Taking the Bait

Via Buzzflash — what they’re not telling us about the Mohammed cartoon controversy and why the violence is erupting now and not when the cartoons were first published in September 2005.

According to this blogger, the cartoon controversy erupted because of a classic rightie-style misdirection campaign perpetrated by the Saudis. The plan was to get people worked up about the cartoons to take public attention away from the deaths of 350 pilgrims at the Hajj.

These were not unavoidable accidents, they were the results of poor planning by the Saudi government.

And while the deaths of these pilgrims was a mere blip on the traditional western media’s radar, it was a huge story in the Muslim world. Most of the pilgrims who were killed came from poorer countries such as Pakistan, where the Hajj is a very big story. Even the most objective news stories were suddenly casting Saudi Arabia in a very bad light and they decided to do something about it.

Their plan was to go on a major offensive against the Danish cartoons. The 350 pilgrims were killed on January 12 and soon after, Saudi newspapers (which are all controlled by the state) began running up to 4 articles per day condemning the Danish cartoons. The Saudi government asked for a formal apology from Denmark. When that was not forthcoming, they began calling for world-wide protests. After two weeks of this, the Libyans decided to close their embassy in Denmark. Then there was an attack on the Danish embassy in Indonesia. And that was followed by attacks on the embassies in Syria and then Lebanon.

Many European papers, including the right-wing German Springer media group, fanned the flames by reprinting the cartoons. And now you have the situation we are in today, with lots of video footage of angry crowds and the storming of embassies and calls for boycotts of Danish and European products. [emphasis added]

What did I say about not taking bait?

Meanwhile the Right Blogosphere has gone foaming-at-the-mouth, hair-on-fire crazy over the cartoon controversy. They’ve worked themselves up to a screaming pitch about the mad dog Muslims who are fixing to massacre Europe. They have gone off the insufferable self-righteousness scale because most American newspapers will not republish the cartoons, and those newspapers and the State Department and, of course, liberals are all wussie sell-outs of democratic principles.

Can we say they’ve come unhinged? I think we can.

Michelle Malkin, who must have steam coming out of her ears by now, wants to know what the Left has to say. In the past couple of days a few leftie bloggers have offered opinions, including me. Here’s a sampler.

Via Roxie, Josh Marshall says,

… there is a hint of the absurd in this story, the way continents of people get swept up in reaction to some simple pictures. But this episode seems like a model for what I imagine we’ll be living with for the rest of our lives. There’s something peculiarly 21st century about this conflict — both in the way that it’s rooted in the world of media and also in the way that it shows these two societies or cultures … well, all I can think of to use is the clunky 21st centuryism — they can’t interface. The gap is too large. The language is too different. One’s coming in at 30 degree angle, the other at 90.

He’s not letting rioting Muslims off the hook:

An open society, a secular society can’t exist if mob violence is the cost of giving offense. And that does seem like what’s on offer here. That’s the crux of this issue — that the response is threatened violence and more practical demands that such outrages must end. … So liberal mores versus theocratic mores. Where’s the possible compromise? There isn’t any. On the face of it this gets portrayed as an issue of press freedom. But this is much more fundamental. ‘Press freedom’ is just one cog in the machinery of a society that doesn’t believe in or accept the idea of ‘blasphemy’. Now, an important cog? Yes. But I think we’re fooling ourselves to reduce this to something so juridical and rights based.

And it’s not just Muslims:

I don’t want to imply this is only a Muslims versus modernity issue. I know not all Muslims embrace these views. More to the point, it’s not only Muslims who do. You see it among the haredim in Israel. And I see it with an increasing frequency here in the US. Is it just me or does it seem that more and more often there are public controversies in which ‘blasphemy’ is considered some sort of legitimate cause of action — as if ‘blasphemy’ can actually have any civic meaning in a society like ours. Anyway, you get the idea.

The idea I get is that this entire clash appears to be happening on the Right end of the political scale. Muslim extremists and western wingnuts are whipping each other into a mutual hate frenzy. Liberals, for the most part, aren’t getting caught up in it. We’re not taking the bait.

This next paragraph of Josh Marshall’s is brilliant, so I’m going to quote it even though it stretches the scope of this post a tad.

Much, probably most of what gets talked about as the ‘war on terror’ in politics today is a crock — a stalking horse for political power grabs, a masquerade of rage and revanchism, a running excuse for why we’ve made so many stupid decisions over the last five years. In some cases, on a more refined plain, it’s rooted in intellectual or existential boredom. But beyond all the mumbojumbo about how we’re helping ourselves by permanently occupying Iraq and running the country’s finances into the ground, there is a conflict. There is a basic rupture in the world.

