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Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Cartoon Thoughts

Posted by on February 8 at 11:49 AM

A point that keeps being made in the debate over the Danish cartoons is that other religious groups—Jews, Hindus, and Catholics—don’t resort to riots and violence when they feel their faith has been insulted. Setting aside the fact that members of all these groups have, at times, resorted to such tactics, it seems to me there’s a better comparison to be made here, one that might be more helpful, at least in this country.

In America, the group whose experience of economic discrimination and social subjugation most closely resembles that of Muslims in Europe (and, historically, that of Muslims in the Middle East vis-Ă -vis European colonial powers) is not a religious group. It is racial group: African Americans.

This is far from a perfect comparison, I know, but I bring it up simply to illustrate what I see as a blind spot on the part of some Americans who want to make this debate into a simple referendum on free speech. Even in America, home of free speech, there are things we don’t joke about, things that editors are reluctant to publish cartoons about. These are things that touch on historical hurts and unresolved power relationships in a manner that’s so provocative it could result in violence.

For example, it’s not hard to imagine a cartoon that, had it been published to coincide with Coretta Scott King’s funeral yesterday, would have led to condemnation and boycotts, and perhaps violence. And it’s not hard to imagine most American editors refusing to publish such a cartoon, and most Americans supporting that refusal.

Or, for an example in a slightly different arena: If I, a well-dressed white guy, were to walk into certain black neighborhoods carrying offensive depictions of blacks and jokingly calling people niggers, I would almost certainly be hit, or worse. And the feeling of most Americans (and myself), would probably be that I deserved what I got for being so insensitive. It would not matter if I had only been joking, or if I had been trying to make some high-minded point about race being a social construct. The fact that I had trampled on the understandable sensitivities of black Americans in order to make a provocative statement would be seen as poor judgment, at best.

Does this reality restrain my free speech? I suppose so. Does it bother me? Not enough that I want to emphasize lectures about freedom of expression more than efforts to right historical wrongs.

There are always going to be negotiations about who can make fun of whom, and after what cultural changes have been accomplished. And it seems to me that people’s willingness to have their identity or beliefs mocked by outsiders is usually in direct proportion to the sense of power and safety they feel. We are familiar with this phenomenon in America, where blacks, Jews, and gays all made fun of themselves long before they found it acceptable for outsiders to make such jokes. I think something similar is at play in the cartoon debate, but on a global scale.

I’m not saying this to excuse the violence committed by Muslims in response to the Danish cartoons. It’s inexcusable. (But not without precedent and a certain familiarity.) What I’m saying is that the response from some Americans—essentially, that Muslims need to lighten up and be able to take a joke—feels a bit too simplistic.

It’s easy to say Muslims should calm down and get over the perceived slight, but harder to answer the question: How do you tell people they are wrong without humiliating them? Especially when you have had a hand in creating circumstances that already make them feel humiliated.

Bruce Bawer has a great piece in this week’s Stranger about the Danish cartoon controversy, and to The Stranger’s credit, it’s being published alongside some of the cartoons that have made certain Muslims so upset. One of the most interesting parts, to me, is when Bawer notes that Saudi Arabia, the “top funder of Europe’s radical mosques and Muslim schools,” has been stoking the Muslim backlash against the cartoons, in essence manipulating the sensitivities of Muslims to increase its geopolitical power.

But here’s a question Bawer fails to ask: Who is the top funder of Saudi Arabia? It’s the West, and in particular America. We finance and protect the repressive religious radicals who make up the Saudi regime, in order to maintain our global dominance and feed our dependence on cheap oil. In this sense, we are not quite the righteous defenders of free speech we now see ourselves to be. Rather, we are first defenders of our own comforts.

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Thank you, Eli. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Well said Eli. This is what alternative papers should sound like. Points of view and good analysis; condenming the Islamic fascists, but at the same time digging further so that readers can get a wider picture, one that is ignored by traditional media.

If not, you are not different than KVI, actually a lot of the posts sounded like most of John Carlson's callers. Even the NyTimes was sounding more "alternative" than the Stranger. For a minute there I was worried.

