The Legend of Wooley Swamp

What ever happened to nuance? Jabberwocky is being spewed up by the left and right as they try to drag us into their Wonderlands. This blog charts a path out of this swamp of simple truths and false certainties. And from time to time, it'll be a place for more light-hearted musings.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Cartoon Boondoggle, a Reality Check

During the past few days, the cartoon debate has veered left, right and center, focusing on the nature of Islam, freedom of speech/religion and ever so occasionally on immigration. There sure is a lot of controversy (click here for a disturbing photo of Palestinian children carrying a coffin draped in a Danish flag) out there. But does anyone really know what it’s about? Here in the Swamp, confusion reigns supreme. So I offer just a few more thoughts, mostly inspired by points that people brought to my attention since the previous post.

This whole saga is one big ideological mess. Reading some of the columns, blog posts, listening to people, you would certainly get that impression. They are coming at it from such different angles. The alarming, but not terribly, surprising thing is that so many of these pundits seek – and indeed see – absolutes and moral clarity at play. You know, opinions along the lines of:

  • “This proves the nature of Islam”

  • “Free speech is threatened by violence and political correctness”

  • “Told you that ‘they’ (the immigrants) would be the death of ‘us’ (the natives)”

Well, let me reiterate that these savants live in the twilight zone. And I certainly hope that was clear from my last post. Those pundits, in a more blatant way than usual, only make use of the already spurious evidence that backs up their patently ridiculous claims. What the cartoon rumble does tell us is that all of these issues are addressed and need to be discussed. And that there are other issues that we should talk about. Ones that are not addressed by a punditocracy as determined to prevent theocracy as it is reluctant to tackle bigotry in their own midst. Wonderland Don Quixotes?

To me the main, and the most pressing, issue remains: what is really going on in the countries of the protests and the countries of the cartoons and their willful re-publishers? The focus this time is the latter.

So aside from just abstractly looking at the three issues referred to my hypothetical statements above, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to pay a little more attention to the nature of the regimes and power structures in Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq etc. And the same goes for the Western democracies who like to point their fingers at others. Just because most of us enjoy living here doesn’t mean we need to be totally uncritical. Or does our comfort require that? I think not.

And what do you find? Without wading too deep into the religion of Islam – I mean, I know as little as most of its detractors or defenders – I note that the ones publishing the cartoons (or at least the sentiments that led to their commissioning, a questionable act to say the least) and the ones fomenting riots have a lot in common. They agree that Islam is monolithic and can only be interpreted by some authority or another. So they are both fundamentalists (click here for an excellent article on how political fundamentalism in the West and religious fundamentalism all over have inadvertently colluded during this brouhaha). Enough said.

Far trickier issues are the freedoms of speech and religion. Last time I noted that it was odd that obvious violators of free speech – in other words, countries with laws that limit free speech – criticized those who advocated just a little contemplation regarding the responsible usage of this freedom. My example was Germany and Nazi-related material (click here for news on a current trial highlighting this). But I was reminded of another and in this case more relevant example (hat tip Johnny H), France’s banning of religious symbols in schools.

Young Frenchwomen wear headbands in the colors of the French flag during protests in Paris on January 17, 2004 (c) Laurent Rebours AP

Other European countries have (or are considering) similar laws. These are mainly targeted at Islam, but include other religions in the name of equality/secularism.

The Economist has a typically sober leader this week on freedom of speech:

“In this newspaper's view, the fewer constraints that are placed on free speech the better. Limits designed to protect people (from libel and murder, for example) are easier to justify than those that aim in some way to control thinking (such as laws on blasphemy, obscenity and Holocaust-denial)….when western newspapers lawfully publish words or pictures that cause offence—be they ever so unnecessary, insensitive or disrespectful—western governments should think very carefully before denouncing them….”

This is the crux of that matter. Governments have a role to play here, but it is one of diplomacy abroad and real dialogue at home. It must through its embassies (admittedly hard when they are torched) describe and defend its own laws. If France, Germany and Denmark find that difficult due to hypocrisy and contradictory laws, tough luck. But this cannot supplant the dialogue between the independent media that published the cartoons and those who are offended by it. Pretty simple really.

