Saturday, February 04, 2006

 

Cartoon Controversy Hall Of Shame

One of the more obvious aspects of this stupid controversy has been that some people who should know better have been having saying the wrong things. I've been particularly bothered by two people;

1) Stewart Lee, creator of 'Jerry Springer: The Opera.'

In this opinion on the cartoons row, Lee displays a baffling attitude. He states:
'I don't think they really appreciated the massive taboo you cross by portraying the image of Muhammad.'

True. However, just because you 'appreciate' the taboo, that people doesn't mean will be understanding when you break it, as he should know only too well. I have said before that JS:TO was perfectly acceptable for broadcast, and I regularly link to sites that supported it - indeed, MWW was set up specifically for that purpose. However, supporter of his right to freedom of expression though I am, I'm left puzzled by his last-one-over-the-drawbridge attitude displayed - his show crossed loads of 'massive taboos', so why is he in any way superior? He does give an explanation:

'In Jerry Springer - The Opera, we were looking for a story that could be commonly understood in a Christian context. In the West, Christianity relinquished the right to be protective of its icons the day Virgin Mary snow globes were put up for sale at the Vatican.'

'But in the Islamic culture it is very different. To use a corporate image, Islam has always been a lot more conscientious about protecting its brand and as a satirist you need to engage with it on its own terms. That's what we did with Jerry Springer with the Christian religion.'


So, if I read this correctly, he is actually claiming that Christianity was 'asking for it' because Christians don't respect Jesus the way Muslims respect Mohammad. This totally misses the point of satire - isn't the very point of satire to prick egos? Why should I acknowledge him as the bigger man for picking on the smaller target? Whatever you think of the cartoons, they do engage with Islam 'on its own terms' - those terms being that Mohammad should not ever be displayed. They engaged with that, and challenged it. I can understand, I suppose, Lee trying to distance himself from the controversy, but his statement contrasts very poorly when compared, for instance, to the artistic solidarity expressed by, amongst others, Stephen Fry.

2) The staff of The Guardian (surprise, surprise)

Specifically, Sarah Joseph, writing this column. In it, she breaks Godwin's Law, comparing the twelve cartoonists to Julius Streicher and Der Sturmer. She writes:

'The Holocaust did not occur overnight. It took time to establish a people as subhuman, and cartoons played their part. Does Europe not remember its past and the Nazi propaganda of Der Stürmer?'

'Now the great shape-shifter of fascism seems to have taken on the clothes of "freedom of speech". If these cartoons were designed to provoke Muslim fundamentalists, maybe they have done more to reveal the prejudices of Europe. Europe has a history of turning on its minorities. Will that be its future too?'


This is disgraceful. Firstly, to be fair to Ms Joseph, she herself is a Muslim, and so the cartoons have clearly insulted her personally, but even so, this is a horrific exaggeration. Paul has written a fine post demolishing this already, but I wish to join in.

For a writer in a national newspaper to have such a poor grasp of the meaning of such a common word as 'fascism' is pretty shoddy. In that sentence, what she actually means is 'racism', or, because Islam isn't a race, 'religionism.' This controversy emerged from the tradition of free speech, out of which arose free expression, out of which arose the freedom of the press. These are not freedoms associated with a fascist approach to government - indeed, they are most often antithetical to the totalitarian approach, which often distinguishes itself, amongst other things, by state ownership and control of the media. I shouldn't need to explain that.

Secondly, this is a taking things grossly out of context. It isn't possible to compare twelve cartoons, published in a small newspaper, with a small readership, almost none of it Muslim, which have nonetheless caused widespread offence, with systematic abuse of propaganda to de-humanise an entire ethnic group, an action which had a direct causal link to the genocide of millions of people. Again, this shouldn't need explaining.

Joseph does put her statement in the context of an 'atmosphere of fear', saying:

'These are the stereotypes that, as Muslims, we face daily. The looks on the tube, the suspicion, the eyes on the bags we carry. There is no denying the feeling of being pushed against a wall, of drowning in the stereotypes that abound. This is no way to live, and it is certainly no springboard for making a major contribution to the society you live in.'

This is all fair and reasonable. No-one should have to live in fear, and I sympathise with her points here. However, the fear argument cuts both ways. Intimidation is not limited to one side in this argument - embassies have been set ablaze, and assassinations have been called for. Rightly, moderate Islamic voices have been decrying this, but Joseph doesn't - why not? To be fair, her article may have been written before those two developments, but violent protests had certainly already started.

Also to be fair, she is only following the line of her paper's editorial. One of the features of the crisis has been that no British newspaper has printed the cartoons, and they all published an editorial explaining why. Here is the Guardian's. Let's take a look:

'It is one thing to assert the right to publish an image of the prophet. As long as that is not illegal - and not even the government's amended religious hatred bill makes it so - then that right undoubtedly exists. But it is another thing to put that right to the test, especially when to do so inevitably causes offence to many Muslims and, even more so, when there is currently such a powerful need to craft a more inclusive public culture which can embrace them and their faith. That is why the defiant republication of the cartoons in some parts of Europe (some of them with far less good histories of intercommunal relations than this country) is more questionable than it may appear at first sight. That is also why the restraint of most of the British press may be the wiser course - at least for now. There has to be a very good reason for giving gratuitous offence of this kind. Yesterday's acquittal of two British National party officials on race hatred charges for attacking Islam - and the triumphalist scenes as the two freed men emerged from court - are part of the context that must be weighed in asserting any right to publish cartoons that offend Muslims.'

