April 29th, 2010

real threats don't speak

Keep It Shut for Jesus

Finally, someone -- in this case, Glenn Greenwald -- makes the point I've been struggling to make not only since the South Park Muslim 'censorship' debate, but since way back when the Danish Mohammad cartoon controversy erupted: it's all well and good to stand up to religious censorship, and no one should allow their freedom of expression to be stifled by threats from people whose religious sensibilities have been rankled. But for people in the West to pretend this is solely an Islamic problem, and to focus on censorship as it relates to the Muslim faith at the expense of much more common instances of censorship driven by a desire not to offend Judeo-Christian values, is ignorant at best and rank hypocrisy at worst.

This is something I have to spend far too much time explaining, because at its root, it gets to what seem to be (but actually aren't) warring values in the liberal worldview. I've had to spend a lot of time defending myself against charges of anti-Semitism when I've been outspokenly critical of the destructive policies of the government of Israel against their Palestinian Arab population; because anti-Semitism is so common in Muslim parts of the world, people who are critical of Israel's bad behavior seem to have to go out of their way to make it clear that they are speaking out against the unjust actions of a specific government, and not giving voice to a more generalized hatred of Jews. So I understand the compulsion to assume, when someone is exceptionally critical of the tendency of Muslims to want to silence voices of dissent against their often-oppressive religious beliefs, that they are attacking all Islamic people rather than specific ideological tenets of the currently dominant interpretation of Islam.

But I assume, for the most part, that isn't true. I try to extend the assumption of good faith to, for example, the Danish cartoonists, and the creators of South Park, who, I am willing to believe, are either protesting censorship -- and censorship should ALWAYS be protested -- or at least just trying to get a subversive laugh (an admirable goal in and of itself). I am willing to believe that they are not simply looking for an excuse to justify anti-Muslim bigotry.

Here's the thing, though: it's a lot harder for me to extend that benefit of the doubt when I hear the same argument coming from people on the right. And here's why: not only do they throw their arms out of the joint patting themselves on the back, but they do it only when standing up against the perceived heavy hand of Islamic censorship. Not only do they not seem interested in standing up to censorship when imposed by the normative beliefs of Christians and Jews, but like as not, they actually SUPPORT that kind of censorship.

It's just like when they accuse liberals of hypocrisy for our reluctance to condemn Islam for its sexism and homophobia. The reason why we're more critical of these bigotries in the West is because it is assumed that ours is a freer society; naturally, Muslim nations, few of which have anything like a modern liberal democracy and several of which are essentially religious dictatorships, are going to be more repressive. It's not that we don't condemn sexism and homophobia in ALL circumstances; it's only that we find it less surprising in a self-admitted theocracy, and more worthy of condemnation in a putatively free society. And we don't particularly care for being lectured about our allegedly selective condemnation of sexism and homophobia by the religious right, who are adamantly in favor of both of those things, and whose condemnation of them when practiced by Muslims is sheer hypocritical boosterism.

So while I'm all in favor of anyone standing up to any kind of censorship, the current wave of tap-dancing on the sensibilities of Muslims strikes me as a bit hollow in its self-congratulatory bravery in the face of alleged threats of violence. Threats of violence from Islamic fanatics against any kind of cultural challenge to faith should be condemned, of course; but all the folks on the right who champion just such challenges when they're directed at Muslims seem to disappear when they're directed at Christians or Jews. Anyone who thinks that there are never threats of violence from Christians or Jews directed at those who mock their religious beliefs are, as Greenwald says, "deeply ignorant, deeply dishonest or consumed with petulant self-victimization". He documents plenty of them in the last few months alone, and links to dozens more over the last few decades. Those of us who went to see The Last Temptation of Christ in theaters can recall being patted down prior to the screening for weapons; it's pretty clear they weren't expecting any trouble from Muslims or atheists.

Beyond that, as Greenwald also notes, the fabric of our entire society is influenced every single day by Judeo-Christian religious beliefs, and the majority of our laws -- which, like all laws, are enforced by the threat of state violence -- stem from its moral codes. We have the FCC, which exists essentially to punish those who say or show things via broadcast media that religious people find offensive. We have blue laws that dictate, for religious reasons, when certain things may be sold and consumed; we have drug laws and vice laws that dictate, for religious reasons, what people can take into their bodies and who people can have sex with. We have abortion laws that dictate, for religious reasons, how much control a woman has over her own body. Not only don't people on the right ever question or challenge these religious customs -- which have the weight of law, enforced by the promise of violence -- but they actively support them.

So forgive me if I don't join in the chorus of jolly-well-dones for the brave souls stand up to the violent censorship of Islam. With very few exceptions, they don't seem to have any problem with religious people telling us what to do; they just have a problem with which religion it is. Once they convince me they're engaging in a systemic attack on oppression, and not just choosing sides in a tug-of-war, then I'll give them a pat on the back.