Friday, February 03, 2006

Fire in a crowded theatre

Here's a smooth move. Walk into a bar in the Southern US and shout "Bush is a moron! So is Jesus Christ!" Hell, do it in Calgary. Get out to Caribana in Toronto and start mouthing off loudly about "stupid n-----s." Chances are, someone might take offence, and express that offence in a fairly basic manner. Never mind that you did it, as you later sob to the media, to "test the limits of free speech." Even your friends would call you a damned fool, and so you would be.

But somehow it's perfectly reasonable and defensible for a right-of-centre newspaper in Denmark, the Jyllands-Posten, to publish cartoons mocking and ridiculing Mohammed, the Prophet of Islam. We have the right to offend, they trumpet. We have the right to offend, echo other newspapers, re-publishing the cartoons. We have the right to offend, squawk the right-wing bloggers, gleefully posting the cartoons as well. No terrorists are going to tell us what to do!

(Not that "the terrorists," by which many seem to mean simply "Muslims," give much of a darn about the blogosphere. It's a fairly safe bit of posturing: "Look at me! Aren't I brave? I'm doing it for freedom of speech!")

Most Muslims, of course, will be hurt and offended, and that will be that. A small minority, however, will react in conformity with the going stereotypes. And then the conservative pundits will nod wisely and say, "
You do see what sort of world these people would compel all of us to live in, if they had the chance?"

"These people." "Those people." Where have we heard that before?

Well, sure, these crypto-racist mouth-breathers have the right, just like foolhardy souls have the right to wander into bars and shoot their mouths off. But they remind me of the driver who "died defending his right of way":

He was right, dead right, as he sped along,

But he's just as dead as though he'd been wrong.

Except that, in this case, they're probably safe as houses--it will be innocents abroad who are likely to suffer. For there will almost certainly be human casualties. Now the predictable consequences of this rash and foolish act have begun to occur: so far it's been demonstrations, boycotts and an armed occupation. But the flames are being fanned by assorted fanatics and dictatorial governments on one side, and recklessly stupid media and bloggers on the other. Spitting in the face of millions of people simultaneously will be bound to draw forth a few hard cases looking for an excuse to stick it to the infidel. What a bloody surprise.

From the publication of the cartoons last fall, this whole affair has unfolded with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, minus the catharsis. I, for one, had dared to hope that the matter would be confined to Denmark, where a devout Muslim minority was naturally hurt and did protest, but no more raucously that the Christian fundies have done on this side of the water, with their burning of John Lennon records and boycotting of Disneyland and the like. But no, lobotomized newspaper editors in Norway and France had to throw oil on the flames, and the bloggers have piled on, and now the battle is truly joined

Way to go, people. Keep poking the monster through the bars with your pointed stick. Aren't you clever and principled? And people are probably going to die because of it.

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