Wow, that’s good.

Anyway, elsewhere on the Left Blogosphere, Dr. Atrios says,

I’m not too sympathetic with the notion that anything under the cover of religion is automatically entitled to deference. On the other hand, “don’t be an asshole” about peoples’ religious beliefs when they aren’t trying to impose them on you seems to be reasonably good etiquette. The cartoons weren’t funny and the visual portrayal of Mohammed was done just to “be an asshole” without any larger point to it. It’s like parading around in blackface just for the hell of it. There’s no point other than “I’m doing this to see who I can piss off.” I certainly defend the right to piss people off, though not always the decision to do so.

Sensible. Shakespeare’s Sister takes note of Atrios, and adds,

I’m not totally sure I would classify radical Islamists as not trying to impose their religious beliefs. I believe that is, in fact, one of their primary goals, both religious and political, which makes me inclined to feel that commentary on those goals, even in the form of cartoons likely to offend, is fair game, and therefore defensible. (The flipside of that is that I find this response of radical Muslims, including calls to kidnap Danes and “cut them into as many pieces as the number of newspapers that printed the cartoons,” and assertions that this conflagration never would never had erupted “if a 17-year-old death edict against writer Salman Rushdie been carried out” because “then those lowlifers would not have dared discredit the Prophet,” indefensible.) I’m a bit concerned that in our attempts to rebuke the rightwing onslaught to denigrate all of Islam as fundamentally violent, we have begun to minimize the reality that there is indeed a segment of Islam that actively seeks to convert infidels and slaughter those who refuse. It strikes me as dangerously naïve to ignore the ambitions of an extremist Islamic element who, given the first opportunity, would happily impose their religious beliefs on the rest of us, and just because a jihadist hasn’t knocked on one’s door peddling their wares doesn’t make it any less true.

Steve Gilliard has a long post that I urge you to read. It includes an interlude by Steve’s blogging partner, Jen, who is more sympathetic to the Danes than is Steve.

Jazz at Running Scared links to and explicates a rightie blog post, and observes:

The bottom line is this: Shackleford is at least coming very close to admitting what many on the far Right clearly seem to believe, but are not willing to openly state. That is, we are not simply fighting terrorists and radical extremists, but are in fact engaged in a holy war against Islam.

This, IMO, gets to the heart of why the Right Blogosphere is obsessed with this story, the way they were obsessed with the recent French riots. They want a holy war against Islam. They are itching for it. Not that any of them would volunteer to fight, of course … See also Jazz’s post “The Bloodlust of the Unhinged Right Wing.”

The Green Knight sums it up:

There’s still the fact that the rioters are being idiots. Sometimes, there’s no good guy. A newspaper prints cartoons that are meant to “test the limits of political correctness” (i.e. to offend people on purpose, i.e. to be an asshole); the completely over-the-top result is riots around the world.

Nope. No good guy here.

Not that Malkin will ever link any of this.

See also a Muslim’s opinion.

Update: See also Amanda at Pandagon: “We’re All Batshit Crazy Crusaders Now.” Georgia10 asks, “Where the hell is Karen Hughes?” And Steve M writes to Michelle Malkin.

Update update: Malkin is still claiming the Left is “silent” on the cartoon issue. If you want to click on Malkin’s links to other rightie comments on the so-called “silence” of the Left, you see a whole lotta straw man arguments — e.g., “I’m hearing this argument – that only Muslims are fair game for criticism, and that editorial cartoonists never, ever savage Christianity or Judaism” — followed by examples of anti-Bush cartoons that skewer Bush’s religiosity. And one crude cartoon savaging Ariel Sharon and the Israeli Likud party is provided as an example of something “anti-Semitic.” The examples are all from the British press, btw; apparently the blogger couldn’t find examples from American media that were nasty enough to suit him.

Then the fellow goes on to say (in effect; I am, of course, paraphrasing) that because these British cartoons offended him, then American newspapers had better publish the Mohammed cartoons to defend freedom of expression. Yes, once again we see the foundation of all American conservative moral principles — they do it too.

Betty Friedan

Just about everyone alive in 1963 remembers where they were when John Kennedy was shot. In the same way, a lot of us today remember where we were and how we felt when we read The Feminine Mystique.

was published in that pivotal year 1963, although I didn’t read it until 1969. It took some time for second-wave feminism to reach the Ozarks.

