Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Last Thursday the Wisconsin Senate voted 33-0 to criminalize demonstrations held within 500 feet of a funeral. Gov. Jim Doyle is expected to sign the bill tomorrow, and 14 additional states are considering similar legislation. If the new law is challenged, it's likely to be found unconstitutional, but it's hard for me to call it wrong-headed.

The bill was a direct reaction to the crazed Rev. Fred Phelps, of Topeka, KS. Obsessed for years with homosexuality, the good Reverend has developed a theology that attributes pretty much everything to God's hatred of gays. Phelps and his congregation have taken to picketing the funerals of AIDS victims and Iraq casualties (God is mad because the U.S. military is too tolerant of gays—a recent Phelps banner read, “Thank God for IEDs”). I'll be the first to stand up for Rev. Phelps' right to publish his ideas, however ugly, in print and on his charming website, www.godhatesfags.com, or to mount demonstrations at public events, but to accost the grieving at a funeral comes awfully close to Oliver Wendell Holmes' “shouting fire in a crowded theater” analogy.

All this is concurrent with the international incident that began with twelve now infamous cartoons originally published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last September. The cartoons were solicited by the paper's culture editor, Flemming Rose, who felt that Europeans were too timid in their criticism of the Islamic world. He asked members of the Danish cartoonist union to lampoon the religion, and the rest is history. Rose claims he was trying to open up the discourse, but if he didn't foresee the consequences of poking a stick in the eye of a culture that already feels under attack from all quarters, he's a fool. More likely, he's a scoundrel. The video images of rioting Muslims have been broadcast around the world, helpful to no one but the European right wing, and the situation continues to spiral. Davoud Kazemi, of the conservative Iranian paper Hamshahri, reacted by announcing a contest for the best Holocaust cartoon. Great idea, Davoud! That's sure to improve the situation! Give that guy a Peabody! In response, the right-wing online Swedish paper Sd-Kuriren announced their own contest for best cartoon disparaging Islam. Get ready for continued hilarity, folks!

Freedom of speech is easy to espouse, difficult to endure. In 1989 people were free to walk about Tienanmen Square with banners proclaiming, “Hurray for Deng Xiaoping!” with impunity. It's the ugly and damaging speech that tests our ideals. Legislation is largely an exercise in drawing rather arbitrary lines on a continuum, and the stories recounted above reside on an uncomfortable gray patch. They are all examples of speech meant not to enlighten, but to hurt. We'd all be better off without it, but when a government starts separating the good speech from the bad, it takes a broad step toward Totalitarianism. At the risk of sounding like Rodney King, it's our responsibility as citizens to communicate constructively.

Last week the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote a letter taking the Washington Post to task for publishing a Tom Toles cartoon critical of Donald Rumsfeld, that depicted the U.S. Military as an injured, limbless patient. I'm willing to give the Chiefs the benefit of a doubt, to assume they didn't get the joke, and were acting only in solidarity with injured veterans, but any governmental reprimand for journalistic criticism doesn't inspire hope.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just recently put a post on my blog pointing out the contradiction the leading newspaper Hamshahri is making against its own President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian President Ahmadinejad last week said, “The Holocaust is a "myth" that was created by Western powers to justify the creation of Israel in the heart of the Islamic world.” So, if the Holocaust is only a “myth”, I do not think it would be offensive to the Jewish population, or any type of effective retribution.

12:38 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks for commenting, Joey. Of course there's no hypocrisy in a newspaper contradicting its president--that's part of its job--harder to do under some regimes than others. I don't mean to credit Kezemi with intentionally contradicting Ahmadinejad, but to assume that Iran, or any nation, speaks with one voice would be to misunderstand it completely.

4:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I exercise the freedom to wave a red rag at a bull, shouldn't I also be prepared for the consequences?

The people who chose to re-print those Danish cartoons are either very naiive or very stupid (or both).

9:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of Tienanmen Square, Roger B., I guess that guy standing in front of the tanks was "naive" and "stupid". No doubt he brought it on himself and deserved what he got.

