Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Free Speech and Bad Taste

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Iran paper seeks cartoon revenge

An Iranian paper is holding a contest for cartoons about the Holocaust, to retaliate against the publication of images of the Prophet Muhammad. Hamshahri says it wants to test the boundaries of free speech, echoing the reasons European papers gave for publishing the caricatures.

I'm on board. I haven't seen the cartoons depicting Mohammad published in the Danish Jyllands-Posten newspaper but I have no doubt that they were both lame and in bad taste. I don't think they should have been published because they are offensive without any redeeming social value and the publishers knew that publishing them was likely to have had very bad consequences. But it's quite another thing to say that the Danish government should have stopped them from publishing such tasteless crap. And it's still another thing to say that Muslims who were offended by such bigoted junk had a moral right to go on a rampage in protest.

Civilized people understand the difference between harm and offense, between genocide and bad taste.

The Iranian newspaper running this contest is making an appropriate response to the tasteless behavior of its Danish counterpart. It's testing the limits of free speech, which is what the Jyllands-Posten newspaper claimed it was doing and, unsaid, it's also testing a perceived double standard: the idea that you can trash brown people but you can't trash white people and more particularly, that Muslims are fair game but Jews are always sacrosanct.

OK let's test it and see how civilized we are. Let's see if Western countries cut trade ties or break off relations with Muslim countries where these cartoons appear in the media and whether Jews or other white people in these countries take to the streets, burn flags, trash buildings or beat in people's heads to protest. I doubt that that will happen and I'm sure that it shouldn't happen.


Scott said...

The question I keep asking -- and which I have yet to see anyone in the media ask -- is why no one has questioned why American society has not responded to similiar offenses in similar ways. How have we managed to evolve beyond that, and how can we help the Middle East evolve beyond that?

Yes, I've seen mentions of the Virgin Mary made of dung that was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum several years ago. But no one seems to be asking the next question. Which to me is, why is it that in this country, the Brooklyn Museum wasn't burned down? The Mayor may have ranted on the steps of the museum and made threats to cut funding, and protesters walked the streets with signs, but the museum director was not dragged from his/her office and beaten. There were no riots in the streets of Brooklyn.

Here, the punishment for blasphemy is no longer death and destruction. How many more centuries will it take for the societies of the Middle East to evolve to the point where rioting and killing is not an acceptable response? How much time will have to pass before they learn that the only acceptable response to offensive speech is more speech?

H. E. said...

David Brooks has a reflection on the cartoon wars and the Clash of Civilizations today, though I don't agree with him that "democracy brings conversion." The Athenians had a fine democracy--for male citizens, less than 20% of the population--but it didn't stop them from conducting gratuitous wars with the traditional rape and pillage, keeping slaves or torturing people.

It isn't a clash of civilizations but the clash of civilization and the absence of civilization. Until civilization set in, some time during the 18th century, violence and tribal warfare were the norm all over. That's the state of nature: women breed and men fight. And warlords just have to point guys, all primed to do violence for fun and profit, in the right direction and tell them to go to it. Consider the alternative--the endless, monotonous drudgery of subsistence farming: eating so you can work and working so you can eat and that's it.

Americans don't go on jihad because there are opportunity costs--easier, safer, more effective ways to get ahead and make money than by being a warrior and other more interesting things to do. There are warlords, crazies and religious fanatics all over but they won't get a following in the US because there are more attractive options for getting wealth, power and entertainment. "Sorry--I really don't have time to rape and pillage. I've got to finish my MBA."

I don't think it has to take centuries of social evolution to civilize the Middle East--it only takes money. Wealth, leisure, education, entertainment and toys to play with will fix it. The problem is how to get people into the virtuous circle. Peace and good behavior generate wealth so that you can buy the leisure and entertainment that remove the incentives to do violence.

Scott said...

