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My Initial Thoughts on the Danish Prophet Cartoons Controversy
posted February 6, 2006

I've been asked a bunch of times how I feel about the Danish Muhammad cartoon affair and the resulting protests. To be honest, I'm not done thinking about this stuff yet, but here's where my head is at right now:

image1. The initial publication was asinine. Two reasons.

First, provocation for the sake of provocation makes more difficult those defenses of free speech when provocation is an unintended, inevitable, or even desirable consequence of journalistic inquiry and artistic expression.

Second, in this specific case, using a stunt to jumpstart the issue gives credence to a wider criticism that Danish Muslims are second-class citizens subjected to cultural abuse. Even if you think it's no big deal to tweak a minority class this way, it's politically inopportune to mix your messages. If there was a climate of fear that needed to be confronted and exposed for the sake of free speech, making a stunt out of it in this way gives its targets a legitimate out, another place to go when the issue is being settled, meaning it's likely no progress on the primary issue will be made.

2. Asinine speech that makes things more difficult and gives its targets an out deserves protection, too. It frequently demands it.

3. My gut feeling is that at least to some degree the severity of the protests doesn't derive from a groundswell of citizen reaction to the issue as much as some maneuvering by various political machines. I just don't think you ramp up to worldwide protests in six days from "They did WHAT in cartoon form five months ago?" without someone revving the engine.

There are signs of some political grinding, too. It's been reported that more offensive, fake cartoons have been used as either outright misrepresentation of the original publication, or as "further evidence" of the kind of social circumstance under which Danish Muslims find themselves. It's also been reported that Danish imams agitated for some action during a trip to the Middle East. There's also the matter that a lot of the initial protests went with a poorly reported iteration of the news that suggested a single cartoonist.

4. Still, without walking among them myself, I can't assume cynicism among people with whom this may have struck an honest chord of dismay and outrage.

5. The question becomes what then should one do? Protests can be a good thing, and an extension of the expressions of opinion protected by free speech. A boycott of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten and its advertisers would be an appropriate response. Marches, picketing, moving, protesting through the press, agitating on wider issues politically using this as an example… these things all seem legitimate to me. I can even somewhat understand the logic behind wider economic boycotts, though those are generally an indelicate, inarticulate way to get an opinion across.

6. However, the nature of the protests here has skittered across the floor from the appropriate to the abominable side of the room, as in violence and threats of violence, and from the reasonable to the irrational, as in holding individual citizens responsible for the actions of other citizens or organizations based on shared nationality, and the expectation that governments should censure their press because another government does so. These should not be encouraged or even tolerated; they should be criticized, rejected and railed against.

7. I appreciate the notion of re-running the original cartoons as a sign of journalistic solidarity, but reprinting the cartoons for the sake of reprinting the cartoons means repeating the stunt, with all of its attendant rhetorical sloppiness.

8. However, no paper that values free speech should refrain from running samples of the cartoons or all of the cartoons as they would normally choose to do so in the process of covering such story. That's the most distressing part of this whole affair. CR ran some of them back in October that I don't think made the journey between servers so with that in mind and out of Internet courtesy I would prefer anyone wanting to see all of them go to The Brussels Journal.

9. Are there additional lessons that North American comics fans can take away from this? Sure, but let's not do so at the expense of where the real issues lie, which are in the extraordinary nature of the protests and the political issues it's churned up. With that focus kept at the forefront, I think this is a reminder of the potency with which different parts of the world hold the editorial cartoon and the tradition of published caricature. I also think the awfulness of the protests should be remembered the next time we're tempted to conflate a North American free speech issue with wider political issues or standards.

10. I may have completely changed my mind on all this stuff five days from now.