In any case, CBPVK, I think you made a wise decision to keep yourself uninformed about the Jyllands-Posten issue. It's easier to hold views like yours when you keep the facts away.

The facts, however, are these: A Danish author wrote a book, and went looking for an illustrator. Unfortunately, the book would have required an illustration of Mohammed, and Europeans are scared out of their wits of Muslims ever since the murder of Theo van Gogh. No illustrator would touch the project.

Religious lunatics silencing people with the threat of violence was the issue there.

Lots of journalists like to pretend they're very brave and that they refuse to be intimidated; that's our myth about journalists, isn't it? We learned it from Hollywood movies about noble, fearless journalists. The scripts for those idealistic-journalist flicks are mostly written by ex-journalists who went to Hollywood to make a fast buck without having to risk possibly offending any organized crime figures. (But like a lot of myths, those movies are valuable in that they tell us what we should be, and with any luck they shame us into acting like better people than we really are).

99% of journalists are lying about that courage stuff. They're brave enough to fearlessly offend the Joint Chiefs, who are so absolutely terrifying that when they went so far as to write a (gasp!) polite and respectful letter to the editor, it was an unprecedented event and made the national news. Ooooh, scary! Or some of these brave, brave men even go so far as to say obnoxious things to politicians at press conferences, or make fun of Dick Cheney.

But show them somebody who really just might hurt them, and they go a little weak in the knees. They suddenly remember that they're liberals, and they reflexively get down on their bellies so fast their chins bounce. And they lick the boot.

Jyllands-Posten didn't lick the boot. They stood up to violent intimidation as journalists, at their best, ought to and (thank the deity of your choice, if any) sometimes do. They knew what they were getting into. They were risking their lives in the defense of freedoms that you take for granted, Roger B. But they did it in real life, not in a movie. And that's why you hate them, isn't it? Because when it's real, it reminds you just a little too acutely of how massively you fall short of their standard. Of course, lots of us fall short of that standard. If the crunch came, I might fall short myself, though I sure hope not. But when you've sunk so low that you resent people who set a good example rather than honoring them, there's nowhere further to sink. You're as low as a human being can get.

You know what Hemingway said: When nothing is worth more to you than your life, your life is worth nothing.


Jyllands-Posten didn't solicit cartoons lampooning Islam. They solicited cartoons depicting Mohammed. And a critical depiction is a legitimate one.

If a crazed creationist killed you for your work, cpbvk, would you consider yourself a "fool", or a "scoundrel", or both?

Or would you possibly be able to grasp, in that case, that the fool and the scoundrel was the moron who murdered you? He's a murderer, OK? That'd why it'd be necessary for somebody to defy him in the first place, right?

But of course that wouldn't happen, because creationists don't kill over cartoons. If they did, you'd be down on your belly, drawing Noah's Ark and licking the boot.

You gutless little creep.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Rogerb.: Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your stopping by.
Anonymous: Wow! Happy to have struck a nerve, pal. Congratulations on the most venomous (and articulate!) flame of my 2-month blogging career. For all their vitriol, though, your arguments stray from the topic, take some wild logical leaps, and ultimately fail to convince. Good try, though. In closing, may I point out the irony of someone yammering obsessively about courage, while commenting anonymously on the blog of a "gutless little creep?"

7:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yo Carel,
Thought I'd swing by and say hi. Love your blog. I usually go to bed w/o news and wake up w/o news so events don't ruin my day. I read the Times mid-day so anything that pisses me off willwork out of my system. The S. DAkota gov. is a good example.the governor said. "The sponsors and supporters of this bill believe that abortion is wrong because unborn children are the most vulnerable and most helpless persons in our society."
Then those people can CHOSE NOT to have an abortion. Let everyone else make up their own minds! Thanks for letting me vent. People need to mind their own affairs!

11:56 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks for stopping by, Robbynne! Give my very best to Nick.

11:18 AM  

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