And at home, it needs to try and understand the climate in which the cartoons were published. This includes examining the insecurities concerning the European Union and lost sovereignty, xenophobia, alienation and all kinds of fundamentalism. The government can only do so much to promote understanding, and its actions do not remove responsibility from the real sovereign, the people. Still, in supervising the welfare state and describing the “state of the union” the government must pay attention to all sides of any debate.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Not surprisingly, I expect more from a representative government than the dictatorships of the world, but a little too often that trust seems misplaced. In this case, when it comes to the realities of diversity and the facts of immigration, they seem prone to sticking their heads in the sand, right next to the bulging necks of fundamentalists of all stripes. Unless of course, they are also putting their feet in their mouths.

So I close with the wise words of Gregory Rodriguez, as he deals with these very issues in today’s Los Angeles Times:

“The violent protests that have erupted in the wake of the publication of cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad have sparked a profound debate throughout the Western world over external threats to, and internal limits on, freedom of expression. In both the United States and Europe, defenders of the newspapers that have published the cartoons have invoked the principle of freedom of speech as if it were an inviolable divine law that ought to protect them from all extremists. But the fact is there is no such thing as free speech. Every time we open our mouths, write an article or draw a cartoon, we weigh the costs and consequences.
Because we live in an extraordinarily heterogeneous society, Americans know this truth instinctively, if not consciously. Social etiquette dictates that we don't discuss religion or politics at a dinner party for fear of giving offense or inciting argument. Even before the invention of political correctness, we tended to be conscious of offending those from different backgrounds. Except for fervent racists, we generally don't share our thoughts and impressions about this or that ethnic or religious group in mixed company….

So far, only a handful of American newspapers have chosen to publish the offending cartoons of Muhammad. It's not that we believe in freedom of speech any less than the Danes, but we are infinitely more attuned to the tensions between that freedom and the realities of a diverse society (emphasis added).

After all, Denmark is a remarkably homogenous country, new to the multicultural realities that immigrant nations such as the U.S. and Britain have known for years. Eighty-five percent of Danes belong to the Church of Denmark, although few attend weekly services. Muslims account for only 2% of the population. That means the Jyllands-Posten cultural editor, Flemming Rose, who commissioned the Muhammad caricatures, is the Danish poster child for a dawning reality check.

Rose says he didn't mean to offend the small, powerless Muslim minority in Denmark but instead wanted to prove his own right to publish whatever he wanted, no matter what. He was rebelling against what he considered a growing climate of self-censorship in a changing Denmark. Even after violence erupted, he told an Italian newspaper that he was happy to have started a "useful debate." But when people die, it isn't "dialogue."

In a perfect world, you and I would agree to hate what bigots say even as we defend their right to say it. In a perfect world, we'd abide by what our mothers taught us: "Sticks and stones may break your bones but words (or images) will never hurt you." But we don't live in that world, and neither do the Danes.”

This reminds me of the timeless conversation between Jim Caviezel's and Sean Penn’s characters in Terrence Malick’s cinematic war meditation: “The Thin Red Line”.

Witt (Caviezel) has just been arrested for going AWOL (absent without leave) during the run-up to the decisive Battle of Guadalcanal. After running away, Witt lived among the Solomon Islanders, and saw their supposedly peaceful ways as an alternative to the war he is fighting. His superior Welsh (Penn) has some advice:


You haven't changed at all, have you, Witt? You haven't learned a thing. All a man has to do is leave it to you, you put your head in the noose for him.

(sits down in front of Witt)

How many times you been AWOL? You been in the army what, six years now? Ain't it time you smartened up? Stop being such a punk recruit? I mean if you ever gonna.

PRIVATE WITT (looks around him)

We can't all be smart.


No, we can. That's a shame. Look at you. (pause) Truth is, you can't take straight duty in my company. You'll never be a real soldier. Not in God's world. This is C company of which I'm First Sergeant. I run this outfit. Now Captain Staros, he's the CO (Commanding Officer), but I'm the guy who runs it. Nobody is gonna foul that up. You're just another mouth for me to feed. Normally you'd be court-martialed. I worked a deal for you. You ought to consider yourself lucky. I'm sending you to a disciplinary outfit. You'll be a stretcher-bearer. You'll be taking care of the wounded.

WITT (blinks back tears)

I can take anything you dish out. I am twice the man you are.


In this world a man himself is nothing. And there ain't no world but this one.


You're wrong there, Top. I seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.

WELSH (smiles)

Well, then you've seen things I never will. We're living in a world that's blown itself to hell as fast as everybody can arrange it. In a situation like that all a man can do is shut his eyes and let nothing touch him. Look out for himself. I might be the best friend you ever had. You don't even know it.”


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