Thank you for finally pulling our heads out of the sand. It is so easy to be angry and aggreaved. Anger organizes our thoughts and feelings so that we don't have to feel uncertain or conflicted. The instigators of attacks against the Danes know that, and it is crucial that remember it ourselves. To defend a thinking, critically minded society means thinking and being critical too. You've done that.

thanks eli. there are also important points to make that in the countries where the violence is at its worst, the press is largely government controlled, so press coverage is not going to include people calling for and demonstating for peace. that is of course, assuming that the government controlled police forces would even allow such demonstrations.
i think another aspect of what we are seeing, comes into play when we imagine what america might be like if the people who support blowing up abortion clinics were in charge/ how many more clinics would explode? how many more doctors would be killed? how many more psychotic teenagers would go on bloody rampages in queer bars?
many people have commented on how much uglier america has gotten since george bush was elected, while the degrees and measurements are quite different, the change in governmental leadaership has deeply altered the feeling in *this nation. why should the middle east be different?
also i am a new transplant to seattle and am falling in love with the city in a big way. but i moved from a place with the largest arab population in the world, outside of the middle east. i worked every day with arab people, muslim and other, and as a result have many close friends who are arab and/or muslim. there is diversity in those communities, politic, social, etc. Many of my hijab wearing students had what could only be described as radical left politics. (my personal opinion on hijabs is not important.) being a muslim, like being a xtian or a jew, means nothing, or rather it can mean anything.

Eli --

Indeed, thanks for posting this. Between the forum posts and the Bawer article, I was beginning to feel like we fucking DESERVED Tim Eyeman.

The strongest, and stupidest, opposition to support for printing the cartoons I've read here in these comments has come from right-wing loons.

Ultimately, the protests in the Muslim world are cries of impotence from dying societies. You can talk all you want about US support for repulsive regimes like Saudi Arabia, but the fact is, Saudi Arabia is incredibly weak, not strong. Their oil-based princedom is collapsing; GDP per head is a third of what it was twenty years ago. Imagine what you'd think if your salary was chopped by two-thirds. The Islamists gain a hold when there are no other alternatives -- but the Islamists are no alternative.
The situation is different, but differently hopeless, in every Middle-eastern Islamic country; Egypt is a basket case, propped up by US dollars; Iran is desperately trying to commit suicide in order to avoid modernization; Syria is a toilet; Palestine is a terrorist camp; Pakistan is only seconds away from self-immolation; Iraq is, well, not a success; and even Turkey is regressing away from European Union and toward fascism. The only Islamic countries that are not heading over a precipice is Indonesia and India (and India is shadowed by Pakistan's nukes).

Saudi Arabia isn't so much "increasing its geopolitical power" as trying to hold on to the scraps of what's left of it. The only thing they have going for them is oil, and their preeminence in that area is fading fast as well. They continue to lead the region simply because no one else is strong enough to stand in their place. But if the 60,000 princes continue to piss away their fortune, while a nation of jobless engineers turns to madness, and the Saudi hold is broken, all hell will break loose. This will make the Iraq war look like patty-cake.

It's starting to look like the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during WWI. Grim then, worse now. And the only thing that can save them -- and us -- is modernism, which is precisely what they're turning into the streets against.

No, no. I appreciate the effort to parse this in a fresh way, but there's a huge difference, which is entirely covered by these words in your post: "people’s willingness to have their beliefs mocked." Being African-American is not a belief. No one should be ridiculed for what they ARE, but everyone is up for ridicule for what they believe. Would a cartoonist at The Stranger take it easy on intelligent-design proponents because they're sensitive about what they believe? I doubt it.

I would also like to point out that the "alternative" or "sensitive" point of view championed by Seme and others, in contrast to the "deliberately inflammatory" point of view of Savage or Jyllands-Posten, is the same as that taken by such alternative characters as the Pope, the UN, and George W. Bush.

John Williams:

I should have used the word "identity" or "sense of self" rather than "beliefs." I may change it in my post, because you make a good point about the word "beliefs."

But, you could also say that finding race to be significant is itself a belief — one that would then be mocked by someone who makes light of the African American experience. In that sense my point stands, I think.

Also, there is not often that great a distance between what people say they believe, and what people say, as you put it, "they ARE."

Great post, Eli, and good analogies you give there. This captures a lot of what I was trying to say in my previous comments.

It's ironic that you bring up Coretta Scott King, wife of a non-violent leader, in an attempt to explain violence as a response to hate speech.

Violence is neither an effective nor an appropriate response to ANYTHING.

Look at what's happened with these cartoons. Because of the violent response of some Muslims, the cartoons have gotten far more publicity and print than they ever would have normally. The more violently they protest, the more papers print the cartoon, the more Mohammed gets defamed.

