The more things change, the more they stay the same...
This being a free country and all, I figure I’m as entitled to my opinion the same as the next guy, so I’m going to take this opportunity to bloviate a little, if you don’t mind. There’s a great fight going on these days and some of the people you’d expect to be in the forefront of this struggle are surprisingly AWOL. The question facing Western civilization these days goes beyond the multicultural let’s-be-inclusive politically correct pap we’ve all been listening to for I don’t know how many years now. It goes beyond whether or not you find those Danish cartoons funny or in poor taste. Muslims throughout the world have responded to the publication of those cartoons by boycotting Danish products, denouncing Denmark in the media, and demonstrating outside of Danish embassies and consulates. All of this is, to my mind, legitimate protest; one need only remember the reaction to Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ,' Martin Scorsese’s 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' and Chris Ofili’s ‘The Holy Virgin Mary’ to know that the faithful of all religious persuasions dislike the idea of having their beliefs mocked or the idea that they should simply sit back and accept these insults without a fight. What any society, however, cannot accept is the threat and use of violence to enforce any one religion’s dogmas as civil law on those people who do not accept that religion’s doctrines. And yet, many of the people whom you would think would never under any circumstances accept a confessional exception for the tenets of Christianity or Judaism in the law seem fully willing to accept such an exception for Islam.
And why is that? There are many reasons, but the simplest one is the easiest to understand, and has the benefit of truth as well: they are frightened; they don’t want an Islamic rent—a—mob sacking their offices and harming their families, co-workers, and friends. Who are the they I am talking about here? The media, for one, which is censoring itself in a manner it would not dream of doing for Catholic or evangelical protestors, and seems more interested in playing gotcha with the Administration over the Vice-President's hunting accident that in showing the American people what the cause of all the rioting is. Not one major media outlet that I am aware of has actually published these cartoons, and I think it is a strange commentary on the American press that their main objection to this accident is that the White House did not stroke their outsized egos as much as they would have liked. The artists and Hollywood celebrities for another, who cannot wait to give us their opinions about everything under the sun whether we want to hear them or not, but who seem very quiet in the face of this blatant attempt to blackjack Danish press and artistic expression and leave it bleeding in the gutter. Where are the celebrators of transgressive art in this controversy? These are the same folks who can’t wait for some representative of the Catholic League to denounce their latest transgressive piece of dreck in order to gin up some interest in their work, but in this matter they find that there’s nothing to be said, nothing to be done, please go away and leave us alone; what you say may be true, but first we must cultivate our gardens.
This, I think, is not something I’m sure I believe: a few Danish cartoonists create the most brilliantly transgressive art of our young century, and the local purveyors of such art have nothing to say about it, preferring, no doubt, to find new ways of dipping crucifixes in bodily waste. This is all very far indeed from Voltaire’s cry of Ecrasez l’infame (Crush the infamy!) and Flaubert’s dictum that the job of the artist is to epater le bourgeois (shock the middle-classes). When Voltaire spoke of crushing the infamy of superstition, the Roman Catholic Church in France was as powerful in is way as the state itself, and equally interested in using the temporal power of the state to enforce Catholic religious teaching and dogma as the law of the land; the law forbade anyone from questioning the doctrines of the Church and blasphemy was as foul a crime as murder. And yet, Voltaire attacked the Church again and again, using his wit and invective to stir men’s minds against the dead weight of centuries of dogma and to get people to think for themselves.
Today, however, we have artists who want to be transgressive, but only if that gets them a show in a expensive gallery in SoHo, or, barring that, in some hot new edgy place like Beacon, and afterwards a nice wine and cheese party and then a good review in the New York Times’ Sunday Arts & Leisure section. Today, we have artists who want to crush the infamy, but only if the infamy provides some buzz for their work; today, we have artists who want to shock the bourgeoisie as much as Flaubert did, but not if the bourgeoisie close their checkbooks first and go home. No one wants to deal with maniacal critics willing to use riot and intimidation in order to protect what they deem holy. Today, we seem to have a media and an arts establishment utterly unwilling to show the American people what the fuss is all about and equally unwilling to say anything in defense of the very freedoms that make their livelihoods possible. It was easy for the media and the artists and the limousine liberals to criticize the Catholic Church’s objections to a painting of the Blessed Virgin that came complete with a lump of elephant dung and photographs of female pudenda cut from porno magazines, and talk about what a brave thing this was for the artist and the Brooklyn Art Museum to do in the face of Rudy Giuliani’s threats to cut the museum’s tax support, but in the face of Islamic mob violence these same people are saying nothing, doing nothing.
I wonder if this apathy in the face of real danger is because we are a softer people than we once were. Once upon a time, people knew that taking a moral stand meant taking a risk. In the past few months, the nation has lost Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, both of whom knew that tyranny does not crumble easily and that bringing down such tyranny may cost you everything and everyone you love. In the past few months, Jack Anderson passed away, a man who dedicated his life to uncovering what actually went on in Washington, D.C. and bringing the secret into the public light, so that the American people could judge for themselves what their representatives were doing in their names, despite the pressure from the politically powerful to keep what he knew to himself. None of these people thought that what they were trying to accomplish would be risk free, or that those who stood to lose the most if the old dispensation were to join Marxism in the dustbin of history would go quietly into that good night. But they stayed in the fight, they stayed and fought for what they believed in. We don’t seem to do this anymore, we seem to say, as we often do about marriage, that this is for better or forget it, forgetting, as we make light of ourselves, that there are others watching.
Yes, there are others watching, for whom freedom of expression is a blasphemy, who believe, as St. Augustine did, that error has no rights, and everything not found in an ancient Arabic text is unworthy of existence. Perhaps the Caliph Omar did not order the destruction of the great library at Alexandria in the seventh century by saying that if the books in the library agreed with the Koran then they were superfluous, and therefore not necessary and could be destroyed, and if they disagreed with the Koran they were heresy, and therefore harmful and should be destroyed forthwith, but his co-religionists of today deeply believe that this is nothing more or less than the truth, and that even unbelievers must accept the dictates of the Prophet and the ummah, if they know what is good for them. These people will do everything in their power to reduce the corrupt and decadent West, the Dar al-Harb, the House of War, and its will to resist the coming of the True Faith, and there are more than a few of those people Lenin once called useful idiots willing to help them along. We see this in the anxious kowtowing to the notion that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance when we see every day that it is not; we see this in the twisting of news and language so as to avoid offending always sensitive Muslim sensibilities, and we see this in the playing up of Western mistakes and the playing down of Muslim ones. Robert Frost once famously defined a liberal as a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel. We, it seems to me, no longer want to take our own side in this argument, that we are content to let the Danes fight the good fight for freedom of expression. And if they fail, if they buckle under to the threats of mob violence, then what of it? What is Denmark to us, or we to Denmark, that we should trouble ourselves for them?