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September 29, 2008

The Sacred and the Profane

Deborah Howell on the controversial Oliphant cartoon:

a Pat Oliphant cartoon posted on washingtonpost.com Sept. 9 is still generating angry e-mails. The cartoon showed Sarah Palin speaking in tongues, John McCain saying she has a "direct line" to God and God saying that he couldn't understand her "dam' right wing . . . gibberish."

More than 750 readers from around the country -- more than I heard from about the financial crisis -- told me they were mightily offended. Many were Pentecostals, whose worship can include speaking in tongues; complaints also came from mainline Christians and from Charles Martin, a Buddhist in Boulder, Colo., who said "it offends me."

McCain and Palin are certainly fair game, but most of those offended by the cartoon felt it mocked all Pentecostals. Most cartoonists don't go out of their way to lambaste religion. But the pope is a frequent editorial cartoon character, as are God and St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.

Most complainers thought that the Oliphant cartoon appeared in print. It didn't. I showed it to several Post editors. While it was clever in some ways, most editors -- including me -- would not have run it. The Post has a policy against defaming or perpetuating racial, religious or ethnic stereotypes. That was why The Post did not run the Danish cartoons about the prophet Muhammad.

Oliphant wasn't surprised that it didn't run in print. "Many publications are too timid" to run some of his work, he said, but "the Web is giving us more of a solid venue."


A few observations.

First of all, I can't help but be pleased with Howell. Like Kathleen Parker and Ruth Marcus, she has shown willingness to advocating views that don't make her popular with her political fellow travelers. I find myself agreeing with her from time to time, and in today's overly politicized environment, that is a welcome development.

Secondly, it's interesting to compare this with the Tom Toles controversy a while back:

It is instructive to note how those who are quick to be offended by viewpoints they disagree with can't wait to condemn their opponents for expressing the same sense of outrage via far less intrusive and extreme means. Witness today's letter in the Washington Post, in which the Joint Chiefs of Staff took the rare step of expressing their "disappointment" at a recent Tom Toles cartoon. Readers of the lefty AmericaBlog were outraged that America's military leaders should presume to exercise the First Amendment freedoms they have bought and paid for in their own blood. You see, the tolerant Left supports the troops... so long as can be conveniently silenced.

AmericaBlog tells us that the Pentagon is "trying to censor" a top political cartoonist:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff just sent a menacing letter to the Washington Post over a cartoon.

Here are the "menacing" words the Joint Chiefs used to "try to censor" the media:

We were extremely disappointed to see the Jan. 29 editorial cartoon by Tom Toles.

You all know what happens when military folks are "disappointed", don't you? They whip out their phone books and beat up people like Joel Stein. Of course this hasn't actually happened, but that doesn't stop people like Stein from implying that it will.

The Toles cartoon controversy was interesting because it resulted in accusations of censorship in response to an extremely mild letter to the editor - this after liberal blogs deliberately attempted to intimidate and harass members of the press into suppressing non-approved versions of "the truth". One can't help but note the similarities to the Obama Truth Squad, which (no doubt from the loftiest of motives) deployed Missouri law enforcement officers to make sure voters only hear the Obama campaign's officially sanctioned version of "the truth".

Barack Obama might do well to listen to the Canadians (h/tip Glenn S.) on the question of free speech:

America taught me the hard way to value freedom of speech. Even speech that is hateful and abhorrent, provided it does not incite violence, should be allowed in free and open democracy. Like every other Canadian who grew up during the 1980's and 90's, my concept of ‘freedom of expression’ was vague. It was something contained in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Yet I was taught to subject this freedom to ‘tolerance’ and ‘multi-culturalism’. After all, the latter were ‘Canadian values’ that distinguished us from Americans and their free-speech absolutism.

Thus my wife and I brought ‘Canadian values’ to Florida shortly after 9-11. This was no fall vacation, as I had accepted a job down there with the Catholic Church. ‘Bill,’ our new next-door neighbor, welcomed us to the Deep South. His daughter ‘Sarah’ was about a year older than Alexandria, my oldest child. The two girls became inseparable.