Of course there are things that a newspaper shouldn't print. But that's got to be dictated by local standards (The Pope/Schiavo cover wouldn't have flown in Rome)--not by violent idiots a world away.


I appreciate the response. I really do respect your larger point, but like Dan, I just have a hard time giving it much weight when the reaction (from some, not all) has been so insane. To Dan's point, truly disgusting anti-Semitic cartoons are published in the Islamic press, but Jews -- certainly a small, beleaguered population on this planet (and certainly an interesting case of the Venn diagram of Believe/Are) -- are not threatening to behead editorialists. Not to mention, of course, that the Danish cartoons were created precisely because of previous threats against those exercising free speech...

Seth: It's ironic that you'd raise the issue of "local standards" on a blog. The internet makes the idea of local standards an anachronism. Anything published online is available to anyone, anywhere in the world, provided they have an internet connection.

Also, as I make clear in my post, I agree with you that violence in reaction to the cartoons is inexcusable. But that doesn't mean attempts can't be made to understand where the violence is coming from.

Fnarf- I am not championing anything. I have been asking for analysis and different points of view. I agree that you can not cave in to Islamic fanatics, but other stories are missing from the debate and that is a job for alternative media. Analysis that is all. I agree with some points of view and not others. Pay attention. Dont simplify.

This debate started with one point of view and now is getting healthier, that is all I m saying. Im not a sensitive guy, if anything, I am accused of the opposite.

So, if anything published on the internet is available to anyone anywhere, are you recommending that responsible people shouldn't publish things on the Internet that might offend anyone, anywhere?

Seth: In a word, no.

Eli, thanks for your post. It's nice to finally see a more level-headed response from The Stranger. I think your analogy, while not perfect, makes great sense. More, please.

It's time to wake up and smell the unwarranted Politically Correct fear - heck, even the BBC is unwilling to actually show one of the cartoons.

You know you've lost a war when you can't even discuss things and pretend it's ok that you can't talk about things.

But, as The Flying Spaghetti Monster teaches us, life is just a cartoon joke.

You bring up some interesting points, Eli. How many parallels do you see between Muslim reaction to Mohammed/bomb hat cartoons and U.S. citizens' reaction to flag burning? Last I checked, conservatives would really like flag burning to be illegal, but they're not torching flag burners' houses in response. (Not that we've had much domestic flag burning in the last few years, of course. But as a symbolic gesture, the two things seem similar to me.)

When Bill Clinton ( a centrist) was in the White House, the Christian right was in full attack mode, and the Christian influenced militias were all over the place.

No, they did not burn down embassies, they bombed the Oklahoma City federal building.

Now that Bush is in power, the citizen militias seem to have disapeared.

To the christian right slick willie and family were the devil. It would be interisting to see if the Michigan militia makes a come back when Hilary wins the white house. No, Condie is not going to run, she wants to be NFL commisioner.

Im just saying....

Thanks, Eli.

As we all laugh at the ignorant savages who can't take a joke riot in the streets, I'm wondering what The Stranger's resident tap-dancing nigger, Chuck Mudede has to say about all this...

Oh, what's that? You're offended? After all, it's only

Thanks for trying to promote some understanding atleast.

Charles can't tap dance. And I am offended—no one ever said "free speech," the right to say, publish, draw, etc., anything you like, doesn't lead to offensive things being written, said, published, etc. It means that you have a right to say it, however fucked it is.

And, I'm sorry, but those cartoons were not the moral equiv. of the "n" word. Puh-leeze.

Eli, I think your essay is behind the curve.
Maybe the cartoons shouldn't have been published -- but that's history.
The question now is what to do i.e. how to confront Islamic bullying without further inflaming matters.


In trying to make us understand why muslims might resort to violence in response to these cartoons, you bring up the plight of the African-American, and imply that violence in response to the N-word is justified. It is not. If somebody walks around town with that word emblazoned across their chest, they deserve as much scorn as can be heaped upon them, but they do not deserve to be "hit or worse".

Secondly, muslims are forbidden by the Koran to draw Mohammed, but why should that matter to non-muslims? The problem here is that the most offensive thing about these cartoons to muslims is not the way Mohammed was portrayed, but that he was drawn at all. They would like to impose their religious laws on non-believers, and I, for one, don't think Westerners should make any special effort to tolerate that intolerance.