From the top:

1) What are the point of rights if you can't exercise them?

2) I hate this line, that Joseph parroted as well, about 'far less good histories of intercommunal relations than this country,' a snide and unfortunate poke at our European neighbours which reveals a deep distrust that, in fact, they may be unreformed fascists who'll start throwing people in cages if you give them half a chance, a view that conveniently overlooks changes in class structures, societal discourse, personal opinions and material wealth from seventy years ago as if they were irrelevant.

3) This argument about the BNP is a straw man. The far right have, throughout their history, been able to get loud and prominent support outside courthouses and in protests, a support which, ironically, shows how weak they really are - if so many people agreed with them, it wouldn't be necessary for those few to shout so loudly, would it?

4) Other straw men have been set up previously. We are told:

'But newspapers are not obliged to republish offensive material merely because it is controversial. It would not be appropriate, for instance, to publish an anti-semitic cartoon of the sort that was commonplace in Nazi Germany. Nor would we publish one which depicted black people in the way a Victorian caricature might have done. Every newspaper in the country regularly carries stories about child pornography, yet none has yet reproduced examples of such pornography as part of their coverage. Few people would argue that it is essential to an understanding of the issues that they should do so.'

Even if you accept these 'examples by association', the comparison is pointlessly flawed since all of those examples would be illegal anyway - the first two under the Incitement To Racial Hatred law, and the third under the Obscene Publications Act, plus many others, I should think.

The Guardian's general argument is dangerous. Paul characterises those most vocal in opposition to the cartoons as follows:

'Rather than recognise freedom of speech as an absolute and fundamental right, they start dissembling by pretending that the cartoons are something that they’re not and implying that Jyllands-Posten somehow deserved to be on the receiving end of death threats and bomb scares. They suggest that the Danish government perhaps should have “done something”, conveniently ignoring both the reality of the Danish constitution and the howls of protest that the same papers would raise if the British govenment “did something” about anything they published.'

This approach is an intellectual approach that, at its logical conclusion, leads to state control of the press - the leader even mentions 'responsibilities' being a first consideration, instead of 'rights', an admission that sounds less like the lion's roar of a free press, and more like a press release from the Department of Culture.

To be fair, which I am trying to be in this, they were joined in their actions by every other paper. I single them out for blame particulaly because a centre-left publication with a long tradition of defending freedom of speech should be the one place that doesn't come up with these arguments.

Comments:
Why leave this battle up to the papers in the first place?

Get involved.. and spread the word: www.DrawMohammad.com
 
I'm more tolerant than most. I'm gnostic, for the most part, and figure Muslims have as good a path as any as long as they don't try to impose themselves on others.
But this is frickin' stupid. I have NO sympathy for people who can't take a joke.
If there is any thought crime its the "sacred cow" mentality. Fuck Mofammed. If I had some artistic ability I'd draw him fucking Jesus in the ass while Buddha watches, dick in hand, masturbating into the mouth of Vishnu.
 
To be honest I really haven't paid... well any attention to this news story, apart from hearing a few rants about it from my mother! But apparently the picture features a bomb on Mohammed’s head or something? Well surely ranting while dressed as a suicide bomber, setting fire to embassies and shouting "JIHAD!" really isn't going to do anything to change the bad publicity and negative stereotype Muslims have received. Surely this will stir up more tension and disrespect for their faith. There is already a misunderstanding in the mind of the average person: an inability to distinguish between a Muslim and an Islamic fundamentalist. You can blame the press for that if you want but, but we live in an increasingly secularised western society, with ever increasing disrespect for religious ideas in a modern world where scientific discoveries have disproved any of it possible. I find it difficult to believe how passionately these people believe and follow their faith full stop and with regard to the cartoon, I’m sure I’m not the only one who fails to find sympathy over such a trivial matter. Christians gave up a long time ago- Jesus Says on South Park for Christ’s sake! Religion is a dead (divisive, evil, bigoted) duck- I think its time the rest of the world realised that too. (Guess what… I’m an atheist!). There are far more important things we can all argue about like… nuclear weapons and oil… oh hang on…
 
I think you've touched on the most important part of the issue with that comment - the average person in the street, and I don't flatter myself as being above average, is sometimes confused by the reaction of the moderate and the militant.

For instance, upon learning of the embassy arson in Beirut, I assumed that the entire mob wished to do damage, when in fact it has now emerged that it was just a fringe element.

There has been an encouraging step towards condemnation for violent sentiments and actions amongst Muslim community leaders, but it needs to be louder still. The idiots calling for people to beheaded yesterday will be seen by many as speaking for moderate Islam.
 
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