February 04, 2006

Boston Globe on the Cartoons

I'm sorry but this editorial is pathetic.

It conflates all sorts of stuff in an absurd melange of platitudes that shouldn't pass for rational thought, much less publishable opinion.

First, it is debatable whether the initial publishing of the cartoons was a good idea. It was obvious that they would be offensive to Muslims, and restraint probably would have been wiser. But it's completely disingenuous to act like the freedom they were exercising was not under attack. Perhaps the Danish government had not outlawed depictions of Mohammed, but the EU has debated laws restricting "racist" or "religiously intolerant" speech. And there is definitely an active movement to increase the restrictions. Plus, you have to regard the fatwas against Rushdie and the murder of Theo van Gogh as attacks on that freedom. Yes, perhaps "no government, political party, or corporate interest" was trying to stop them, but a violent and extreme segment of society was. The freedom of speech and the press definitely is under attack in Europe. Perhaps the parochialism of the Globe's editors makes that hard to see.

Second, even if the freedom wasn't under attack when the Jyllands-Posten published the cartoons, it definitely was when the other European papers spasmed in "a reflex of solidarity". While the editorial elides this fact and puts the other papers in the same category as the first (a category that they righteously eschew), it's worth remembering that when the other papers followedd, threats, from bombings to boycotts, had been leveled against the original publisher and Denmark. The freedom of the press surely was under attack by then. In addition, by this point it was an important news story in its own right, and the public should be able to judge for themselves the offensiveness of the cartoons.

Third, the moral equivalence of all types of "offense" is atrocious. Nazi caricatures of Jews are particularly bad because they are representational of a desire (and historical attempt) to exterminate the Jews. Likewise, with the Klan. That's why a burning cross isn't constitutionally protected -- because it is associated with an implied threat of violence and intimidation. The cartoon of Mohammed, even if intended to offend, even if disrespectful, is not the same as the others. There is no identification with a desire to wipe out or subjugate all Muslims. For the same reason, eating a pork sandwich or letting women drive, while "offensive" to some Muslims, is not on the same level as the Nazis. There are at least three levels that are worth considering: (1) offensive with no intent to offend, (2) offensive with intent to offend, and (3) offensive with an implied threat of violence and/or subjugation. Wearing a bikini, publishing the cartoons, and Nazi hate cartoons most likely fall into levels 1, 2, and 3, respectively.

Fourth, the idea that the root cause of this controversy is the "refusal of each camp to recognize and respect the otherness of the other" is absurd. The otherness (radical Islam) of the other (fundamentalist Muslims) requires them to reject the otherness (freedom of speech, tolerance) of us (broadly, the West). The idea that respecting otherness can somehow solve everything is at the core of multiculturalism – and it's pure nonsense. Sometimes othernesses are at odds with each other and we, in our capacity as moral agents, have to judge which is good/right/just and which is evil/wrong/unjust. The proper lessons of multiculturalism are that (1) not all, or even many, differences must be judged or reconciled and (2) we should try to judge without prejudice, chauvinism, or an ethnocentric bias – we should be open to us being wrong and the other being right. In this case, I have no qualms contending that our otherness is hands down morally better than the other's otherness.

Fifth, the "ultimate Enlightenment value" requires us to be tolerant even of intolerance – so long as it's non-violent. The one thing we must be intolerant of is violent intolerance itself. Thus, while tolerance says we can critique but must accept the Danish cartoons, and can critique but must accept the Boston Globe's editorial, can even critique but must accept this blog post, it says we must reject the violent reaction of extremists. Why in this editorial is their no mention of the unacceptable threats of violence in response? Was there no room after pointing out the other newspapers' sins to condemn the response? The closest we get to condemning the reaction is a remark that Muslim countries's demands "show[] a misunderstanding of free societies".