Great column. The best change in frame of reference I have heard for the argument of religious tolerance so far. Though, John Williams is on to something with the comparison not being quite right. Even if you simply change “beliefs” to “identity” I still have a tough time making the leap from a drawing of Muhammad to it being an attack on the Muslim identity or experience. I would have been more open to this even just a few days ago when I was more hesitant with my cultural understanding. But as more and more actual news comes out about this story (previously printed in Egypt, really not that big of a taboo, four months to whip up a good mob…) we see this is not true pious outrage at the cartoons.

The whole ‘change of reference’ arguments are always shaky at best anyway. There is even a comment in this thread asking us to visualize a land where people who support blowing up abortion clinics are in charge. Umm… ok. There are specific things happening in this controversy that are measurable and debatable on their own merits. This isn’t you marching into the central district in a white hood shouting the N word. This is a few cartoons published in a free country in the context of opening up a real debate about self-censorship in the aftermath of the Theo van Gogh murder (I noticed there are some people in here that were under the impression the cartoons were published to purposely inflame). I don’t think we need to find a way to manipulate the perspective so we can see the other side. We see it just fine.

However, I do agree with the meat of your column that this is not some simple free speech or “lighten up” argument. I think you are right on target with the Muslim insecurity viewpoint. They should be insecure. They have morally indefensible outlooks on human rights and the world is now watching them. Call in Allah for some smoke and mirrors. This will only work a few more times before everybody catches on.

How the hell does the West share responsibility for the current plight of the Islamic world? What ever happened to taking responsibility for your own countries?

Why do we keep excusing them with "They shouldn't have done it, but maybe we asked for it?" I can't stand our current president or his politics, but I'm gonna pull out the 9/11 question and ask if you're saying we deserved that? And, as I'm sure you're thinking, no of course we didn't. But by using the analogy of walking into a black neighborhood and spouting racist slogans, you're suggesting that Denmark's getting what it had coming by saying what they wanted in their own country, and offending people who had voluntarily chosen to live there.

When Muslim fanatics destroyed 3000 year old statues of Buddha, did the West make threats to blow up embassies and chop off heads?

To me, it seems that no other group has immigrated to other countries with the intention of resisting any and all forms of integration to the point where they don't even peacefully coexist. Why does the Muslim immigrant community feel entitled to hold a gun to the rest of the world's head, threatening to kill us if we don't do what we're told? Is any other religion on the planet so inseperable from the concepts of terrorism and fanatasism?

At this point, I wish we could build a wall around these Islamic countries and let them implode. I hate the human rights violations in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but I'm willing to bargain guys - we'll pull out and let them do what ever they want in the Middle East.

But let them stay the fuck out of the West. They don't want to peacefully coexist, they don't want to embrace any of the values of their new homes. They hate the way we live, they don't want to live the way we live - SO MAYBE THEY SHOULDN'T LIVE WHERE WE LIVE! Stay home, you fucking fanatics.

But the Danish response has encouraged me to move to Denmark!


The analogy doesn't work. The Danish cartoons weren't just random shots at Islam; they were just reinforcing a point that the jihad crazies had already made: don't call me violent or I'll kill you. That leaves lots of room for cartooning if you have a normal sense of satire and outrage. So no it is not the same thing as walking into a black neighborhood with a Sambo T-shirt as you suggest.

You might have a bit of the jihad rabies yourself: I notice you couldn't get away without setting the blame back on America. In medieval theology they talk of the Prime Mover - only the Prime Mover really moves; everything else moves only in reaction to the prime mover; only the Prime Mover possesses agency all other things that move derive their actions from it. So just blame America for everything. You're an America firster in the blame dept. See? it's easy; you don't have to know anything about the world. Everything is our fault.

Many comments indicate an assumption that American from Seattle (or wherever you are all from) will interpret a cartoon in the same way that an angry, frustrated Muslim in Denmark will. The presumption that the way YOU understand a "Muhammad with a bomb on his head" cartoon in a European paper is the right and only response indicates to me the all-to-stale type of worldview that does not go too far beyond its familiar, comfortable and fictitious world.

This is not a comment about the the stupid violence or the stupid cartoons (and they were pretty stupid, as are most editorial cartoons - look back at ones 50 years ago and their narrowness is striking). I am talking about our reactions. We might learn something useful if we looked not just at how "they" are reacting but at ourselves as well.

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