Inseparable, that is, until an incident a year later involving racist speech. It was from this incident that I learned to appreciate American absolutism in protecting free speech. Since that incident, I have similarly concluded that Americans are also more tolerant and more multicultural.

The incident began with an African-American family moving into our semi-rural, previously all-white cul-de-sac. Their daughter ‘Nadine’ was about the same age as Alexandria. My wife and I introduced ourselves to ‘Mike,’ the patriarch of the family, and with the same southern hospitality we had been shown, invited Nadine to spend the afternoon with Alexandria while Mike and his wife unpacked.
After sending Nadine home for supper, we heard a banging at our door.

“If you let your kids play with niggers, then you’re niggers too.” Bill stood at my doorstep, angry, shielding his daughter.

I returned the glare. Shuffling Alexandria back indoors, I said: “Don’t use the ‘n word’ in front of my children.”

“Fine. Sarah’s not allowed to play with Alexandria if you’re letting her play with...”

“I won’t permit racism on my property,” I interrupted. “I’m Catholic. I don’t care what color someone’s skin is. They’re human like you and me.”

Sarah and Alexandria were bawling. Each knew where her father stood; Bill and I had expressed ourselves freely. This was not Canada where the fear of giving offence forces one to invent excuses when withdrawing from social contact. Canada’s human rights adjudicators may think of themselves as the robed masters of the universe, but their jurisdiction does not extend below the 49th parallel. Thus I couldn’t lodge a human rights complaint.

But suppose there was no First Amendment protection in the U.S. Over six years later, a Canadian-style human rights commission would still be investigating this incident. And Bill would feel even more justified in his racism. After all, those nasty African-Americans (for any human rights investigator reading this, I’m using a literary device called sarcasm) dragged him through countless hours of procedural harassment and bankrupted him under a mountain of legal bills.

Bill might be more reluctant to express his views, but he would remain a racist. And there would be no opportunity for me to challenge his racial prejudices. The moment I expressed the least bit of sympathy for the civil rights movement, he would withdraw from all social contact with the exception of the occasional ‘hi’ and ‘goodbye’. When you’re feeling persecuted, you tend to stick to your own kind.

Fortunately, our confrontation happened in the United States (or from Bill’s perspective, the Confederacy currently occupied by those damn Yankees). The impasse ended three days later. No government agency or program required.

I pulled into my driveway after work, glanced over to Bill’s front yard, and saw Alexandria, Sarah and Nadine splashing in a kids pool. Having cracked open a couple of cold ones, Mike and Bill were commiserating about their common nemesis as civil rights activists and unreconstructed southerners - those bloody Republicans. As a low-level contributor to Bush’s Catholic strategy during the 2000 presidential election, I was now the odd man out.

Freedom of speech had won. It won because it allowed Bill and Mike to voice their worst fears about ‘the other’. (In those intervening days, Mike told me how all white men put down the black man - an experience in racism against Caucasians just as shocking to my Canadian naivety.) When ‘the other’ failed to meet those worst expectations, each felt a little sheepish and conscience took over. So they put it behind them, shook hands, and found something else to gripe about. The government can seal a person’s lips, but it cannot change a person’s heart.

Freedom of speech also won me over. I realized I was accountable for my anti-racist viewpoint, just as Bill and Mike were accountable for their racist viewpoint. Truth be told, I had never given racism much thought prior to this incident. There’s no need for ordinary citizens to confront racism in Canada - that’s the government’s job.
So whenever I encountered racism while growing up, I ignored it as none of my business. Or I found some excuse to convince myself it wasn’t really racism. Truth be told, had Bill not expressed himself within earshot of my daughter, I probably would have done the Canadian thing: Ignore his rant while he was on my doorstep, gripe to my wife how superior we Canadians are afterward, and find some excuse afterward to avoid future social contact.

