“Drawing Muhammad”? Free Speech and Fake Goods

In general, I am in favor of free speech. The sole exception being when my sixteen year old daughter talks through re-runs of Seinfeld or Frasier.

I have even gone on (nuanced) record as saying that no one should be put to death for trying to represent the Prophet of Islam. My final verdict on the Danish cartoon debacle a few years ago is that the Danes aren’t very funny. No wonder Hamlet never smiled.

Not that anyone has the foggiest idea what Muhammad looked like, making the idea of “caricature” about as useful as painting Moses with eye shadow and ringlets. Oh wait: he probably did use eye shadow and have ringlets, at least until he discovered he was a son of Israel and not a prince of Egypt. My bad.

In general however: it is a bad idea to threaten someone for disparaging your religion. Especially when the disparagement in question does not even rise to the level of sophisticated satire, let alone to a level where it should be a test case in free speech.

I personally favor a United Nations Commission for Insult and Indignation (there’s one for everything, anyway) to vet all cases where insult or defamation has been alleged. The Commission (I am glad to offer my services as its first director) would distinguish between (1) “really good satire,” (2) “disgusting and unfunny ridicule,” (3) “pathetic attempt at humor”, and (4) “potentially blasphemous and insulting, even to bystanders.” It would take a unanimous vote of the Commission for anything to achieve level (4), which would require the offenders to dress up like altar boys and spend a weekend in a rectory.

I don’t have a category for “literary” works considered to be blasphemous but apparently the Nobel Committee does, which is why Salman Rushdie will never win the prize for Literature.

All of this is to say, that the rudderless and publicity-starved “Center for Inquiry” is at it again. And (according to the legal puritans in Buffalo) it’s all about free speech.

In its latest attempt to appear useful, CFI comes to the unsolicited defense of two improbable offenders: South Park and a contest to “Draw Muhammad” that never really got off the ground.

Religions have traditionally bristled when their core doctrines have been lampooned. South Park‘s spin is usually tasteless (Who doesn’t hum “Mr Hanky the Christmas Poo” during the holy season? Who can forget the vision of the Future in the Go God Go episode, when Cartman can’t wait three weeks until the Wii console is available and is transported into an atheist future where Richard Dawkins has become a messiah?)

When South Park “does” religion, it can be sweepingly irreverent and occasionally poignant. It is sometimes offensive,as Comedy Central discovered when it received veiled threats from an Islamic organization based in New York over its 200th episode where Muhammad is “represented” as being inside a bear suit.

The episode has attracted attention in the blogosphere, with young Muslim South Park fans expressing reactions ranging from “disappointment” to anger and frustration. A viewer named Bilal el-Houri says that Muslims should take the episode and the furore as a wake-up call, and instead of grunting, boycotting and screaming should be asking themselves why these depictions are now standard.

The so-called threat comes from a certain Abu Talhah al Amrikee and is pretty dull: “It’s not a threat, but it [violence] really is a likely outcome. They’re going to be basically on a list in the back of the minds of a large number of Muslims. It’s just the reality.” The show’s producers didn’t know that was a likely outcome? Really?

Good satire is supposed to annoy the satiree–otherwise no game. And it is merely masturbatory for a secular advocacy group to enter the picture with a typically onerous lecture on how South Park has a right to be offensive. We know that. That’s why we watch it. Not because we see every episode as a cannon shot for free expression.

Besides, some young bloggers thought the South Park episode was less funny than it was deliberately provocative, a crass bet on a sure-fire reaction to any attempt to insult the Prophet. Wrote Sher Zeinab, “2 b honest 200 episode wasnt funny at all to me!” She then added, “Bringing Mohammad back! when you know it is a sensitive issue […] seems to me southpark is running out of ideas!!! that angle just brought everything down.”

In other words, South Park got what it wanted, or maybe more than it bargained for, with Episode 200–the same way you might get a faceful if you tell fat Mrs Murphy, your annoying neighbor, a series of “Yo mama is so fat” jokes. Are you really going to the cops when she tells you to desist or she’ll sik her Rottweiler on you?

Taste and discretion are not essential considerations if you just want to be tasteless and indiscreet, but the question of motive does arise. Free Speech? Solidarity? Puhleez. Save it for real cases of censorship.

That brings me back to my drum. Surely if secularists and atheists have the right to satire and what they are self-describing as “blasphemy,” offended parties have the right to bristle. Listen, atheists: no such thing as a free ride. Your right to deliver insult is matched by my right to be offended and to call you a tasteless cur. No good whining about your right to be dull and overbearing when I do–not even when I say–hyperbolically of course–that you need a good thrashing for your lack of manners and civility.

If you think the pope molests little boys, as a winning cartoon in the CFI Cartoon Cavalcade suggests, then be prepared for the Catholic Church to cry foul.

When Arabs produce cartoons of Jews eating Palestinians, prepare for the Jews to disagree.

Sharon as Cronus

And if Muslims cringe and mumble threats when they see their religion pilloried on South Park or by a desperate Seattle News cartoonist looking for spin (bad idea after a bad night at the bar?), please don’t try to sell this to me as real jewels: they aren’t.

They’re publicity stunts, nothing more. Not only that, but in a world where religious emotions are running high on our crowded planet they are stunts that raise the temperature–like yelling fire in a crowded theatre, nudge nudge.

It has been a long time since an atheist was burned at the stake for his unbelief or a philosopher roasted on a spit for being an Epicurean. Not so long for Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and even Catholics. Given a complicated recent history I’m not sure that South Park‘s post-religious take on heaven or its enviable skill in stirring the pot of religious sensitivities is the place for a serious meeting of minds on the question of free expression and tolerance.

The right to criticism and insult is, surely, the low bench mark in what the doctrine of free expression is all about. The principle does not command the assent of the offended: it condones vigorous disagreement and defense. And to call every case of disagreement and even “veiled threats” and overreaction an attack on the Constitutional guarantee of free speech reaches so far beyond common sense and sound judgment that it is difficult to know whether the atheist Lilliputians are really really afraid Gulliver is trampling on their rights or are simply inventing him to scare others.

3 thoughts on ““Drawing Muhammad”? Free Speech and Fake Goods

  1. I adore Frasier (well Niles), I’ve never seen South Park and the CFI article I shoved below is really really boring. Yeah right ‘massive, public, noisy solidarity’ … is it ‘Muslim thuggery’ or really just the thugs at CFI? If you make Muhammed pretend to be a bear, what’s going to happen next? The sun goes down and gosh it comes up. Perhaps South Park should do an episode on CFI next. Or better still, Monty Python and the Life of Lindsay. Except nobody’s ever heard of him…

    http://www.centerforinquiry.net/news/cfi_condemns_intimidation_of_comedy_central_urges_solidarity_in_the_face_of/

  2. Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore–CFI has become a Pirandello tragicomedy, or more to the point has to resort to gimmickry to substitute for vision. A bit sad really.

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