Cartoon imbroglio not about religion

The Washington Times

In the Danish cartoon imbroglio, does the issue at hand have anything to do with the poor taste of the cartoons themselves? Does free expression always trump taste? My initial inclination was to think that poor taste was an issue. I’ve changed my mind.

A running highlight of my seven years editing the editorial page of The Washington Times was my daily meeting with our cartoonist, Bill Garner. When I came in, I’d usually find him standing on the mezzanine, leaning on the railing overlooking the main newsroom below, with a grin on his face that was halfway between impish and wicked, proposed sketches for the next day’s paper in hand.

Some of those were, ahem, intended for the private consumption of the editor and the artist’s pals, and they landed safely in the desk drawer. As for the genuine proposals for next morning, from time to time I’d say I thought an image he had in mind seemed a little harsh. Out it would go. Nevertheless, on rare occasions, we’d end up with something in the paper that provoked a genuine outcry, sometimes in a way we’d end up regretting.

In sum, taste matters. And it was with this in mind that I asked myself if I’d ever consider running a cartoon of the prophet, peace be unto him (see also Matthew 6:1), let alone one depicting a bomb in his turban. The answer instantaneously came back no. In addition to this paper’s much-voiced objection to the gratuitous provocation of Andres Serrano’s photo “Piss Christ,” one could recall the instance in which followers of Louis Farrakhan took up positions as a private night watch at area public housing projects. The response to the cartoon depiction of them as, literally, watchdogs was an example of something one wished one had anticipated the day before.

But what is most striking now, almost five months after the cartoons appeared in the Jyllands-Posten, is how completely ersatz the protest is. This is not a spontaneous cry of outrage among people who have been offended by what they came across in their morning paper. This is an orchestrated campaign, a whipped-up frenzy. And though the death threats are real, this campaign is not even really directed at the editors of the Danish paper or the other newspapers that have published the cartoons, nor the ones that have declined to do so because of the controversy.

Let me explain: The truth is it would never occur to the cartoonists or the cartoon or comics editors of major Western newspapers, in the ordinary course of events, to depict Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, any more than it would occur to show Jesus on the cross asking … but in order to illustrate my point, I won’t bother making up a hypothetical example to complete that question. Did you see the cartoon the other day with Moses, Buddha, Muhammad and Gwen Stefani in a leaky rowboat? You’re darn right you didn’t.

Now, this is not to say that there is nowhere to go for a little more edge. Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” remains a classic of the genre. But the Jyllands-Posten exercise was designed specifically as a one-time provocation on the question of free expression. We would have an entirely different set of questions on our hands if the newspapers of Christendom routinely decided to sock it to the prophet, peace be unto him.

They don’t. And it won’t do for offense-takers to act as if they do. There is nothing they say they demand in terms of respect for Islam that the liberal, tolerant, culturally sensitive Western world doesn’t routinely provide.

Which takes us to what they don’t say they demand. It is, first of all, power: the power of the organizers of the protest themselves over their followers. The ability to lift a hand or speak a few words into a microphone that dispatches a chanting mob into the street, thirsting for blood and failing that, destruction in the name of righteousness: Power of that kind has long been a heady thrill.

I don’t want to spend too much time on the psychology of the mob. What a relief it must be to vent rage, to scream and chant and burn and stomp, to enact a fantasy of the possession of power, when so many of one’s days are spent ground down under the power of one’s masters. It must feel like freedom. Never mind that the offense you take is not even your own, but is only what your masters put before you as offensive, and that the freedom you feel is exactly what they want you to feel: not yours but theirs.

No, this has nothing to do with taste and not much to do with religion. It has to do with power and domination, which we must oppose.

That verse from Matthew I referred to above begins: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them.” And if I may paraphrase the conclusion: because you are up to no good, and you have been called on it.