The Danish cartoons

Discussion of the really scurrilous Danish cartoons (see Mark’s go at this here) has so far properly established that creating and publishing them was stupid, rude, and ignorant, and that the riotous popular, and over-the-top official (boycotts and such) responses to them are stupid and ignorant as well. As to the latter, for example, they are ignorant of the relationship between a newspaper in the west and (i) the government of its nation (ii) the people who read it (iii) the people who don’t read it.

Some western commentators have pointed to the wide dissemination of really frightful and savage cartoons of Jews, Americans, and Christians that regularly circulate in the Moslem world to claim hypocrisy, and the standard rejoinder is that none of this goes to the core religious beliefs of those groups, so there’s no parallel. Of course, since Abraham, Moses, and Jesus are venerated in Islam, no real parallel is imaginable from an Islamic source; on the other hand, if vicious and hateful public discourse against this or that group in the last couple of decades is totted up, I think the Islamic side is way ahead. No western instructions from high in the Vatican or the rabbinate or Jerry Falwell or even Pat Robertson to all the faithful to seek out and kill anyone because we don’t like his book so far, but Mr. Rushdie was hiding out from one for many years.

The cost in property, and maybe lives, of the nitwit cartoonists and editor’s idea may have passed the hypothetical cost of the famous “Fire!” in a crowded theater Holmes used to illustrate what freedom of speech does not comprise. Where the rubber hits the road, I nevertheless agree with Mark that the freedom of the press principle protects the cartoonists and the publishers.

Hard cases make bad law, but this episode still has some lessons. First, I’m astonished at the fragility the protestors and their eggers-on (let’s note immediately all the zillions of Moslems who haven’t been in the streets or throwing rocks over this) impute to their co-religionists’ faith. So we have evidence that some European Christians and, I guess, agnostics think they are immune from the displeasure of Allah at idolatry, and that Mohammed is in some way associated with Islamic violence. Did the Islamic world previously believe this was not the case; will learning of it make a lot of Moslems lose their faith? I guess if an epidemic of impious cartoonatry were to break out in Islamic media there would be some cause for concern, but the worst a reasonable person can make of this is that a lot of Danes don’t share the beliefs of Islam, and some of them have no manners. Duh. How is this worth throwing anything more lethal than a creampie at anyone? (I’m genuinely mystified that dissing someone else’s holies can so consistently provoke this lethal rage, assuming that rage is triggered by fear. I’ve been trying to think how I would feel if someone of another confession publicly besmirched a symbol venerated by me and mine, and I’m pretty sure the main reaction would be pity. When one of ‘my people’ does it, as when my government drapes my flag around some especially vile behavior, I am enraged, but I think not in the same way. Maybe I’m incorrectly wired on this matter… )

As Robert Frank notes, cartoons are data: they show us what people think is funny, or what people think other people will think is funny (and apropos or relevant to something). I don’t think the sewer of Islamic anti-western and anti-Semitic gutter media indicates that all or most Moslems are hateful, violent bigots, though it does indicate that some of their opinion leaders think it would be a good idea if they were, and amid an ocean of underemployed, poorly educated, cruelly oppressed Moslems it would be surprising if a fair number didn’t seize on a hateful civic faith just as the white dispossessed of America grow skinheads, and the inflation- and poverty-ridden Germans of the 20s grasped for someone to blame. I don’t even think the recent worldwide orgy of violence perpetrated explicitly as a Moslem campaign, and justified by signed, explicit commands from notable leaders, indicates a general judgment on Moslems.

Why, then, did the cartoon of Mohammed as a violent figure make it into print? A cartoon of Mother Teresa with an Uzi would just be silly and pointless; an editor would reject it for lack of import before even thinking about whom it would offend. The real bite of this cartoon, which suggests terrorism as an intrinsic trait of Islam, is its implicit condemnation of the civil, humane, decent Moslem community for its tolerance of the violence and hate being orchestrated in the name of Islam. Please don’t email me statements from this and that imam; I’m not talking about total silence. The fact is that soi-disant Islamic terrorists and savages swim in a sea of decent people and check-writing fat cats who have not seen fit to cast them out or shut them down, and that on the whole, government and religious reaction to it has been tepid, qualified, and quibbling. Until this changes, Moslems would do well to consider that a message in a rude and coarse wrapping may still be a message.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.