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September 30, 2010

Five Thoughts On The Danish Cartoons On Their Five-Year Anniversary

These are my thoughts on the fifth anniversary of the original publication of 12 caricatures of Muhammed in the newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

1. I still think the original publication was a cheap and unnecessary stunt, that doing so in the context of that particular political climate was provocative, that this was known, that provocation was intended, and that in many ways many people who reacted poorly to the cartoons have responded less to some legally strict notion of depicting Muhammed than to the haughty, withering contempt clearly fueling that particular stunt. That doesn't mean that stunts aren't protected free speech or that anyone deserves anything that follows. It's just that it galls a bit to see the publication of those images assume a glow of righteousness it doesn't deserve. It didn't have to be done. When people claim that the original publication was meant to instigate a dialogue, I can only suggest that when people end up dying and there are five-plus years of political and intermittent economic heartache that result, you've really lost control of that conversation. If you ever had it in the first place. If you ever cared to own it at all.

2. That said, the imams and activists that pressed this action as a political point, many lying about the nature of the cartoons (as in the fake pig photoshop cartoon), and using it as a spur to drive violence and misunderstanding and to weaken their own press, these are some of the worst kind of people and their actions should always be viewed as abominable and intolerable. Anyone driven to violent reprisal of any kind -- intimidation, rioting, allowing/encouraging honest press people to be jailed -- even from the most honest sense of outrage, those people are also responsible for their actions, and those actions were in no way laudatory or excusable.

3. The greatest disappointment is that once this became a story of physical violence and economic trial, when millions of average citizens could have used access to the imagery because the nature of that imagery was at question, hundreds of media outlets all over the world abandoned their core missions to inform and educate. Worse, many did so because they were scared. Even worse than that, many did so because they were scared but wrapped themselves in rhetoric that they did not wish to further the offense, which, even if genuine, I'd argue is not a reason to abdicate core values but to have a heavy heart and an eyes-open sympathy for others while fulfilling them. I'm convinced a major reason this remains an issue today is because the world press failed to do its job in early 2006.

4. 139 people died.

5. That this remains an issue in the news speaks to the broad, bland immaturity of the modern political world and the obvious, sad fact that nothing was learned. In fact, learning was resisted. Almost no one's conduct during that time was challenged or questioned, no matter how self-serving the subsequent spin. Yale University Press hands in its right to be taken seriously as a custodian for academic freedom by not allowing the images to be reprinted in an academic study of the images. Kurt Westergaard suffers the most for bravely stepping forward and owning his work, the most provocative image of the twelve. Scarier still, in most cases the cartoons function as a kind of pre-packaged totem, an in for publicity and press coverage that has nothing to do with the issue beyond the call and response of how we perceive such repeat instances should be handled. That's the Molly Norris lesson -- nearly everything that's happened to her existed in a political climate addicted to mayhem and gossip and assumed truths more than it does the flesh and blood world. A Norris cartoon becomes a temporary political and pr football used by another wave of free speech stuntmen and stuntwomen against her expressed wishes. A death threat by an imam is heard only for breathless press coverage attracted to that many google-ready keywords. The worry for Norris' physical safety isn't that an actual political attack will be made but that some nut-job reading all the press coverage will see harming Norris as an invitation to enjoy the praise of allies, the scorn of enemies and the attention of everyone.

I don't see this particular hangover ending any time soon.
posted 6:00 pm PST | Permalink

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