As I noted in a long ago post about racism, the answer to living in harmony in a multicultural society is not to go down the rabbit hole of oversensitivity to our differences. Rather, it is to aim for upon an evenly administered, common standard of law to which we all submit:

...though I don't think the answer to racism is more talk, the only way to get past our ridiculous squeamishness about certain aspects of both the race and religion debates may well be to just bring them out into the open. There is nothing wrong with asking a candidate for public office (especially one who has invited debate on a topic) polite questions; nor is there anything wrong with discussing current events.

Where I do draw the line is at name calling. I understand the impulse that makes people want to use the word 'nigger'. One seeks, by altering our instinctive associations with that word, to lessen the pain it invokes. That is why many blacks object when whites use the term, yet utter it themselves with careless abandon. But the bottom line is that whoever uses the word, it is still an ugly name.

One day, hopefully, that is all it will be: just one of many ugly slurs with no more power to offend or hurt than any other ugly name. But why go there? Is name calling ever really acceptable behavior? Why not just object to the behavior rather than condemning the person?

In the end, the right response to racism has to be to uphold a consistently applied standard of behavior that holds true regardless of skin color. Chris Rock had it right: we don't get to congratulate ourselves for doing the right thing, whether we are white, black, yellow or brown.

We are supposed to do the right thing, every day, regardless of our skin color. That is the standard Barack Obama forgot to uphold, and one we have a right to expect from the next President of the United States.

It is not so bad to live in a country where obnoxious cartoonists are free to offend us with ill considered scribblings. We are, after all, free to pen outraged letters to the editor in response. Such people are canaries in the coal mine of democracy: they set alarm bells jangling in our heads when current events collide with our conflicting and ever changing mores. But I can't help but think it's not a bad thing to live in a country where Naomi Wolf is free to imagine that Sarah Palin is trying to steal her cornflakes and Keith Olbermann to scream nightly from my TV set that Barney the White House terrier has eaten the Bill of Rights - again!!! - as he is being dragged away to Gitmo to have the frilly panties of fascism pulled over his silently screaming head by a crack team of busty Marine Lance Corporals in leather miniskirts and red fishnets.

Speaking truth to power is getting more difficult every day. Just ask Oliphant.

Posted by Cassandra at September 29, 2008 08:33 AM

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So, how does this fit into the model you're proposing?

I love the first amendment, but it seems to me we've gotten to the point where all the advantages are with the worst sort. They're free to say, "You're a whore, harlot," etc. We're free to write back a letter of protest. They're free to respond, "F$#@ you."

Posted by: Grim at September 29, 2008 02:09 PM

It has ever been thus, though. Self restraint bites.

Being an adult bites.

When you stop and think about it, Grim, it's not other people's sensibilities which restrain us, but our own. We are always free to descend to their level if we want to be anonymous or if we want to become little better than savages. I don't think much of Tom Toles. I don't think much of Oliphant.

Either could easily make his point without gratuitous offense (as I pointed out in my Toles post a long time ago) but both are too intellectually lazy. They have nothing but disdain for civil discourse.

So much the worse for them. In my mind it's only by refraining from wading in the muck that you have any chance of showing people there is a better way. In my experience, when I've returned kindness for incivility, most people have the decency (upon reflection) to be ashamed of themselves.

And some never will learn. But then they are hopeless. The alternative is an inexorable downward spiral into a total reliquishment of all your standards.

Posted by: Cass at September 29, 2008 02:24 PM

As far as "this", what really creeps me out there is that guy's daughter was his model.

Somehow, the idea of standing totally butt nekkid in front of dear old Dad as an adult, as much as I love my old man, takes the father-daughter relationship a tad bit too far, doncha think? It makes my skin crawl.

Which should tell you all you need to know about those folks. Yet they find Palin "creepy" because she hunts :p

Posted by: Cass at September 29, 2008 02:26 PM

> So, how does this fit into the model you're proposing?

