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.

20 thoughts on “Cartoon Karma

  1. And it reads as “convoluted”. Frankly. And tepid from a 1st Amendment perspective. I don’t mean a legal perspective. I mean what I suggest is the larger, or philosophical, meaning of the 1st Amendment. There is just a whiff of ‘moral equivalence’ here, presented, granted, as more of a response to the nut jobs on the right wing blogsphere, who inevitably jumped on this for their own short sighted reasons. But it is troublesome, to me anyway. The events, are not, and never will be, “morally equivalent”.

  2. And tepid from a 1st Amendment perspective.

    I’ve thought that over. If our government were ordering American newspapers not to publish the cartoons I’d agree, but in this case the newspapers are refraining on their own volition from publishing something that they wouldn’t have published anyway. The cartoons ARE bigoted. So it’s not really a cut-and-dried First Amendment thing. I wrote more about this here.

    If the newspapers were refraining from publishing something they really DID want to publish but were being intimidated into not publishing, that would be an entirely different matter.

    And as I said, my opinion in this matter is informed mostly by religion, not politics. Looking at it from a purely political perspective I might see it differently.

    The events, are not, and never will be, “morally equivalent”.

    I don’t give a rat’s ass about moral equivalence, and I don’t think Jesus or the Buddha did, either. In judging my own conduct, I don’t make excuses for myself saying “those people are worse, so it’s not such a big deal if I do a thing that’s a little bit bad.” That’s how children think. Righties should grow up.

  3. Did you view Michelle Malkin’s little slide show? She’s stirring a powerful pot there. I’m surprised that she/he was so restrained. I’m beginning to worry about violence here now.

  4. She’s stirring a powerful pot there.

    Malkin is the moral equivalent of a two-year-old. She’s a bigot, and now she’s having a fine time acting out her bigotry under the cover of allegedly having her civil liberties oppressed, although I notice no one stopped her from posting the cartoons on her own blog.

    Nothing makes a bigot happier than believing he/she is being oppressed. It gives them permission to hate back.

  5. These cartoons mostly are hateful. Yeah, I’ve seen all of them. I’m impressed most US newspapers choose not to publish them. Maybe surprised is more like it.

    OK, I hate it whenever a site/newspaper publishes an article about this or that and won’t show what this or that is. I think this sucks. You talk about it, but won’t show it so we can make our own opinion.

    Such things are on the internets, which are not considered creditatble enough yet, but once published in a newspaper, these things become fodder for hatered. They also bring consequences.


  6. Maha….thanks for this post.

    Malkin et al jumped onto a vicious-circle karmic wheel which now gains momentum to create more and more violence. Those on the wheel are spinning too fast to realize that the circle dynamic in itself is manipulating those on it, i.e., a sense of being pushed to the downside of the wheel’s motion by negative weight of ‘ the other side’ leads to renewed hateful self-righteous effort to further spin the wheel to create upward thrust for one’s own side.

    It would take wisdom and awareness beyond the ability of black-white thinkers to know how to break the momentum and get off the wheel. The missing link to that wisdom is what you spoke of as purity of motive.

    With respect to the 1st Amendment, those on the wheel may grab that argument only for momentum while those who look into their own motives may be able to place the same 1st Amendment in a context of ultimate spiritual values which include compassion for all.

    There is something seductive about a vicious circle wheel, especially to those who derive pleasure from imagining someone else’s defeat.

  7. I don’t know what Jesus or Buddha thought. I know what people TELL me those two historical figures thought, to the limited extent they existed in the first place and are not simply a composite of numerous people.

    I do believe there is a reason why the first amendment was placed first. I believe it spoke to something inside man. A belief in the free exchange of ideas. The marketplace of ideas. And there will always be abundant amounts of poisonous ideas in this marketplace They will profoundly offend and at times, enrage, people. It’s the price ya pay. It’s still better than having the govt, or the church, synagogue or mosque tell us what we can talk about and what we can read and view.

  8. I don’t know what Jesus or Buddha thought. I know what people TELL me those two historical figures thought, to the limited extent they existed in the first place and are not simply a composite of numerous people.

    In a way it doesn’t matter whether they existed or not. The Buddha (whoever he was) taught people not to believe anything he said without testing it themselves and seeing the truth of it for themselves. And having done this, I do tend to apply the dharma to moral questions. You don’t have to if it doesn’t work for you, of course.

    Nobody reveres the First Amendment more than I do, but I don’t see a direct challenge to the First Amendment here. The issue isn’t that simple.

  9. “In a way it doesn’t matter whether they existed or not”. Wow! At least you are upfront about it. And I salute you for that.

    Its certainly not a direct challenge to the 1st. I agree. I understand that. My point is that it is a challenge to the philosophy that I believe gave rise to the 1st. Its a challenge to the spirit of the 1st, if you will.

    Its, in a manner of speaking, Skokie Illinois all over again. On one level..anyway.

  10. My point is that it is a challenge to the philosophy that I believe gave rise to the 1st. Its a challenge to the spirit of the 1st, if you will.

    Not really. It would have been such a challenge if the material were something the newspapers would have published except for the riots. But they weren’t. Publishing them because of the riots is just allowing yourself to be baited.

