IN THE NEWS
By odd coincidence, two controversies are raging around cartoons. Normally, when someone gets upset over purely symbolic issues, such as the content of movies, TV shows, art, and the like, the loudest critics are those who already have prickly temperaments. These two cartoon-centric controversies seem to fit that rule.
In the first case, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have swelled and thumped their chests over a cartoon in The Washington Post. The cartoonist, Tom Toles, is simply taking Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld at his own clumsy, mendacious words. Rumsfeld was being typically Rumsfeldian, trying to bury uncomfortable realities with an avalanche of blockheaded diatribes. Rumsfeld's "battle-hardened" comment was part of his counterattack on the Krepinevich report, which warned that the US Army was stretched to the point of breaking in Iraq. However, Rumsfeld and his defenders would rather rhetorically pummel the Post than the people responsible for the real damage done to the Army as an institution and the men and women within it. Here's a quote from the Joint Chiefs' letter to the Post:
While you or some of your readers may not agree with the war or its conduct, we believe you owe the men and women and their families who so selflessly serve our country the decency not to make light of their tremendous physical sacrifices.
Obviously, the cartoon was doing the opposite of "making light" of crippled and maimed soldiers. In fact, it was pointing out that Rumsfeld's "battle-hardened" quip was "making light" of real physical, psychological, and institutional injuries. It's always easier to shoot the messenger than tell your boss the bad news, particularly when your boss stubbornly insists that his Great Experiment in redesigning the US military is doing just fine, as is that pesky war in Iraq where the Great Experiment is being tested.
The other furor over a cartoon is focused on Denmark, where a series of cartoons have depicted Muhammed--not in a bad light, mind you, just depicted him. Of course, Islam's taboo about artistic depictions of the Prophet started because Muhammed himself did not want to see the new faith ossify someday into another cult of icon-worshippers. To remain a living religion that guided the faithful, it needed to stay focused on the everyday lives of Muslims, not some mythic past of the Prophet and his followers.
Some strains of Islam, however, have turned this taboo into a fetish about non-depiction. Muhammed, in their view, was too sacred a being to be depicted, which is why a cartoon is blasphemous to them. Instead of ignoring the cartoons, or politely explaining why Islam has avoided wasting its energies on iconography, some outraged Muslims are happily wasting their energies on calling for the deaths of the cartoonist and his publishers. (By "some Muslims," I clearly mean a fraction of Islam that is no more representative of that faith than Pat Robertson is representative of Christians.)
Josh Marshall has some good thoughts on the topic. It's also worth seeing this controversy in light of the Saudi government's willingness to look the other way while archaeological sites from the time of Muhammed are demolished.
The intensity of vitriol over symbolic issues should be a warning sign that something nasty is afoot. Civilization as we know it depends on our collective refusal to be mau-maued by anyone, including those in military and clerical uniforms demanding our "respect" or "tolerance" when they are willing to grant us neither in return.