I love the first amendment, but it seems to me we've gotten to the point where all the advantages are with the worst sort. They're free to say, "You're a whore, harlot," etc. We're free to write back a letter of protest. They're free to respond, "F$#@ you.

Grim -- it's free speech. Ya gotta back the idiots, fools, loonies, and racists just like you do anyone else. This is the government we speak of. Give them a micron, they'll keep hammering away until it's a light year.

Look at the Rico Statutes, supposedly aimed only at "mobsters" and other types the Fed supposedly could not get at. NOW it's used, along with Federal Piracy laws, to argue for seizure and sale of properties "used in the commission of a felony" -- before the conviction is finalized. And, as you should grasp, "don't make a felony case out of it" does not mean what it used to mean.

Right at this moment, you can probably be arrested on felony charges -- no matter what you are doing (convicted, maybe not -- but don't count on them not putting massive pressure on you to get you to accept a plea bargain, regardless of innocence/guilt).

So that Rico Statute may well be applicable to you, too.

Within six months of the passage of The Patriot Act -- supposedly aimed only at terrorists (see
"Rico, Mobster"), the Justice Department was sending out memos and organizing seminars for local law enforcement officials detailing how it could be used in their own local cases. Terrorists "on every corner, involved in every crime", apparently.

So the excesses of various assholes in the manner you describe mean nothing in the face of the possibility of government given power to act against violations of some "speech code".


The only social order in which freedom of speech is secure is the one in which it is secure for everyone... and, as those who call for censorship in the name of the oppressed ought to recognize, it is never the oppressed who determine the bounds of the censorship. Their power is limited to legitimizing the idea of censorship.
- Aryeh Neier -

A function of free speech under our system of government is to INVITE DISPUTE. It may indeed best serve its high purposes when it induces a
condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and
challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.

- Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas -

...An hour's perusal of our national charter makes it hard to understand what the argle-bargle is about. The First Amendment forbids any law
'abridging the freedom of speech.' It doesn't say 'except for commercials on children's television' or 'unless somebody says 'cunt' in a rap song or
'chick' on a college campus.

- P.J. O'Rourke, 'Parliament of Whores' -

Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could easily defeat us all.
- Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas -

If there is time to expose through discussion the falsehoods and the fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.
- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis -

Posted by: Obloodyhell at September 29, 2008 04:35 PM

> Artist Bruce Elliott says the hardest part was "getting the color right."

Heh. Looks to me like the hardest part is getting it to look even vaguely like Sarah Palin. If I were not told it was her, my response would be "who is that supposed to be?" The idiot doesn't even have her hair color, much less her skin tone (LOL, can you say "tanning bed"?) correct.

Why would I let some halfwit, incompetent idiot like this bother me?

Posted by: Obloodyhell at September 29, 2008 04:41 PM

He must not be much of an artist if he couldn't "give" her a bazooka. I can't wait to see his portrait of Biden.

Posted by: Donna B. at September 29, 2008 04:44 PM

I don't have a problem with limits on speech in the public square, OBH.

Somehow, we managed to express all sorts of ideas in my youth without resorting to 4 letter words and in-your-face insults.

I think that Grim has a valid point, frankly. We have gotten to the point where we thing ANY limit on speech is "dangerous". Well, it's not. And oh-by-the-way, not every limit on speech by non-government entities is "censorship", nor is it actionable either! For instance, I have the right to insist that you be civil in my living room. Companies have the right to insist on certain standards from their employees. Schools have the right to insist on certain modes of expression from students during the school day.

If they want to go to the illogical and illiberal extreme once they get home - hey - they can knock themselves out. But the bottom line is that societies - especially diverse ones - function more smoothly when people respect each other. There is a difference between having the heavy arm of the law coming down on people like a sledgehammer and the "force" of social opprobrium, which acts more to nudge people in one direction or another, but which they are pretty much free to disregard if they can live with disapproval.

