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TPM Reader RS It

TPM Reader RS: "It might be instructive to remember the reactions to "Piss Christ," Andres Serrano's photograph of a crucifix in a glass of urine. NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani, no friend of civil rights, tried to get it removed from a display at the tax-supported Brooklyn Museum. The arts and civil liberties community rose up in opposition and "Piss Christ" stayed. Giuliani didn't try to prevent the work from being displayed at all, he only said taxpayer's money shouldn't support its display, a distinction lost on many. And of course, there was no violence."

TPM Reader CZ: "My first reaction was to the violence and the sense that the Muslim world needs to understand what a free press means. But as I reflect on it more, I think one of the greatest weaknesses of our western societies (currently so wedded to capitalism and sensationalism) is the belief that nothing is sacred. So, of course, I repudiate Muslim violence. But I'm also put off by the cavilier attitude the Danish newspaper showed in publishing the cartoons."

Would Americans be no

Would Americans be no less outraged at a mocking cartoon of Martin Luther King (say, in some stereotyped Watermelon-eating pose) or Jesus as many Muslims around the world are at the Danish cartoons?

I think it's probably fair to say that any mainstream publication that published such a caricature of King would be swamped in a wave of social opprobrium, probably sufficient to lead to the firing of editors or others who were directly responsible for the decision to publish. With a mocking or satirical Jesus, I think the reaction would be not quite so dramatic. But I think the informal bars to something like that are great enough that they just stop it from happening.

(Again, I think it's a given that one could probably find either in out of the way publications. But I'm talking about major newspapers, national magazines, etc.)

So does that make it the same? Is the level of offense equal?

I think we all have some sense of seeing some racist outfit publish a vile caricature of someone like King and then hiding behind 'free speech' orthodoxy when the you-know-what comes down on them. So if this were just the Muslims in Denmark equivalent, I wouldn't be inclined to much sympathy.

To me, that's part of the equation -- the level of offense and the social/cultural context. But the real issue here is the resort to violence (at the extremes) and the calls for state intervention to prevent such publication from happening (on the 'moderate' end) that makes this different.

But let me know your thoughts.

It was sort of

It was sort of easy to let it slip by. But Jonathan Weisman had an important piece in the Post on Saturday. In the piece, Weisman notes how new Majority Leader John Boehner's first move on the job was to put a halt to the House GOP's already fairly anemic bill to crack down on lobbyists. The bill, which was moving forward under the sponsorship of Speaker Hastert and Rep. Dreier, went too far, says Boehner.

Following up on post

Following up on post below about the statue of Mohammed that used to be on the front of the Manhattan Appellate Courthouse, it seems there's also a likeness of Mohammed in the decorations on the front of the United States Supreme Court. In addition, there's also a statue of Mohammed inside the building.

In the mid-1990s, the Muslim advocacy group CAIR petitioned the late Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist to remove the statue and the likeness of Mohammed in the frieze on the front of the building and also asked him to change the language in Supreme Court literature that referred to Mohammed as the "founder" of Islam rather than the "prophet" of Islam.

Rehnquist turned down the request to get rid of the statue and frieze carving, but agreed to reword the references in Court literature.

The only reference to this I've been able to find is in footnote 18 of this law review article. It's on page 7 and 8 of the pdf. It includes a few more details.

Not that it has

Not that it has any real relevance to the cartoon controversy over in Europe, but just as historical trivia: the Manhattan Appellate Courthouse at 27 Madison Avenue has a series of statues of history's great lawgivers on the front of the building -- Hammurabi, Moses, Justinian, etc.

The courthouse was built in 1900. And for the first half century one of the statues was of Mohammed.

However, in the 1950s, according to the city website, "the statue of Mohammed was removed at the request of representatives of various Muslim nations, responding to the Islamic canon which forbids the representations of humans in sculpture or painting."

WaPo Intelligence officers who

WaPo: "Intelligence officers who eavesdropped on thousands of Americans in overseas calls under authority from President Bush have dismissed nearly all of them as potential suspects after hearing nothing pertinent to a terrorist threat, according to accounts from current and former government officials and private-sector sources with knowledge of the technologies in use ... Fewer than 10 U.S. citizens or residents a year, according to an authoritative account, have aroused enough suspicion during warrantless eavesdropping to justify interception of their domestic calls, as well. That step still requires a warrant from a federal judge, for which the government must supply evidence of probable cause.

This stuff really is

This stuff really is amazing. It's not just evolution that's beyond the pale anymore. Bush administration campaign flacks are making NASA employees put the word 'theory' in front of references to 'big bang' in NASA publications. Lucky we can still talk about dinosaurs.

It sounds broad brush but facts, empiricism really have become an issue of the day.

You can see below

You can see below that I've published a couple reader comments about the Muslim cartoon controversy in Europe. I should say, as I've said before many times, that when I reprint something a reader writes in to me that does not necessarily mean that I agree with it in every respect. Certainly, it's not random that I pick out one comment over another; the ones I pick have struck some chord for me and I want to pass them on. Still, don't read the reprinting as a proxy for agreement.

In any case, 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.

There were episodes vaguely like this in India during the Raj, probably in other parts of the British empire (read Churchill's The River War) and other European colonial empires. But the outraged Muslims were thousands of miles away from the colonial centers. So it was a problem of Imperial management. It didn't hit home.

For Europea and North America, this hits home.

A number of readers have written in this evening and explained that the source of Muslim outrage is not that Muslims are being stereotyped as violent. It is that there is a specific and deeply-held taboo in Islam against graphical portrayals of Mohammed. You're not supposed to draw pictures of Mohammed, to put it quite simply. And you're especially not supposed to draw pictures that are insulting of the religion or portray him in sacrilegious ways.

I know that. I already knew it. I know the whole backstory.

In isolation, in the abstract, it's certainly a taboo I'd want to respect, or at least not needlessly offend.

But all of that is beside the point. 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. It's back to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses (which, if you're only familiar with it as a 'controversy' is a marvelously good book) -- if on a less literary and more amorphous level.

The price of blasphemy is death. And among many in the Muslim world it is not sufficient that those rules apply in their countries. They should apply everywhere. Perhaps something so drastic isn't called for -- at least in the calmer moments or settled counsels. But at least European governments are supposed to clamp down on their presses to heal the breach.

In a sense how can such claims respect borders? The media, travel and electronic interconnections of the world make borders close to meaningless.

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.

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.

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.

(Along these lines, read this short Talk of the Town piece in this week's New Yorker. A lot of meaning is packed into a very short space.)

It's not the US or the West versus Islam. At least it's not that simple. In any case, the government in this country is too close to illiberalism, militarism and theocracy for that to work as a model. But it is there -- liberalism and authoritarianism, modernity and theocracy.

TPM Reader NG I

TPM Reader NG: "I, for one am sick and tired of being bullied by fundamentalists of all stripes. The Muslims spend all their time being offended, and the Evangelicals in this country spend all their time on the offensive. I applaud the European papers who have republished the cartoons, and hope that some of that courage sets an example in this country."

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