Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How To Piss Off Everyone...

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League is very worked up about this joke by Obama's National Security Adviser, James Jones. This seems to bear out Jon Ronson's characterization of the ADL as being overly-sensitive on some things (such as when they suggested that David Icke's saying that lizards ruled the world was code for saying Jews ruled the world when, in fact, he meant lizards!)

James Jones has apparently now apologized for the joke, which didn't seem to be offensive at all and was just a whipped-up and over-hyped moral outrage!

But Abe Foxman's not the only one incapable of taking a joke, as South Park discovered to their peril. Apparently an episode of South Park portraying Mohammed was censored by Comedy Central because they received what they perceived as a death threat from a website called Revolution Muslim.

Now, if I remember rightly, South Park is an irreverent animated comedy show which takes the piss out of just about anything and everything that anyone has ever held sacred. And that's pretty much the sole purpose of the show. This is what made it so hilariously hypocritical for Isaac Hayes, who played the character Chef, to walk out on the show due to its portrayal of Scientology in the episode, "Trapped in the Closet" (Although that story is disputed).

South Park decided to get their own back on Isaac Hayes with a character-assassination of his character - they portrayed him as a paedophile - before literally assassinating his character in the episode The Return of Chef but not before Comedy Central actually pulled a repeat of the first episode with some, such as the writer of this LA Times article, speculating it was because Tom Cruise had strong-armed Comedy Central's parent company, Viacom, into it as he was upset about being portrayed as literally refusing to come out of the closet and its mocking of his "religion", Scientology.

So, it might not be the first time that uber-edgy-cool-don't-give-a-fuck-stick-it-to-the-man Comedy Central has capitulated to intimidation of one sort or another, but it might be the first time they've done so through being threatened with physical violence for the outrage of portraying a historical figure.

Strangely the custodians of the Imam Zahdah Chah Zaid Mosque in Isfahan, Iran don't feel intimidated enough to take down their mural of Mohammed cradling the fourth caliph, Ali.

Maybe this is because Comedy Central has done what Kenan Malik describes in his book, From Fatwa to Jihad as "internalized the fatwa" that Ayatollah Khomeini put upon Salman Rushdie. In the book he talks about the way that those who had stood for free speech had won the battle by not suppressing The Satanic Verses but had effectively lost the war by being more reticent about giving offence in the future. An example of that was the decision by Random House of not publishing The Jewel of Medina on the grounds that it might cause offence and that that offence may lead to violence. A fear which did in fact come true to the owner of Gibson Square, a company that decided to publish the book.

Malik says this:

There will always be extremists who respond as the Gibson Square firebombers did. There is little that we can do about them. What we can do something about is the broader culture within which some people operate. A culture that robustly defends freedom of expression would provide few resources upon which such extremists could draw. A culture that proclaims it unacceptable to give offence, and in which politicians and intellectuals are terrified at the thought of doing so, provides the firebombers with a spurious moral legitimacy for their actions. Internalizing the fatwa has not just created a new culture of self-censorship, it has also helped generate the very problems to which self-censorship was supposedly a response. The fear of giving offence has simply made it easier to take offence.

I think this is true and, just for comparison, South Park have to work much harder to offend Catholics these days. Should any observant Catholic have made a point of watching South Park, they probably would have been offended by its portrayal of the Pope being splattered with a Statue of the Virgin Mary's menstrual blood but that's only likely to have happened if they had sat down with the perverse purpose of being offended.

Well, I think that Abe Foxman, Revolution Muslim and the Church of Scientology could do with lightening up and not getting bent out of shape over having their feelings hurt. But James Jones, Comedy Central and Viacom could do with not allowing themselves to be intimidated.

But, perhaps if there is something that we can take pleasure in it is that Comedy Central did manage to finally offend a group that believed themselves to be completely immune from taking offence: South Park viewers!

ETA: The theme tune to Team America, made by the same people as South Park

And also, Chef's finest moment:


angrysoba said...

Kenan Malik has a good essay on the same theme, here. Much of it looks like it has been lifted directly from "From Fatwa to Jihad".

Suhayl Saadi said...

Yes, as far as I know, there is no injunction in the Quran to ban images of Muhammad - how could there be, when everyone around him saw him every day as he returned with newly revealed verses? It is merely a custom. That's all. One understands the historical context - a wish to avoid iconisation in times and newly-conquered places dominated culturally by the figurative art of the Byzantium and Sassanian Empires. But it's not in the book. And people ought to relax, get a life. Are we to become insensed over every piece of scrawled graffiti? The more people react childishly, the more others will do it. Grow up!

angrysoba said...

Yes, as far as I understand doesn't it stem from a general prohibition (or rather frowning upon) idolatory. If only the Bank of England, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Disney had the same attitude.