I guess I just don't have as much faith as you do in the ability of material goods to solve these issues. If the fruits of America's economic machine really were capable of soothing the savage breast, then the 9/11 hijackers, at some point during their time living as moles in this country, would have been seduced by our streets paved with gold.

Surely some of them would have said -- "Screw this taking over airplanes idea! I'm going to get me an iPod and a Cadillac and live the American dream." At least, that's what I always assumed the effect of living here would be. That that didn't happen, that the plot went through as planned, is proof that our goods and services aren't quite as seductive as you'd like to think they are.

H. E. said...

(1) These guys were both self-selected and carefully screened. (2) We also don't know how many moles, from among the self-selected and screened were seduced by crass materialism and melted into the American landscape. (3) You ignore info about the vast majority of Muslim immigrants who aren't self-selected or screened.

So the inference you're making from this small and skewed sample is: 100% of Muslims who blow up buildings blow up buildings therefore given the opportunity, 100% of all Muslims will blow up buildings. Or at least: 100% of Muslims who aren't seduced by crass materialism aren't seduced by crass materialism therefore it's likely that 100% of all Muslims won't be seduced by crass materialism.

Now being earnest and rehearsing conventional wisdom which, I think, has empirical backing: people in Muslim countries support Islamicist political organizations because they're the only organizations that aren't completely corrupt and because they provide basic social services. They give desperately poor people the money to pay for their relatives' funeral expenses. They run schools and clinics. Poor people in Pakistan sent their boys to madrassas because they were the only schools available and because they fed the kids. If there were secular schools available with hot lunch programs where kids could learn algebra instead of memorizing the Koran I suspect lots of poor parents would have sent their kids there instead. But the corrupt military dictatorship which we supported for strategic purposes wasn't about to spend its money running clinics, schools or hot lunch programs and we weren't about to do it either.

We were so f-ing convinced that macho realpolitik, brute force and ignorance was the only effective way to operate and that "soft power" was wimpy, "unrealistic" and ineffectual that we that we forgot most people are unideological and unheroic, and have a strong interest in getting basic health care, education for their kids and decent burial for their dead. Now it's probably too late because it's been a self-fulfilling prophecy and because it would be politically disastrous for anyone to suggest now that humanitarian solutions might be in our self-interest.

What a damn shame. Not because people are nice rather than nasty, or because we should be caring, loving, sympathetic and altruistic rather than tough-minded and self-interested, but because soft power would have been cheaper and more efficient and more effective in serving our own interests.

Scott said...

Let me be clear. I wasn't, in my previous post, attempting to speak to the behavior of all Muslims. Just to the behavior of those who wish to wage jihad. Those who were recently quoted as having said, if only we had gotten Salman Rushdie, maybe that cartoonist would have known better than to have drawn what he did. I don't believe that a person who sincerely believes in concepts like that can be bought off by a house with a white picket fence.

You write, "If there were secular schools available with hot lunch programs where kids could learn algebra instead of memorizing the Koran I suspect lots of poor parents would have sent their kids there instead." I agree that, yes, some would. But I'm convinvced that just as many would want to burn that school down just for the sin of being secular. And still others would shoot any parent who would dare let his/her kids attend.

I do agree with you that we should never have gone to war, and that we should deliver humanitarian aid to those in need, as much as we possibly can. Where I disagree with you is in believing that it will buy off anyone who devoutly believes that a cartoon is worth killing over.

H. E. said...

Well then we have to do the experiment because it's an empirical question that our speculation won't answer and no one has done the experiment yet. No one has seriously offered houses with white picket fences. But I would bet: set up those schools and see if parents prefer to send their kids to the madrassa where they will memorize the Koran and learn to be suicide bombers or the prep school where they will memorize the quadratic formula and learn to be engineers. I'd bet about half my retirement fund what parents will do.

Of course you can't buy off lunatics who devoutly believe that, whatever else is the case, a cartoon is worth killing over but what I claim is that most people, including most Muslims, don't seriously believe that or that they'd want to wage jihad if there were other viable options.