Sunday, August 16, 2009


Remember what happened when a Danish newspaper published 12 cartoon caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad back in 2005. Murder, rioting, embassies being burned. (Here's a several-year-old summary from a mostly anti-Islamic blog linked to by a piece in the NY Times last year, after Danish police broke up what they claimed to be a plot to kill the artist who drew one of the cartoons - draw your own conclusions about what, if anything, that says about the Times.)

Now the story is back yet again, but with a different twist. Jytte Klausen, a professor of comparative politics at Brandeis University, has written a book about the cartoons and the ensuing events. The Cartoons That Shook the World is to be published by Yale University Press in November and it's generated its own controversy. Why? The Press won't allow the cartoons to be reprinted in it. Or any other pictures of Muhammad, for that matter, including according to a story from last week's Times,
a drawing for a children’s book; an Ottoman print; and a sketch by the 19th-century artist Gustave Doré of Muhammad being tormented in Hell, an episode from Dante’s “Inferno” that has been depicted by Botticelli, Blake, Rodin and Dalí.
The Times story includes the Press' claim that it
consulted two dozen authorities, including diplomats and experts on Islam and counterterrorism, and the recommendation was unanimous:
The cartoons should be pulled. As should the other pictures. The Guardian, less credulous than the Times, or maybe just less willing to acknowledge certain truths in its story (you be the judge) quoted the Press spokesman, then added this:
But Sheila Blair, professor of Islamic and Asian art at Norma Jean Calderwood University and one of the authorities consulted by Yale about publication, said she had "strongly urged" the press to publish the images. "To deny that such images were made is to distort the historical record and to bow to the biased view of some modern zealots who would deny that others at other times and places perceived and illustrated Muhammad in different ways," she wrote in a letter to the New York Times which is yet to be published.
Regardless of who Yale University Press did or did not talk to and whether or not it's told the truth, to say that removing the pictures has generated a certain degree of derision and disgust is to engage in significant understatement. Cary Nelson, the President of the American Association of Univeristy Professors, condemned the Press's kowtowing (my word) to terrorists. Roger Kimball, from the right, suggests that the Press' real motivations have to do with ties between the University and middle eastern oil exporting nations. The Daily Kos, while offering mostly a summary of the story and commentary by others, captures its perspective in its headline, "Academic Freedom Abridged at Yale." Jonathan Turley can't imagine leaving out the cartoons (like publishing a book on the Sistene Chapel but without the paintings, he says) and notes that
For a leading academic press to engage in such censorship is a major blow to free speech and will likely be cited by commercial publishers who censor authors in the future.
Popehat offered its own cartoon.

In an interview, Klausen downplayed the decision not to publish the cartoons but seemed disheartened by the decision not to publish the other pictures, which she thinks will make one of her chapters less clear. And she finds
the assumption that Muslims “out there” may be ready to erupt into primordial anger at bad pictures offensive.
It's particularly offensive, I guess, because her argument seems to be that the original violent response was not such "primordial anger" but, rather, political and calculated.

I'm no expert on Islam, certainly not on the attitudes of the millions (billions?) of individual Muslims. Nor do I know much (OK, anything) about marketing books to academic audiences. And I'm certainly no expert on the internal politics and economics of Yale University and whatever independence it may offer to its Press.

What I know is that as soon as the first story broke back in 2005, I went and found the pictures. I bought (and read) a copy of The Satanic Verses just as soon as the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was announced. I believe to the bottom of my heart that the First Amendment's protections of freedom of speech, press, and assembly are the bedrock foundations of our society, making whatever other freedoms we may have or aspire to possible.

In Areopagitica, his great condemnation of prior restraint, John Milton wrote
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness. Which was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas, describing true temperance under the person of Guion, brings him in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon, and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain. Since therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with less danger, scout into the regions of sin and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.
Damn right.

By the way, if you haven't seen the original cartoons and want to see them, they're available on line at a variety of places including, ironically, here, from a link in a Salon article by Klausen.

No comments:

Post a Comment