Common sense got thrown out the window

Posted by: Cass at September 29, 2008 05:08 PM

she has shown willingness to advocating views that don't make her popular with her political fellow travelers. I find myself agreeing with her from time to time, and in today's overly politicized environment, that is a welcome development.

why is it a welcome development? we all probably would find some points that we agree with the worst despots who ever lived, it doesnt make you closer or them less what they are. it implies a cartoon in which the evil ones are opposite everything.

Posted by: artfldgr at September 29, 2008 09:22 PM

She said she would not have run the cartoon, art.

But she also thought about it, and concluded that even though it was offensive and she would not have run it, it serves a purpose: it allows people to point out - vocally - just what is wrong with that kind of thing.

Which is the same point that Pete Vere - the Canadian - made. When all dissent is suppressed, we never get a chance to discover that even a Christian, an atheist, and a Buddist might find ridicule of fundamentalist Christians offensive. It's a principle we ALL have in common: something that unites us even though our religious beliefs differ.

And that has value. It's something that helps us look beyond our prejudices.

Posted by: Cass at September 29, 2008 09:29 PM

Also, it affirms that there is some value in social disapproval - in limits to totally unfettered free expression - and that's an idea that seems to be falling into disrepute.

Posted by: Cass at September 29, 2008 09:30 PM

> I don't have a problem with limits on speech in the public square, OBH.

You should, Cass. Shame on you.

This problem is a problem with social mores and polite consideration for others. Allowing free speech restrictions is using a bazooka to swat cockroaches.

And you're putting the bazooka into the hands of people who aren't bright enough to keep their fat stupid mouths shut for two hours until a bill can get passed.

Smart? I think not. Q.E.D.

Posted by: OBloodyhell at September 30, 2008 05:25 AM

OBH, you're not being sensible.

Societies have never allowed completely unfettered speech in public.

You don't get, for instance, to stand in front of a restaurant and scream abusive, foul language at passersby. You just don't.

There have been laws against this pretty much since the dawn of time. You can make up all the silly reasons why society will collapse in ruins if we don't allow idiots to shower filthy gibberish that doesn't express one single coherent thought on children and old ladies who are simply trying to go about their business, or to make it so unpleasant in front of your place of business, or in a classroom, that no one will go there.

But that argument doesn't stand up to comment sense.

We don't allow people to tear all their clothes off in public either.

Nor to defecate in the streets and wipe it on your car, though I suppose some day the Supreme Court will rule even that to be "speech". At some point, there are permissible limits on freedom of expression, and they are defined by the tension between my rights and your rights.

Posted by: Cass at September 30, 2008 05:36 AM

I am an absolutist on free speech, but that isn't saying much. Most of us conservative/livid terriers are.

That said, I do think most people miss the point. I adopt the John Stuart Mill philosophy of free speech. Free speech is supposed to get us closer to the truth - even idiots speaks nuggets of wisdom that can be pulled out and isolated for their value to the debate.

But many -- nay most - especially on the left who offent commend some idiot that said something stupid for being "brave to speak her mind however stupid it was" -- think the end is the speech.

I say the means is the speech. The end is the truth. And if you aren't remotely adding to the truth, then please do us all a favor and shut the helk up.

FWIW, I come here because I always feel after reading the posts and the comments that I am closer to the truth.

Posted by: KJ at September 30, 2008 09:12 AM

'extremely disappointed' was threatening? Talk about speaking in tongues and whatnot!

Long story short; it is obnoxious and offensive.
Not just to Pentecostals, but to any Christian faith that believes in tongues being gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Posted by: Cricket at September 30, 2008 10:49 AM

Thank you, KJ. Somehow I missed your comment this morning. It came in one of my PCs that I don't check much and got lost in the welter of email.

That is something to feel good about - we have had some very good discussions here due to the quality of the people who offer their comments. For that I am very thankful.

Posted by: Cass at September 30, 2008 06:57 PM