February 10, 2006

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Bloglogo3.jpgTheir Excuse
Twelve cartoons published four months ago have turned the world upside down. Angry Muslims are burning embassies and attacking Westerners. The scenes in major Muslim cities are ugly. It would be easy to presume that the hysteria has theological roots. It does, but its deepest roots have more to do with political realities. First, nations such as Syria and Iran, which ignored the cartoons for months, have used the moment to ignite indignation, diverting attention of their citizens from the draconian policies of their more or less dictatorial leaders. (If you have doubts, answer this: Where do the protesters get their Danish flags?) Second and more important, how can any individual understand the concept of freedom of expression if they have lived in a culture and a political climate where any nugatory word or simulacrum regarding the powers that be is a spoliation of a culture. (Think of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk.) Not one Muslim country condones freedom of expression, especially the type taken for granted in western Europe and the United States. In all Muslim nations, expression is either sanctioned or protected by the state and by religious authorities. Having been educated (and I am using that word in the broadest sense of its meaning), citizens of countries such as Syria and Iran had no choice but to believe that the Danish government had some means of stopping the newspaper from publishing the cartoons. In fact, they believe that the Danish government supported the publication of these ideas because their governments are responsible for what appears in print and on television. Finally, they believe that “the Zionists” somehow forced the Danish government to encourage the Danish newspaper to publish the cartoons. In such political primitive and repressive societies, where education is dictated by theology, the reactions of the common man and woman cannot be justified but can be understood. (For more details, read Michael Kinsley’s “The Ayatollah Joke Book” posted today in Slate.)

What’s Ours?
What cannot be understood is how Americans can adopt a similarly delusional position.

In an Op-Ed essay for the New York Times, Dan Savage, editor of Seattle’s The Stranger, noted that the film End of the Spear has inspired many Christians. The movie tells the story of five missionaries who were murdered in Ecuador and how their families responded. But “conservative Christians were upset when they learned that a gay actor, Chad Allen, was playing a straight missionary…The pastors claim they’re worried about what will happen when their children rush home from the movies, Google Chad Allen’s name, and discover that he’s a ‘gay activist.’ (‘Gay activist’ is a term evangelicals apply to any homosexual who isn’t a gay doormat.)” It sounds like a 21st century version of Lot’s wife. “And they returneth from the movie houses and googleth Chad Allen and their hearts turneth gay.”

Their protest—like much of the evangelicals’ protests about gay marriage and I.D. (intelligent design or idiot’s desire depending on your point of view)–ignores the traditions about which the nation has gradually grown during the past 230 years. In essence evangelicals adopt stances, more political than theological, drape them in their own form of New Testament morality, which they believe is suitable for all human beings, and expect the nation to take notice. How does that differ from the Muslim protesters?

In a time when information abounds freely, a portion of humanity stands frightened. The freedom frightens them because in the vacuum of the doctrinaire they might discover that their doctrine makes no sense, that the cornerstone of their beliefs is crumbling, that their vision of eternity is at best an illusion. For some individuals that prospect frightens them more than reality, and their leaders have only one choice: Create hysteria among their followers—whether Muslim or Christian.

The protests against the cartoons and Chad Allen’s role are reactions to the deliberately unsettling nature of freedom, but without unbridled freedom of expression, the arts and sciences become tools of the political or theological. History abounds with examples, the Inquisition, the Reign of Terror, the totalitarianism of Stalin, and the persecutions by Senator Joe McCarthy. If we call ourselves writers, we have no right to turn away from the threats to freedom, the lifeblood of any intellectual pursuit.

Flaubert’s Lost Fragments
In a review for the London Times, Julian Barnes writes, “Flaubert is exemplary, indeed talismanic, for the stern separation he made between his public and private writings. His novels are objective constructions which unfold in authorial absence; his letters are a place of riotous opinion-giving and frank emotional unbuttoning.”


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