Cartoongate, the U.S. Version
Solidarity with Bigotry While Pentagon Goes Wahhabite
Pierre Tristam/Candide's Notebooks, February 2, 2006
The twists in Cartoongate have been knotting up the scene like swirls in an Al Hirschfeld caricature. I might be risking overdoing the focus on this story (see Tuesday's column). But it bears a little overdoing for having been so inexplicably ignored by the American press. Earlier this week the Libyans and Saudis pulled or threatened to pull their ambassadors from Copenhagen if the Dutch government didn’t force an apology out of the newspaper that ran those twelve cartoons showing the prophet Muhammad in various states of unrest. A few Danes began to feel the heat of effigies in the Middle East. A few suicide bombers on hiatus began breaking into European diplomatic missions in the Occupied Territories and holding “sit-ins.” A few Iraqi insurgents began to seem dazed and confused at suddenly having to shoot, but first of all spot, Danes on top of Americans. The Danish government had made it clear: It wouldn’t intervene and force the Danish paper to make nice. No need. The paper unfortunately folded with a big apology on Tuesday. The next day, France Soir, a national French daily, ran the cartoons in belated solidarity, bringing the number of publications doing likewise to at least seven, including some in Germany, Italy, Spain, Norway and the Netherlands (a veritable European Union of an unlikely and, lately, unheard-of sort). Unrest is growing, in the characteristically understated panic of BBC headlines. And if not unrest, then an American version of the same.
The story has finally began to make an impact in the United States, minus the honorable twists. First, there’s the Pentagon’s fatwa against the Washington Post for running a Toles cartoon showing a dismembered GI bandaged on a hospital bed and an imbecilic Dr. Rumsfeld telling him, clip board a-scribbling, “I’m listing your condition as battle-hardened.” A brilliant cartoon all around, not lest because of the collateral details: a chart at the foot of the poor soldier’s bed showing the US Army’s vitals cascading down to oblivion, and Tole’s trademark echo-cartoon at the bottom of his cartoons with these words out of the runny toubib: “I’m prescribing that you be stretched thin. We don’t define that as torture.” No less than the chairman and his Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Post’s managing editor that they found the cartoon “beyond tasteless,” and wished the paper didn’t “make light” of servicemen’s wounds. That’s sure to give the right-wing fox hounds a week’s worth of dervishing in defense of the uniform, because that’s what’s really undermining the country’s defenses and principles here: A cartoon, a caricature of a war that’s been a caricature of policy and strategy from day one. Then again, if the Saudis can get away with leading a 57-nation jihad against Danish cartoonists, the Pentagon was certainly not going to miss jumping on the same Wahhabite bandwagon against one of its own disfavored irritants. The Saudis are inspiring all sorts of American copycats these days. Which brings us back to the Danish cartoons and their impact Stateside.
Strictly right-wing ballroom bloggers who’ve picked up the story and run the cartoons have been doing so not so much in solidarity with the principle of free expression, regardless of content, but as one more chance to stick it to Islam—to see value and gleeful truths in the actual cartoons that show Mohammed with a bomb for a head, or a dagger as a third arm. But that’s merely replacing solidarity with rank bigotry. It’s beyond bad taste and opportunism. It’s cowardly. It entails using someone else’s work and controversy and milking it for motives entirely unrelated to the principle of free expression. It’s what gives free expression a black eye, what gives Islam’s resentful believers one more reason to see the insult to their prophet as having nothing whatsoever to do with free expression, and everything to do with gratuitous racism—with blasphemy for the hell of it.
Context is all: there’s a way to recognize the depravity of an idea—of a column, a picture, a cartoon, a crucifix in piss or a Last Supper splattered in elephant dung—without compromising its right to be expressed. That recognition is in place the moment you agree to debate the merits of the work in question on its merits, rather than prevent the work from reaching an audience based on your presumed (and pre-emptive) sense of offense. The Saudi and larger Arab world’s assault on the Danish cartoons had merit in so far as it expressed outrage and even organized boycotts. Fine. Let them protest, let them not buy a country’s products. It wouldn’t be the first time, in the East or the West, that free expression was subject to backlash. Witness the silly attacks on “ Brokeback Mountain” or “The Book of Daniel.” They’re led in part by Focus on the Family, our own Wahhabite religious police. But the attacks aren’t burning anything in effigy or firebombing cinemas. The problem with the Saudis’ silent fatwa against cartoonists is that, by its silence over the violence it has provoked, it sanctions the very depravity and fanaticism that the cartoons claim Islam is made of even as it speaks in the name of Muhammad the merciful and respectful and so on. Islam’s assault over cartoongate has no credibility. Likewise, the right wingers’ unprincipled retort—their brandishment of one cartoon after another in blinkered glee—has no credibility.
The final (for now, anyway) twist in this story was Wednesday’s publication of the cartoons by France Soir, which, first, forced conservative French-bashers to do a double-take about their “surrender monkeys” (right-wingers’ third-favorite evil ones on their enemy list, after al-Qaeda and liberals). They were then vindicated about French principle never outlasting the hot air of their latest soufflé when France Soir fired the managing editor who ran the cartoons. The Joint Chiefs must be looking at France-Soir with envy, and wishing the Washington Post had a little France-firing in it for them. Knowing the way the American press functions these days, no one should be surprised if it went soir, too.