The Wall Street Journal

Everybody Burn the Flag

If we don’t act like inconsiderate jerks, the terrorists will have won!


Regular readers of this column know that we are a fan of Comedy Central’s exuberantly offensive animated series “South Park.” We especially enjoyed the two-part episode that concluded last week, one line of whose plot has sparked quite a controversy. In brief, it involves the Prophet Muhammad, and the gag is that everyone, including celebrities and “gingers” (kids with red hair and freckles), wants what he has–namely, the power not to be ridiculed.

As the New York Times explains, the second episode in the two-parter “was shown Wednesday night on Comedy Central with audio bleeps and image blocks reading ‘CENSORED’ after a Muslim group warned the show’s creators that they could face violence for depicting that holy Islamic prophet.” The CENSORED blocks actually had appeared in the first episode as well, but the second episode bleeped out every spoken reference to Muhammad’s name, as well as the closing speeches by Kyle, Jesus and Santa Claus.

This censorship was done by the suits at Comedy Central, not Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the show’s creators–although that escaped us when we watched the episode. We cracked up at the bleeped-out closing speeches; it seemed to us a humorous device employed in typical over-the-top “South Park” style. Not so, according to Stone and Parker, who released a statement Thursday saying: “It wasn’t some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle’s customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn’t mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too.”

Revolution Muslim, the group that warned of violence–the wording seems to have been chosen carefully so that it would not be a true threat–appears to be “legit,” which is to say it is a genuine U.S.-based Islamic fundamentalist group that has been around for at least a couple of years. (As a sign of disapproval, we’ll pass on linking to its Web site.) So although the whole thing came across as a joke, it does appear to have been serious.

The “South Park” Muhammad meshugass in turn inspired a joke that is being taken too seriously. MyNorthwest.com, the Web site of three Seattle radio stations, reports that Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris “wanted to counter the fear. She has declared May 20th ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.’ ” The story reproduces Norris’s strip, which depicts an anthropomorphic teacup declaring, “I am the real likeness of Mohammad” and other household items–a cherry, a domino, a spool of thread–claiming that, no, they are the prophet’s image.

Blogress Ann Althouse notes that commentators across the political spectrum–Glenn Reynolds, HotAir.com, Dan Savage, Reason magazine–are endorsing the idea, apparently in all seriousness. Which prompts an update to the MyNorthwest.com story:

After the massive response to the cartoon Norris posted this on her website:

I make cartoons about current, cultural events. I made a cartoon of a “poster” entitled “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!” with a nonexistent group’s name–Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor–drawn on the cartoon also. I did not intend for my cartoon to go viral. I did not intend to be the focus of any “group.” I practice the first amendment by drawing what I wish. This particular cartoon of a “poster” seems to have struck a gigantic nerve, something I was totally unprepared for. I am going back to the drawing table now!

Our reflexive response to “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day”–which we too thought was serious, not having seen Norris’s cartoon or her disclaimer–was sympathetic. But Althouse prompted us to reconsider. Here is her objection:

Depictions of Muhammad offend millions of Muslims who are no part of the violent threats. In pushing back some people, you also hurt a lot of people who aren’t doing anything. . . .

I don’t like the in-your-face message that we don’t care about what other people hold sacred. Back in the days of the “Piss Christ” controversy, I wouldn’t have supported an “Everybody Dunk a Crucifix in a Jar of Urine Day” to protest censorship. Dunking a crucifix in a jar of urine is something I have a perfect right to do, but it would gratuitously hurt many Christian bystanders to the controversy. I think opposing violence (and censorship) can be done in much better ways.

At the same time, real artists like the “South Park” guys or (maybe) Andre Serrano should go on with their work, using shock to the extent that they see fit. Shock is an old artist’s move. Epater la bourgeoisie. Shock will get a reaction, and it will make some people mad. They are allowed to get mad. That was the point. Of course, they’ll have to control their violent impulses.

People need to learn to deal with getting mad when they hear or see speech that enrages them, even when it is intended to enrage them. But how are we outsiders to the artwork supposed to contribute the the [sic] process of their learning how to deal with free expression? I don’t think it is by gratuitously piling on outrageous expression, because it doesn’t show enough respect and care for the people who are trying to tolerate the expression that outrages them.

“Piss Christ” is not an entirely apposite example, for it prompted no threats of violence or calls for suppression. It was an issue not of free speech but of subsidized speech; people objected to their tax dollars’ bankrolling Serrano via the National Endowment for the Arts. But it isn’t hard to think of other examples in which speech that is offensive to large numbers of people has occasioned censorship or violence or the threats thereof.

Until 1989, it was a crime in some states to burn the American flag as a political statement. In Texas v. Johnson the U.S. Supreme Court held that this is protected symbolic speech. In ensuing years members of Congress repeatedly tried to propose a constitutional amendment permitting the criminalization of flag burning. It is the view of this column that flag burning is and should remain protected speech. We deplore it nonetheless, and we think holding an “Everybody Burn the Flag Day” would be stupid, obnoxious and counterproductive if one seeks to persuade others that flag burning should be tolerated.

“Hate speech”–for example, shouting racial slurs, positing theories of racial supremacy or denying the Holocaust–is illegal in Canada and many European countries. In the U.S. it is protected by the First Amendment–but it has been known to provoke a violent reaction. Last week we noted that left-wing counterprotesters beat up members of a white-supremacist group who were holding a rally in Los Angeles. The Associated Press reports from Pearl, Miss., that “a white supremacist lawyer was stabbed and beaten to death by a black neighbor who had done yard work for him, police said Friday.”

It’s not clear if the motive for the Mississippi killing was political, but surely everyone can agree that battery and murder are not appropriate responses to the expression of invidious views. This column is also of the opinion that hate-speech laws are pernicious and that the First Amendment does and should protect the expression of even ugly and false ideas. But we would not endorse or participate in an “Everybody Shout a Racial Slur Day” or an “Everybody Deny the Holocaust Day” to make the point.

Why is “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” different? Because the taboo against depictions of Muhammad is not a part of America’s common culture. The taboos against flag burning, racial slurs and Holocaust denial are. The problem with the “in-your-face message” of “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” is not just that it is inconsiderate of the sensibilities of others, but that it defines those others–Muslims–as being outside of our culture, unworthy of the courtesy we readily accord to insiders. It is an unwise message to send, assuming that one does not wish to make an enemy of the entire Muslim world


I would disagree with James Taranto if he is implying that “Everybody Draw a Piss Christ Day” is different from a “Everybody Draw a Mohammed Day” because the former does not “define those others –(Catholics)– as being outside of our culture, unworthy of the courtesy we readily accord to insiders” as it does in the latter case.  It does!  The eagerness with which the main stream media supported Serrano betrayed the hostility which the left liberals hold toward the Catholic Church and by extension to Catholics.  +rhg

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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