Finally, the paper's hypocrisy is palpable. Christians can be offended without concern, but Jews, Muslims, and blacks can't. Some fundamentalist Christians are extremely offended by homosexuality and the idea of gay marriage – should we avoid offense by calling those subjects off limits? Government funding of offensive art is fine, but private publishing of cartoons is intolerant. Where was the outrage when this picture of Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby was published in England? Or the brown sugar or other racist ones about Condoleeza Rice? False stories of Quran flushings should be repeated (despite the harm to national security, the incitement to violence, and disrespect to Islam associated with such reports) because they are important news. I don't think Christians deserve any more protection (i.e. very little) than the other groups and I think true stories of Quran desecration are important news, but fitting the editors' past, or imputed, stances with this op-ed is difficult. Posted by richard at February 4, 2006 12:32 PM


You raise some interesting points, but I think your focus is off. Who cares if the Globe is hypocritical? What really matters is how we can reconcile the clash of civilizations. For that reason, I started a conversation at e-thePeople asking an implied question in your post (what is the real lesson of multiculturism?)

I do agree that a stereotypical flaw of liberals demonstrated by the Globe is to take moral equivalence too far. We won't resolve the clash by backing away from the fight.

[On a technical note, can you change your blog settings to allow the syndication of the entire entry and not just the first sentence? I prefer to read the articles within bloglines and come here only if I want to post a reply.]

Posted by: Michael Weiksner at February 4, 2006 07:43 PM

Tolerance and respect for the opinions/beliefs of others is a paramount value — up to the point where the other people aren't willing to tolerate you back.

In short, one should tolerate the intolerance of others except when that other person is intolerant of your very tolerance. Huh?

What we could well be looking at is a clash of absolutes, an irreconcilable conflict. I hope it's not so, but it seems to be. An appropriate parallel, I think, is the abortion debate. One side purports to support "tolerance," i.e., what a woman does is up to her. The other side shakes its head no, and takes an absolute position that it's wrong. Thus, it's impossible to bring the two sides together, as it's impossible not to choose a side. You can't say you don't care, because if you don't care, you're pro-choice. And in the eyes of the pro-lifers, that is, in essence, a kind of complicity.

The problem with fundamentalists of any stripe is that they can't coexist with people who don't agree with them. It's not good enough just to change the channel — the ungodly material has to be off the television. Our fundamentalists here in America are a rising pain in the ass. The Islamic fundamentalists are freaking scary.

It really sucks to be caught in the middle. And it'll be something when these two frontiers collide. Relativism is useful, but it shrinks to nothingness when confronted with absolutism. At some point you have to take a stand. And I agree: our otherness is hands down the better product.

Honor killings, beheadings, and the torching of embassies have no place in civilized society. It's not "you say tomato, I say tomahto." Your tomato is rotten, it stinks to high heaven, and Allah is turning up his nose at it. Mohamed, too (photo not shown).

Posted by: Phutatorius at February 4, 2006 10:45 PM

Another thing: I should think that carrying signs that call for "exterminating," "beheading," and "butchering" those who "slander Islam" falls into category (3).

Posted by: Phutatorius at February 4, 2006 10:48 PM


I hardly think it's fair to say that the focus of my post was the hypocrisy of the Globe. Sure, perhaps putting it last gave it undue prominence, but it actually received very little space in the post.

What I was trying to say is that the editorial is wrongheaded for a whole slew of reasons... and it's not even consistent or easily reconcilable with the paper's past opinions. Unless of course, the underlying theme is along the lines of "offensive cartoons for me but not for thee".

But the critique of the rest of the op-ed does and should stand without the charges of hypocrisy. So if you prefer, read it again without the last paragraph.

Posted by: richard at February 4, 2006 11:03 PM

This is a hot topic - it just finished peaking at #1 on e-thePeople. Other the hypocracy point, it is quite spot on.

And Phuta's point about the limits of tolerance would be a great way to revise the conclusion to your original post. It would also be a welcome addition to the etp debate that currently underway.

- Mike

Posted by: Michael Weiksner at February 6, 2006 06:58 PM