The power of Mystique was in its revelation of something we already knew but weren’t yet cognizant of knowing. Her description of The Problem That Has No Name reached deep into our heads. It hauled truth from a deep, subconscious place into the clarity of full consciousness.

Some of Friedan’s speculations on why women had become so marginalized in the post World War II era don’t stand the test of time, to be sure. But though her theories of the cause of the disease may have been flawed, she diagnosed the illness perfectly. Women were moved by Mystique not because they were intellectually persuaded, but because they recognized themselves in its pages.

Patricia Sullivan writes in the Washington Post: “Her insights into what she described as the soul-draining frustrations felt by educated, stay-at-home women in the 1950s, ‘the problem that has no name,’ startled a society that expected women to be happy with marriage and children.” Startled puts it mildly. Mystique set souls on fire.

Mystique was less a catalog of the oppression of women throughout time than an exploration of the way sexual stereotyping and gender roles had changed after World War II, and how as a result women in the 1960s were leading desperately constricted lives. I think you had to be there to understand how much the world has changed since then. Even the most hidebound, conservative traditionalists in America today would be considered “liberal” on women’s issues by the standards of 1963. Although many won’t admit it, in a sense we’re nearly all feminists now.

Second-wave feminism started out as a movement of mostly educated and reasonably affluent white women. It caught some flack for that, but as I remember the suffragette movement was also fueled mostly by educated and reasonably affluent white women. This is possibly because it took some education and some affluence to launch a women’s movement at all; poorer and less well educated women were too crushed by circumstance to even think about movements.

Also, originally, it focused a great deal on marriage and family issues, on taking on the roles of wife and mother without completely losing yourself in the process.

I heard Friedan speak once, at the University of Missouri ca. 1972. She said one thing I still remember — I never said marriage and children weren’t important things in a woman’s life. I said they weren’t the only things in a woman’s life. Sullivan of WaPo continues,

Friedan’s was a voice that was loud, insistent and sometimes divisive. She split with NOW in the 1970s after she came to believe that the organization focused too many resources on lesbian issues and that too many feminists hated men. Her 1981 book “The Second Stage” prompted some feminists to denounce her as reactionary.

I’m not so sure she split with NOW as was driven out of it. In the 1970s, I well remember, many NOW chapters became more radicalized, which alienated many of the same educated and reasonably affluent white women who had embraced second wave feminism in the 1960s. I don’t know how much of this was the fault of feminist leadership, or whether it was just another aspect of the “eating their own” frenzy the American Left was experiencing at the time. In any event, Friedan’s concerns about how to be a wife and mother and feminist at the same time became passé.

When the Equal Rights Amendment went down to defeat ca. 1980 the feminist movement splintered into myriad feminisms; IMO there really hasn’t been “A Feminist Movement” since except in the imaginations of righties who continue to demonize it. Yet by then American women had accomplished much to break the constraints of the 1950s.

Betty Friedan died of congestive heart failure yesterday. She was 85 years old.

What else can I say, but —You did good, Betty. Thanks.

Cartoon Karma

I know some of you won’t be interested in this, but I’m gonna write it anyway …

The Right Blogosphere has become even more unhinged over the Mohammed cartoon riots as they did over the French riots. Just check out the links on Memeorandum.

Apparently the Danish cartoons came about because a Danish author was having trouble finding an illustrator for a book about Islam. Arthur MacMillan wrote for The Scotsman that publication of the cartoons was “intended to generate a debate about freedom of speech.” Well, it’s done that. Andrew Sullivan said that “The cartoons were not designed to ‘incite religious or ethnic hatreds.’ They were designed to protest such incitement – and we have the corpses of Theo van Gogh and Pim Fortuyn as useful proof.”

Whatever the original inspiration, most of the cartoons did not focus on the acts of particular Muslims but instead depicted Mohammed and Muslims in general as homicidal whackjobs. So some bad acts incited more bad acts, which incited violence among Muslims, which incited some Europeans to republish the cartoons to show they weren’t gonna let Muslims tell them what to do, and the violence got worse, and now the nice doggie’s readers are stocking up on ammo. I don’t know if anyone’s been killed yet, but if no one dies before this firestorm dies down it’s going to be a miracle.

It occurred to me that this episode is a textbook example of karma. I was taught by the Zennies that the Sanskrit word karma means action, in particular actions created willfully by both deeds and words. In other words, it’s all about cause and effect. Karma has its own law of physics; once set in motion, it tends to stay in motion. So, for example, Bill may have a hard day at work and come home and yell at Mary, who then loses her temper and takes it out on Junior, who kicks the dog. That bad temper being passed from one person to another is karma.

