is so clearly a better value than faith-based murder that there’s no debate to be had about it. There are legitimate responses to the offense—peaceful demonstrations, for instance, or boycotts. When Tom Toles ran a great cartoon a couple of weeks ago involving a limbless vet in a hospital being attended by "Dr. Rumsfeld," he offended the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They wrote a letter. And yes, even the holocaust cartoon contest the Iranian paper Hamshahri is running is an acceptable form of protest. But for crying out loud, you can’t excuse encouraging murder. Asinine religious crap is asinine religious crap, no matter which culture excretes it. Murderous fanatics are to be ridiculed, shamed and subdued—not consoled.

Speaking one’s opinion, no matter how annoying, is a right, not a privilege. Fuck these maniacs, who have intimidated their own neighbors into silence and the American press into a transparent pretense of respect. Admit it, people—you’re not offended; you’re terrified. Anybody would be. But, unlike with the spurious Iraq war justifications, which were presented as a choice of bravery vs. cowardice, there really are just two choices when someone threatens to kill you for printing a line drawing. The brave thing would have been for every major daily in the free world to have printed the cartoons simultaneously. The cowardly thing to do would have been… nothing, which is exactly what happened.

Illustrations by Matt Bors

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