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Tuesday, April 27, 2010  

Crossing Lines

Ross Douthat returns to the Greater Danish Cartoon Controversy in his most recent column, this time with respect to South Park:

In a way, the muzzling of “South Park” is no more disquieting than any other example of Western institutions’ cowering before the threat of Islamist violence. It’s no worse than the German opera house that temporarily suspended performances of Mozart’s opera “Idomeneo” because it included a scene featuring Muhammad’s severed head. Or Random House’s decision to cancel the publication of a novel about the prophet’s third wife.... But there’s still a sense in which the “South Park” case is particularly illuminating. Not because it tells us anything new about the lines that writers and entertainers suddenly aren’t allowed to cross. But because it’s a reminder that Islam is just about the only place where we draw any lines at all.... This is what decadence looks like: a frantic coarseness that “bravely” trashes its own values and traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force...

For what it's worth, I think Ross is right on the relatively narrow point about decadence here. There's nothing transgressive about only ridiculing people who, you assume, won't hit back. Refusing to do it when that assumption fails gives the lie to the whole enterprise. Moreover, it goes without saying that as a partisan of liberal societies, I am a strong believer in the value of seeing your own most cherished values trashed in front of your face without being tempted to coercive responses of any kind. Such forbearance is not traditionally a hallmark of deeply Christian societies--who achieved it only after centuries of bloodletting, lest we forget--and is rather a late feature of any society at all, as far as I can tell. The kinds of writers who spend the most time thinking about the Greater Cartoon Controversy often have trouble being clear about whether they are addressing the issue as liberals aggrieved by the suppression of speech mocking Mohammad or as Christians aggrieved by the excess of speech mocking their own sacred images--a question Ross doesn't manage to clear up, either (I'm surprised he didn't bring up Andres Serrano, frankly, an artist of slight inspiration whose "White Christ" I've seen in person and is actually quite lovely, and who is normally exhibits A-Z in the record of Christian cultural grievance). But these are all criticisms that are internal to the assumptions of our society, in which it is a sacred custom to respond to speech with speech, not violence. People who do otherwise need to be incapacitated and their influence contested wherever and whenever possible.

At the same time, try reading Douthat's column against the broader discussion of Islam, Islamic societies, and Muslims in our political culture and I think you'll see that the lines people are afraid to cross are few and quite specific. We may be cowardly about depicting Islam's sacred things in a bad light, but we have little difficulty maligning the whole of the religion and demeaning its practitioners to a sub-human condition. That Islamic societies are, knowingly or not, begging for our intervention and that Muslim lives are cheap in pursuit of our policies is a deeply embedded ideology. It is as necessary for Tom "Suck. On. This" Friedman on the center-left as of Ralph "Alien Life Form" Peters on the no-longer-far-right. It shapes our debates over whether to take a more-discriminate-killing or a less-discriminate-killing strategy in Afghanistan, leaving a not-killing-Afghans policy off the table altogether, and it is witnessed by the indifference with which we greet the news (from our own military) that our more-discriminate-killing policy has resulted in a whole lot of not especially discriminate killing. It is lurking behind David Brook's benignant desire to remake Afghanistan and Iraq by persistent application of force, just as it is more open in the more vitriolic exhalations of Daniel Pipes. It is the (usually) unspoken premise in every argument for racial and religious profiling, extrajudicial detention, torture, and aggressive war, and it is spoken quite freely and explicitly just off the main stage of our mainstream conversation, because these are policies that one only applies to people one considers less than human. No one seems to object to the brazen offhandedness of a New York Times columnist or a defender of Catholic social ethics in essentially arguing for war crimes.

These are all taboos that most of us would fear to violate with other groups. Indeed, we look back with shame on periods in our history when ordinary people really did believe that Catholic immigrants were going to destroy democracy, that black Americans as a group were dangerous and impulsive, that Chinese workers were servile and untrustworthy. We've been here before, over and over again, each time adding a new and hard-won taboo against defining our fellow humans as inhuman, and yet we never recognize the landscape. Almost nothing you can say about Muslims, their religion, or their societies, can keep you out of the good graces of American political culture, at least so long as you say it in reference to our immense and bloody footprint in the Muslim world and the policies of internal control it necessitates.

You can discern this ideology of holding Muslim lives cheap, their religion wicked, and their societies worthless without necessarily prejudicing your view of our policies, but the casualness of it all is in itself objectionable. Some of these voices claim to believe in a just God, in which case I hope they tremble to think of their moral violence and the repellent position of privilege and entitlement from which they speak. Others, in the parlance of our times, understand only the language of force, in which case one hopes they'd understand the impulse to meet a perceived danger with the threat of overwhelming violence. In any case, it is incumbent on a pundit like Douthat, who claims to speak for higher values, to see these things and point them out. Maybe we can't have modern warfare and global hegemony without dehumanizing this or that group, and maybe Ross thinks that's a price we need to pay. If so, I'd like to see him (or anyone) point that price out once in a while--especially in connection with yet another lament about the lily-livered television producers who have stumbled on the one line we're afraid to cross, the one little passel of insults we're afraid to hurl.

It's not defeatism or self-hatred to suggest that maybe these two stories--the Greater Danish Cartoon Controversy and the "Suck. On. This" era of American politics--have something to do with each other, and that unless we work a little harder to understand the latter we will not be able to understand the former. People can still be censored or killed for printing the wrong things about Mohammad. This is an outrage. In some parts of the world, you can get killed by a drone for salvaging scrap metal. Is that an outrage? If not, why not?

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 4:42 AM
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