    Its, in a manner of speaking, Skokie Illinois all over again.

    Well, not in this country, it isn’t. I doubt there would be Muslim riots in the U.S. even if the cartoons were published in newspapers. I could be wrong, of course.

  11. I would argue they published the pictures for two reasons: because grown ups have a right to the look at what the story was all about. And as an act of solidarity to a newspaper (however right wing the paper may, or may not be) under attack. Its more than a lot people did for Rushdie and for Van Gough when they were under siege.

    I would be really angry if I could not get my hands on translations of OBL’s video or tapes. The media here makes the patronizing decision that I should not read them. That’s nonsense. I have a stake in the story. I want all the facts. Same here. …..I want to see the cartoons in question. It’s silly to be told you can’t see them because it would offend someone if you did.

    I see the spirit of the 1st, and its placement, 1st, within the bill of rights, as putting a bet, if you will, down on free expression. Its not simply, or exclusively, that govt does not have a right to restrict speech or the written (or drawn) word. It most certainly does not. But the 1st is more than that…I would argue. Its encouraging free expression. Its saying, again I would argue, this is what we think works to advance society and freedom. It is this spirit that the rioters are attacking. And ok, from their perspective they can respond “we did not sign on to 1st amendment. Text or spirit. You have your values we have ours.” Ok…ok, I understand that. But I still take the position I take.

  12. Being angry to the point of threatening to kill others or actually killing others because one finds something offensive to one’s belief system is ridiculous, whether it’s angry Muslim mobs or angry mobs of Michelle Malkinists.

    As a Buddhist, I certainly found the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas at Bamiyan offensive. And yet, a Zennier response seemed, to me superior, as in: “If you see Buddha on the road, kill him.”

  13. I would argue they published the pictures for two reasons: because grown ups have a right to the look at what the story was all about. And as an act of solidarity to a newspaper (however right wing the paper may, or may not be) under attack.

    Let’s put it in a different context. Let’s say a newspaper published something that was racist, and the NAACP objected. Let’s take it further and say some black persons were observed committing acts of vandalism to protest the publication of racist material. You are the editor of a different newspaper. Do you (a) write an editorial condemning both the racist material and the vandalism; or (b) publish the material, because some black thugs ain’t gonna tell you what to publish?

    If you go with (a), are you really violating the spirit of the First Amendment, or are you upholding the spirit of tolerance and diversity? If you go with (b), are you not taking sides with the racists?

    Now, you might go with (c), which is publish the material so that people can see what the controversy is about, but with a bunch of disclaimers to let your readers know that you don’t agree with the material. I remember debating this very point in class 30+ years ago when I was a journalism student. I think in making your decision you’d weigh the actual news value of the material against how much it’s going to piss off the advertisers and subscribers. Editors make such decisions all the time, and it’s not considered censorship. It’s considered exercising editorial judgment.

    Finally, there’s (d), which is to describe or paraphrase the mateiral to show your readers why it’s controversial without actually reproducing the material. If you combine (a) and (d) you’d be making the same judgment most of the nation’s newspapers are making.

  14. As a Buddhist, I certainly found the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas at Bamiyan offensive.

    And then if you’re a practicing Buddhist you remind yourself — no attachments! 🙂

    I don’t remember any Buddhist leaders saying all that much about the Bamiyan Buddhas, although maybe they did and I missed it. The correct dharma response was not to get pissed but to reflect on the First Noble Truth. So there wasn’t much of a reaction. No riots, though.

    But then as soon as you start to think you are superior because you didn’t riot … oops! Back of the line for you, boyo! One trap after another. …

    Shunyata! In all the ten directions, just This.

  15. This is definitely a vicious circle and ridiculous. They are cartoons people.
    But that said, Now we live in a world where any group/person no matter how small, no matter where on the planet they are, can put their ridiculous stuff in the public view and watch while millions chase tails over it. If we go down this road, tail chasing burning and killing will be the only activity left among mankind. In a world as wired together as we now are, we are going to have to collectively learn to chill and not crap pants over every single thing every single human does and puts into the public sphere.

  16. As always, Barbara, your analysis is original, well-thought-out, and independent. You’re not afraid to look at an event from a completely different perspective, and that’s why I love your blog and your writing so much.

    Plus, I completely agree with what you say. 🙂

  17. Re the Bamiyan Buddhas: I seem to recall from around that time that some Tibetan Buddhists prayed for those demolishing the statues. How Buddhist, I thought; detached and compassionate. I hope one of you can confirm or deny this story.

    About the cartoons; I would grade the cartoons at a D+ at best, ditto with their publishers, and D- at best for the rioters. At best; for both, F beckons.

    According to Mark Twain, we in this country have three great blessings; freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the good sense not to use either.

  18. Pingback: The Mahablog » Taking the Bait

  19. My theory is that Malkina nd right wing bloggers are yelping about this to no end to distract us all from the real 1st amendment issue that we should be demanding resignations from several in the Bush administration: illegal wire tapping of citizens.

    I find it interesting that the Bush administration actually condemned the cartoons. At least they are consistent in their ideas that speech really is not free.

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