February 06, 2006

The "sensitive" American press

What determines the "resolve" of American newspapers when it comes to "offensive" cartoons? Most likely the probability of there being physical harm involved.

James Taranto notes how the Boston Globe typifies this:

Freedom of expression is not the only value at issue in the conflict provoked by a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons satirizing Islam's founding prophet, Mohammed. . . .

The original decision of the Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten, to solicit and publish a dozen cartoons of the Muslim prophet was less a blow against censorship than what The Economist called a schoolboy prank. . . .

Publishing the cartoons reflects an obtuse refusal to accept the profound meaning for a billion Muslims of Islam's prohibition against any pictorial representation of the prophet. Depicting Mohammed wearing a turban in the form of a bomb with a sputtering fuse is no less hurtful to most Muslims than Nazi caricatures of Jews or Ku Klux Klan caricatures of blacks are to those victims of intolerance.

Of course -- and it should come as NO surprise -- the Globe had quite a different take when it came to Christians:

[Blogger and lawyer Eugene] Volokh digs up a [Globe] editorial from 1999 praising a judge who ordered New York City not to withhold funding for a museum that displayed "a painting of a black Virgin Mary spotted with elephant dung," as well as two editorials from 1990 denouncing then-Sen. Jesse Helms and others who had criticized the National Endowment for the Arts over artworks including Andres Serrano's "Piss Christ."

These earlier editorials, Volokh writes, make "eminently plausible arguments." What they do not do is acknowledge that Christians have any reason to find the depictions of Jesus and Mary "hurtful."

My guess is that the Globe is "big and brave" on the latter example -- because they know damn well American Christians aren't going to take to the streets in riots, burning copies of the Globe and threatening to torch the Globe's offices and to kill its staff.

And then there's the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt, editor of the paper's editorial page, who said regarding the Danish cartoons "If I were faced with something that I know is gonna be offensive to many of our readers, I would think twice about whether the benefit of publication outweighed the offense it might give."

But just a day before, Hiatt defended his paper's running of Tom Toles' offensive cartoon portraying an Army quadruple amputee next to a "Dr. Rumsfeld," saying

he doesn't "censor Tom" and that "a cartoonist works best if he or she doesn't feel there's someone breathing over their shoulder. He's an independent actor, like our columnists." Hiatt said he makes comments on drafts of cartoons but that Toles is free to ignore them.

Asked about Sunday's cartoon, Hiatt said, "While I certainly can understand the strong feelings, I took it to be a cartoon about the state of the Army and not one intended to demean wounded soldiers."

Maybe Hiatt could have been "brave" and said something like "While I certainly can understand the Muslims' strong feelings, I took the Danish cartoon to be about the state of [radical] Islam and not one intended to demean the typical Muslim."

As Taranto says,

What accounts for the difference? A combination of fear and ideology. Muslim fundamentalists, or at least some of them, express offense by torching embassies and threatening terrorist attacks. By contrast, U.S. military leaders write firm but polite letters to the editor, and Christian fundamentalists ask their elected representatives to stop spending tax money on offensive stuff.

And here's the best line: "Never believe a liberal when he professes to find Christian fundamentalists 'scary.' There is no need to appease an opponent who respects rules of civilized behavior."

Posted by Hube at February 6, 2006 04:46 PM | TrackBack

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