Sunday, February 05, 2006

Those controversial cartoons

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars has been providing some interesting commentary and context for the Danish cartoons that have created such a stir. I haven't commented on them before because I basically see it like Publius does, bogus outrage over inconsequential and mediocre art.

Ed's latest commentary strikes me as off, though. Let us move past the Orwellian and redundant neologism "homicide bomber." Which bombers aren't homicidal? What distinguishes the Unabomber and a guy with a bomb strapped on in a Jerusalem bus? Suicide. They are suicide bombers. Stop the silliness.

Do the cartoons deserve any official rebuke? No. The EU has rightly refused to apologize as an institution because the institution did not publish them, and they value freedom of speech, so it would be wrong for them to insist that the papers apologize.

Should individual citizens call on the papers to retract the cartoons or apologize for them? Maybe. That is certainly a valid expression of individual speech, and there is material in some of them deserving of condemnation.

I'd like to add one bit of social context. In America, Muslims fall roughly into the same social status as Buddhists, Mormons or Catholics, a minority religion that is poorly understood, but basically blends in. American Muslims face relatively little prejudice, though 9/11 made many people more jumpy about Islam and Muslims at large, unfortunately.

A cartoon poking fun at Mormons, Buddhists, or Catholics would get some angry letters to the editor from various people, but there would not be any broad social controversy over it, I expect. The individual calls for an apology would be appropriate, but no one would expect official comment from the White House. As an example, consider the lack of social debate over the often bizarre media response to the passing of Pope John Paul II and the selection of his replacement. Treatment of the Catholic Church and its rich traditions was often cartoonish, some Catholics were offended, but things blew over.

In Europe, Muslims occupy a social status more like Mexicans or African-Americans in the US, an often mistrusted proletarian class seen as criminals and outsiders and marked as distinctive by their physical features, speech and dress. Like Mexicans in America, Muslims in Europe are an immigrant and migrant working class, often portrayed as stealing jobs and insidiously changing the culture. The history of the Crusades, the Spanish battles for Iberia, the Ottoman expansion as far as Austria, and modern contests over immigration all provide a very different cultural understanding of Muslims in Europe than we have here. In that context, these cartoons might be seen as more similar to racial caricatures of Mexicans or black people. Does that change our analysis? Should it?

Note that I'm not justifying prejudice against any group, merely observing that such prejudices do exist in society at large. Individuals can and do avoid them, and we should be proud of that.
Muhammed Cartoon
Imagine a cartoon in an American paper which showed Martin Luther King, Jr. or Frederick Douglass pointing a gun at the reader (roughly equivalent to Muhammad wearing a bomb instead of a turban). Would that deserve condemnation from the White House? What about a cartoon which simply showed a Mexican–maybe Vicente Fox, Pancho Villa or some generic mariachi band–swimming across a river?
I'm not sure whether it would be appropriate for there to be official government statements against such a cartoon, but the calculus is different than if it were a drunk Scotsman or a mafioso Italian. Fat Tony or Groundskeeper Willy from the Simpsons go unremarked–despite existing only as stereotypes. What if Snake, the career criminal, were stereotypically black, a minstrel show caricature of a black criminal, existing only to steal? What if the school groundskeeper were Mexican and existed only as a lazy manual laborer, rather than a thrifty, Scottish, alcoholic manual laborer? I dare say things would be different.

I don't know what this all means. I don't know if it's good or bad. Should we be as outraged at stereotypical treatments of Italians as we are of stereotypical black portrayals? If so, should we be more offended about Italian stereotypes or less offended about African-American stereotypes? How does that affect our understanding of these cartoons given Europe's different relationship with Islam and Muslims?

My inclination is to say that the history of racism against blacks in America and the fact that stereotypes of blacks and Mexicans in America have real impacts on the lives of people in those groups means that it's more important to limit the promotion of those stereotypes, though it's most important to eliminate the harm that those stereotypes cause. Similarly, stereotypes of Muslims in Europe have an impact not just on their choice of newspaper illustrations, but on social policies (such as banning religious headwear in France), on economic policy, and on decisions about expanding the EU to include Turkey. Promoting stereotypes strengthens the ultra-right wing and near-Nazi political groups (e.g. Jean-Marie Le Pen). That helps no one.