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Your Blasphemy Ain’t Like Mine

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The European commitment to freedom of speech, even offensive speech, is rather seriously undercut by this. The way to handle a Holocaust-denier is to refute his presentation thoroughly, then if he persists unchanged, write him off as a crank and ignore him. You don’t throw him in jail.

Needless to say, this has been noted in the Arab press, which has of course a longstanding affection for Western Holocaust deniers.

As for the U.S. State Department’s “Guardian”-worthy response to the controversy, it’s disappointing, at least. I understand the explanation that says we have men and women in harm’s way in Iraq and an urgent need to prevent the flames from being fanned. But so do the Danes, at our behest, and they are standing up for a core Western Liberal value.

Meanwhile, here’s a disappointing performance from one who ought to know better. Kevin Drum’s reaction to the civilization-clash involving Danish drawings of the Prophet Muhammad:

I fully realize that I should be taking this more seriously â€â€? it involves issues of free speech, national sovereignty, gratuitous religious insults, Islamic radicalism, etc. etc. â€â€? but it’s hard. I mean, just look at whose flag they’re burning in the Middle East right now: Denmark’s.

Cuddly little Denmark! Home of Hans Christian Andersen, delicious pastry, and tasteful furniture. Home of Tivoli and the Little Mermaid. Denmark!

If there’s a lesson to be learned here â€â€? and I assure you there won’t be â€â€? it’s that Arabs rather obviously don’t hate America any more than any other country. We just provide them with more opportunity to show it. If the Danes would just step up to the plate more often, maybe we could sneak our troops home from Iraq and no one would notice.

That’s not an exerpt. That’s the whole thing.

It is the mark of a political hack, when he confronts an issue where his whole philosophy requires him to make a stand for his beliefs yet he finds his political opponents already there with flags unfurled, that he chooses to pass by with a sneer and a jest.

Here is a blogger who many, me included, have held up as speaking for the genuine convictions of the old American liberalism, unblinded by partisan bile. Here, furthermore, is someone whose blog is published by a media outlet.

Here, furthermore, is a voice from a faction that proudly braves the chill of disapproval in the name of speaking unpopular views to political zealots and religious fundamentalists.

And here he confronts a case of open blasphemy — for that is the crux of the Muslims’ problem with Denmark’s artists. Blasphemy! The charge which has sent so many great liberal men and women of history to the stake. The accusation which Robert G. Ingersoll, the great American agnostic, called “the bulwark of religious prejudice” and “the breastplate of the heartless.” And from the mosques of the Middle East and South Asia comes a crudely violent, bigoted demand for a blood price of the blasphemers.

And all Kevin Drum can manage is a shrug and a snide dismissal of the Danes in this crisis as unworthy of his serious attention (a tone-deaf reaction from supposed internationalists, a la Michael Moore’s mocking of the coalition partners in Iraq). All it rouses in him is a half-hearted attempt to twist the whole story back on itself so that somehow it becomes an embarrassment, not for men such as himself, but for the upholders of the Iraq War.

Who wants to speak truth to the power that butchered Theo Van Gogh? Not Kevin Drum. Unless he sees Jerry Falwell in the ranks on the other side, religious violence doesn’t concern him. Those with vast audiences, like Drum, have the power to shape public sentiment. They have an obligation to stand up for the core values of their causes, even when it means standing side by side, for the time being, with their political enemies. The peril of not doing so is far greater than the unpleasantness.

An artist’s freedom to blaspheme sits in the same frail boat with the journalist’s freedom to dissent from popular prejudices. Kevin Drum can’t be bothered to take his turn at the tiller. Here, he is incapable of rising above political interest, and grasping a principal.

For a true-hearted liberal’s reaction to this, I much prefer Roger Sizemore:

We constantly see satirization of Christian symbols in the popular media, and that interest group doesn’t have the power to force the US government to condemn the publications that carry them. Why should Muslims have the power to enforce their symbols’ sanctity outside the confines of their mosques? … There is no way to negotiate the absolute, and the sooner we realize extremity in religious belief is a dead giveaway of mental disorder, the sooner we can focus on issues of genuine importance to our future quality of life on this planet.

[Hat tip: Phylax, a great Greek-oriented blog]

The comparison many people (including me) are drawing is to the reaction to Piss Christ. OK, look, I’m no Christian, and I have no idea what personal and spiritual daimons motivate Andres Serrano, but I thought “Piss Christâ€Â? was one of the most moving works of holy art I’ve ever read about. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but its purpose seems quite straightforward.

What is the essential act of Christianity? God � the supreme deity � descended from eternal heaven and partook in the blood and piss and shit of human existence. The creator lowered himself to the level of the creature, for a noble purpose. That’s an asonishing statement, from a theological point of view.

Greek and Roman and Hindu gods sometimes took the mask of humanity, but to seduce or to punish, or to spy, never to suffer. I don’t believe the Christian story, but I honor that aspect of it.

And Christianity, since then, has spent so much time and effort elevating God back into Heaven � untouchable, unknowable, untainted by human dirt � that it seems to have lost touch with its most powerful image.

And in one blasphemous opus, this Serrano character re-connected God and man. Perverse! And brilliant.

Now, as to the rest of it, the difference between a scattering of delusional Christian bigots and a state-subsidized, community-supported mass of them capable of taking down embassies and executing translators in far-flung lands is � exactly that. The problem of Christianity is in its wild fringes. The problem of Islam radiates from its core.

I call myself a liberal still, though most Americans who wear that label deny me membership in their club. But I say any liberal who only stands up for the right to blaspheme when the object of blasphemy is the religion of their own homeland deserves not the name of liberal.