This cartoon flap is karma writ large.

I am repelled by violence, and I admit I am repelled by Muslims’ violent reaction to the cartoons. But the way to respond is not to work oneself into a self-righteous hateful snit, as our home-grown righties are doing, and use the violence as an excuse to hurl hatespeech back. The way to respond is, first, to refuse to be baited. Refuse to hate back. This is, I believe, what Jesus was reaching to when he said “turn the other cheek.” I’m sure it’s what the Buddha meant when he said,

Occasions of hatred are certainly never settled by hatred. They are settled by freedom from hatred. This is the eternal law.

Others may not understand that we must practice self-control, but quarrelling dies away in those who understand this fact. — The Buddha (the Dhammapada, Pairs 3-6)

The consensus on the Right is that “we’re better because we’re not rioting and burning stuff and issuing death threats. We are verbal haters only.” That won’t win ’em any Buddha points; thoughts and words create evil karma as well as deeds.

I’m not calling for toleration of lawbreaking and violence. As I said, I am repelled by death threats and acts of vandalism. I can’t control what people do in their own countries, but if Muslims in Europe don’t get control of themselves I suspect law enforcement will take control for them. I don’t see any way around that. Most western nations take a dim view of gangs of people using violence and threats to prevent citizens from personal and lawful activities. (The United States may be one of the few exceptions — the anti-abortion rights terrorists are getting away with shutting down abortion clinics all over the country. But that’s another rant.)

But the more I think about it, the clearer it is to me that newspapers that choose not to republish the cartoons are acting correctly. I agree with this Boston Globe editorial

This was a case of seeking a reason to exercise a freedom that had not been challenged. No government, political party, or corporate interest was trying to deny the paper its right to publish whatever it wanted. The original purpose of printing the cartoons — some of which maliciously and stupidly identified Mohammed with terrorists, who could want nothing better than to be associated with the prophet — was plainly to be provocative. Islam prohibits the depiction of Mohammed in any way, whether the image is benign or not.

Other European papers reprinted the cartoons in a reflex of solidarity. Journalists in free societies have a healthy impulse to assert their hard-won right to insult powerful forces in society. Freedom of the press need not be weakened, however, when it is infused with restraint. This should not be restraint rooted in fear of angering a government, a political movement, or an advertiser. As with the current consensus against publishing racist or violence-inciting material, newspapers ought to refrain from publishing offensive caricatures of Mohammed in the name of the ultimate Enlightenment value: tolerance.

Just as the demand from Muslim countries for European governments to punish papers that printed the cartoons shows a misunderstanding of free societies, 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. That is why the Danish cartoons will not be reproduced on these pages.

I admit my opinion is based more on religious philosophy than political philosophy. Politically, the issue is more dicey.

Eugene Volokh is pissed at the Boston Globe because he couldn’t find condemnation of the famous “Piss Christ” photograph in their archives, possibly because the Jesus-soaked-in-pee photo was in the news in the late 1980s and the Globe online archives don’t seem to go back that far. As for the Brooklyn Museum’s display of “the Virgin Mary covered in feces” — I don’t believe that’s accurate. As I remember, the work in particular did not “cover” the image of the Virgin in feces; rather, the image was rendered in medium made partly of elephant dung. (Whether the art was disrespectful or not depends on the beholder, seems to me. I once saw a Zen student make a Buddha out of dog poop and set fire to it, as a demonstration that all things are buddha and also impermanent. The monks were fine with this.) Anyway, the Globe defended the art, which Volokh found inconsistent.

Maybe. Again I am guided by Buddhism, which teaches that purity of motive is essential to purity of action. From that perspective, if the Globe reprinted the Mohammed cartoons it would be an impure act, because they would be doing it only to “get back” at the rioting Muslims. The cartoons are not up to the Globe’s standards and would not have been published for any other reason. If the cartoons were something the Globe wanted to publish for their own sake, however, that would make publishing them an entirely different act even if the Muslims were rioting about them.

I know this sounds convoluted, but that’s how I see it.

Update: Juan Cole takes a stab at explaining the Muslim perspective.

Update update:
See also Joe Gandelman: “…some editors don’t feel they have to publish them to maintain their right to publish them or show that they have this right.”

See also Editor & Publisher.

Update update update: A cartoonist’s perspective.