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Prepare to Be Offended

The good old days: when M*A*S*H's Last Supper was the jewel in the crown of blasphemy

Cartoon scandals have become the refrain of that mostly imaginary clash of civilizations both sides’ fanatics like to promote as make-work for their ideologues, their under-employed suicide-murderers and oversexed neocons. It wouldn’t be so bad if cartoon wars were just that—wars over words and drawings, using words and, if you like, boycotts in return. But governments are meddling, people are getting jailed, or killed, or encouraged to kill. So: should we silence the offending cartoonists and be done with it? Might as well ask if we should do the same to the billion-odd people supposedly taking offense at the drawings. Martin Amis once said that “being inoffensive, and being offended, are now the twin addictions of the culture.” He meant western culture. Turns out it’s the one addiction, other than freebasing fundamentalism, that East and West share most in this miserably unenlightened new century.

In 2005 we had the mother of all scandals, since it gave birth to them all, the one triggered by one Danish newspaper’s decision to run 12 variously incendiary drawings about Islam, at least one of which (“Stop! Stop! We ran out of virgins!”) was genuinely funny. As I said then and repeat again now, it’s never up to governments to intervene. “It’s up to public opinion to respond by means freely available to it: Don’t buy the offending newspaper, don’t buy the offending book, don’t visit the offending exhibit or watch the offending movie, and so on. There may be Danes bigoted enough to appreciate this sort of thing. That’d be nothing new in Copenhagen. It’d be nothing new in Paris, London, Dubai or Daytona Beach, either, and especially not in the Arab and Muslim world, where prejudice — against Jews, homosexuals, “the West” — is often state-sponsored.”

There was little to commend on either side of the flames. The cartoons triggered a cascade of violent and often deadly demonstration in the Islam-is-a-religion-of-peace world. Meanwhile, the Council of Europe and the European Union officially condemned the Danish government for not sanctioning the newspaper that ran the cartoons.

Europe, of course, is not the land of free expression it claims on occasion to be, let alone the land of the defense of free expression: political parties and views are banned outright, depending on your location. Europe’s highest court sided with the Turkish government in its ban of veils and headscarves in public schools and universities (a truly asinine ruling that mocks the European Union’s supposed commitment to freedom of religious expression). And several countries put people in jail for being Holocaust deniers, as Holocaust denial wasn’t itself the amplest proof necessary of the denier’s certifiable insanity.

Now we have a rash of new controversies, with a slight twist. Last week Ohio’s Columbus Dispatch, not known to be a particularly awful newspaper, and a newspaper fastidious enough top prohibit tobacco and alcohol advertising, which should make it the preferred newsprint brew of Muslims and Southern Baptists, ran the following cartoon by Michael Ramirez:

The cartoon was syndicated by Copley News Service. Ramirez, a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1994, once depicted a Jew praying at Jerusalem’s wailing wall, apparently to the word “hate.” He’s that oxymoron in the cartoon world: a “conservative” cartoonist. He worked for the Los Angeles Times until 2005, but his cartoons are still widely distributed. It’s not clear how many newspapers ran the roach one. Note the concentration of roaches in South Lebanon, obviously Ramirez’s gift to Hezbollah.

Needless to say, it’s disgusting—artistically, contextually and most of all historically. For all the discomforts it’s causing, Iran is nowhere near an “infestation” of any sort, particularly when compared to its neighbor to the west: if there is an infestation in the Middle East, and there is, it’s in Iraq, and it’s wearing American colors. But even Americans aren’t roaches. War criminals, maybe. Roaches? No: The Americans are all too human in their inane inhumanity.

The historical implications of the Columbus Dispatch cartoons are what should raise the hair on the nape of your neck, and should have raised the objection of the cartoonist’s editor (our editors, even for those of us working in the opinion pages, are paid to let us know when we’re crossing certain lines, and we’re grateful to them). Roaches are the preferred vermin imagery ascribed to the victims of many a genocide going back through history. And most recently in Rwanda: Hutus in 1994 warmed up their gangs for the massacres of May, June and July by filling the airwaves with references to Tutsis as roaches that need exterminating. Is that what Michael Ramirez had in mind? (I doubt he’s suggesting that roaches is all we’ll be left with after a nuclear holocaust, in which case the roaches would have to be depicted with their highballs and party hats over every sewer hole in the world).

“By publishing this shocking cartoon,” one letter-writer put it to the Dispatch, “the newspaper’s editors have insulted and propagated hate against a large segment of the American population that traces its roots to an ancient and proud civilization.” Amazingly, even when an American letter-writer tried to be offended about the cartoon, her outrage was doubly outrageous for making the very equivalency it was condemning: “I am not a Muslim nor of Middle Eastern descent, nor do I like terrorists,” Carol Jevrem wrote. Nor do I like terrorists? She goes on to say that “to reduce a nation of men, women and children to a sinkhole spewing out insects is disgusting,” obviously not aware of having just equated all Muslims and Middle Easterners to terrorists.

But is all that enough to unleash hate, boycotts and apology inquisitors on the Dispatch? Not unless you’re willing to unleash hate, boycotts and apology inquisitors for the far greater offense in every newspaper in America: bad, dull, dumbed-down writing that treats the world like a footnote and makes those cartoons possible. It should also be noted that newspapers publish millions of words and thousands of images and cartoons a year. Most of them bland. Some of them brilliant. Some of them very bad indeed. I know: I’ve written my share of articles that deserve concurrent stints in Guantanamo. But the best advice I have for readers offended by what they see is the simplest: move on. Turn the page. Get over it. You don’t have a right not to be offended. No one is making you buy that newspaper. And you don’t have the right to speak for a thousand or a billion fellow-(fill-in the blanks: Iranians, Muslims, whatever). You’re welcome to speak for yourself. Write a letter (and try not to embarrass yourself, as poor Carol did). Beyond that, it’s all pretension, some of it deadly.

I can go on. There’s that cartoon in Bangladesh that landed its author in prison, unfortunately (but not surprisingly for Bangladesh, a country that pretends to be democratic just as the American Republican Party pretends to be). Global Voices Online’s Rezwan sums up the story well enough. And there’s that less-than-raging controversy over the Swedish cartoonist who depicted Prophet Muhammad’s head (an offense in itself, in the eyes of most Muslims), then substituted it for the head of a dog, then displayed the whole thing at a seminar (after it appeared in a newspaper). The demonstrations, the protests, the outrage. And of course a death sentence for the Swedish cartoonist. Instead of being offended by that (or at least being equally offended by that), the countries doing the condemning are complicitly mute about the threats, which is to say they condone them.

You look at that whole scene, you survey the waste of time, the waste of blood, the stupidity and fanaticism of it all, and what else is there to say but lean back, shake one’s head and say: god damn.

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