Sunday, February 05, 2006

Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: cartoons

The news is full of the "cartoon blasphemy" story so this seems a reasonable topic for a Sermonette. For starters, if you are an atheist there is no blasphemy, but certainly lots of fodder for pointing to yet another reason for flushing religions down the toilet. Whatever other disagreements I might have with a fellow human being, the question of what might be drawn in a cartoon seems the most artificial . . . except as a matter of manners, mutual respect and the kind of tacit social agreements which make it possible for people to live together more or less peacefully.

So I am of very mixed emotions with regard to the brouhaha over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in a way hundreds of millions consider idolatrous and offensive. Given the highly charged situation in European liberal democracies regarding their large Muslim minorities, the deliberate publication of these cartoons by some newspapers might arguably be classified as hate speech. The cartoon problem doesn't bother non-Muslims, but we have our own Taliban factions that go after billboards, movies and whatever else they think they can attack legally (or sometimes not) and get away with it. Yes, we have Free Speech in the US, but in fact we can't and don't go to White Supremacist meetings and burn the American flag. As Bush Senior used to say, "Wouldn't be prudent." In actual fact we have many constraints on what is acceptable speech here as well, but we are so familiar with them they are rarely violated. Political cartoons, even offensive ones, are not usually in that category, so we are taken aback.

On the other hand, we have our own rules, and the "cartoon rule" isn't among them. To what extent does a minority get to dictate by means of force, threats and coercion, what the majority can or cannot say or read? There might be arguments for some restrictions, but most of us wouldn't consider political cartoons as exceptions.

There is more to it, of course. The situation in Europe points up sharply the Modernist confrontation between liberal democracies of the West and religious Fundamentalisms of all kinds: Conservative Islam, Orthodox Settler Jews, Fundamentalist Christians of the James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell stripe (who if they could do it would act much as ruling Muslim Fundamentalists do now in countries like Saudi Arabia). One sees an implicit confrontation even within the political structures of the Right. Consider the explicit right wing cultural message promulgated by Fox News's Voice of the Fatherland cheek by jowl with the most tasteless (and often funny), sexually explicit and prurient programming on that same network's entertainment side. The Rage on the Right is fed by the hopelessness of prevailing against the modern economic forces that challenge them. That's neither good nor bad. It's just a fact.

And here's another fact. "Separation of Church and State" is the principle that also keeps the basest instincts of the Mullahs, Rabbis and Robertson-types from intruding in the lives of the rest of us. Makes a good subject for a cartoon.