16 February 2006

A curly one

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:06 am

Leunig.jpgThis is the cartoon that Michael Leunig didn’t submit to the Hamshahri competition we spoke of earlier. Someone else submitted it for him, and the cartoonist is ropeable:

“I have gotten used to dirty tricks, dirty tactics, from the pro-war lobbyists” Leunig said. “It’s a very personal attack against me. They want it proclaimed for all to see that Leunig is a friend of Muslim terrorists. They want to further caricature my position, to distort my position.”

The prankster—today revealed to be Richard Cooke, who writes for The Chaser and is not famous as a pro-war lobbyist—forged the following note, purportedly from Leunig:

As a show of solidarity with the Muslim world, and an exercise in free speech, I would like to submit a cartoon to you… I have had some difficulty getting this work published in my own country, and I believe it would help highlight the hypocrisy of the West’s attitude to free speech if you were to publish it.

Again, we should emphasise that Leunig didn’t submit the cartoon to the competition or write this explanation. However, he did submit the cartoon to The Age in 2002, and it was rejected by editor Michael Gawenda. Media Watch ran the story in May of that year, including Leunig’s response:

I think Michael Gawenda just didn’t get it. I think the drawing is sympathetic to all Jews who ever suffered but sympathy is not always expressed with sugar.

Gawenda maintained that the cartoon was inappropriate, and challenged Media Watch to test his position with its audience. Perhaps predictably, 85% of respondents thought The Age should have published the cartoon.

There are at least two ways to interpret Leunig’s cartoon. One is that the Jews, who were confronted with the blatant deception “Arbeit macht frei”—work brings freedom—as they passed through the one-way gates of various concentration camps, are now perpetrating similar violence under comparable falsehoods in Israel. Parallels of that nature are frequently drawn in anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli literature—including in cartoons, which often equate Jews or Israelis with Nazis, plastering them with swastikas. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that Michael Gawenda thought that the cartoon was inappropriate for The Age, or that some clown thought it was entirely appropriate for Hamshahri‘s cartoon competition.

That interpretation doesn’t really make sense, though. If you look closely, it’s a Jewish bloke fronting up to both gates; he is the focus of both panels. The suggestion isn’t that Jews are guilty of the same atrocities they suffered in 1942; it’s that they are being sold another lie—perhaps as brazen and certainly as deadly as the first one. They are still victims, this time not of the Nazis but of the intransigent Israeli government. The cartoon certainly takes sides in the conflict, and it uses provocative imagery, but it’s not anti-Semitic and doesn’t abuse the Holocaust. It’s about the misuse of language and rhetoric, perhaps the commonest of all governments’ crimes against their citizens.

In a way, it’s a shame Leunig didn’t submit this cartoon to the current competition. It seems to comply with the terms of entry, vague though they are; it has already run up against issues of freedom of speech and cultural sensitivity. It’s a lot more thought-provoking than the Jyllands-Posten cartoons of Muhammad were or the other Holocaust entries are likely to be. It doesn’t share the competition’s violent overtones, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t hijack the competition to demonstrate what freedom of expression is actually about.

Weapons drawn

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:02 am

comp.jpgIran’s largest daily newspaper has announced a competition for cartoons depicting the Holocaust. The call is a response to the caricatures of Muhammad published by Denmark’s and newspapers around the world.

“The Western papers printed these sacrilegious cartoons on the pretext of freedom of expression, so let’s see if they mean what they say and also print these Holocaust cartoons,” says Hamshahri’s graphics editor, Farid Mortazavi.

On one view, this is a complete non sequitur. Although the Nazis and their offsiders targeted many groups during the Second World War, their attacks on Jews were particularly virulent, and most people recognise the special significance of the Holocaust and its memory to Jewish culture. It is not an obvious vehicle for retaliation against Denmark or the other European countries that published the cartoons.

Certainly very few Danish citizens died in the Holocaust. Even the country’s Jewish population was almost entirely saved; most were smuggled across the Øresund to Sweden, and the few sent to concentration camps received food and medicine from the Danish government. Only around fifty perished, and Danes must reflect on the Holocaust with at least a little pride. Denmark’s population of 5.4 million includes around 8,000 Jews; it is not clear that any of them were involved in the publication of the cartoons. In all of Europe there are fewer than two million Jews, and they approach 1% of the total population only in France.

The Holocaust competition seems to rest on the old conspiracy theory that Jewish interests control the Western media, if not the Western world; cartoons printed in Arabic newspapers suggest that this idea has some currency. Otherwise, it would be more pertinent to attack what is sacred to Europe’s largely Christian population – though that might be difficult, since Jesus is also venerated by Muslims.

Hamshahri’s point may be that the Holocaust is sacrosanct to all Europeans, Jew or Gentile. Europe is certainly sensitive about the subject, and public denial of the Holocaust is a criminal offence in most of the countries that have published the Muhammad cartoons, though not in Denmark. For that crime Roger Garaudy was fined in France, Gaston-Armand Amaudruz imprisoned in Switzerland, and Siegfried Verbke convicted in Belgium; David Irving is in custody awaiting trial in Austria. Holocaust denial is generally directed against Jews, but it is so condemned by the wider community that it attracts legal prohibition.

Many Muslims also feel that anti-Semitism itself is singled out for reproval. Many countries prohibit incitement to racial hatred or vilification; fewer prohibit incitement to religious hatred. As a result, more protection may be available to Jews—an ethnic as well as a religious group—than to Muslims, who are united only by religion.

Is there a relevant difference between race and religion? Perhaps. Religious beliefs are susceptible to choice—and debate—in a way that race is not. Most religions are at least partly incompatible with each other, so that practising one will often involve questioning or denouncing another. But religion now seems to divide people the way race once did; extremist elements within and without Islam are selling us a clash of civilisations defined not by ethnicity but by belief. It is hard to distinguish religious hatred from old-fashioned racial hatred by its intention, its content or its effect.

One answer is to criticise the beliefs but not the believers; that will sometimes be an illusory distinction—to portray Muhammad as a bomb-wielding psychopath is hardly to flatter his devotees—but it is still worth making. Perhaps the best solution is to apply racial and religious incitement laws consistently but very sparingly, against only the most loathsome and gratuitous expressions—and to subsume Holocaust denial into these laws; it would often though perhaps not always breach them.

Should the European newspapers who stood by the Jyllands-Posten also reprint the Holocaust cartoons? It depends. Prosecutors investigating the Muhammad cartoons found no likely breach of Denmark’s laws against blasphemy or religious insult. If the twelve winners of Hamshahri’s gold coins are significantly more offensive in their portrayals then there is no need to publish them, even if local laws would allow it; there is no hypocrisy in drawing a line. Flemming Rose, the mastermind of the Jyllands-Posten initiative, said that he would run the Holocaust cartoons; his editor-in-chief promptly overruled him. Both decisions seem hasty; we should wait and see.

In the meantime we have the cartoons of the Arab European League, which has made a promise similar to Hamshahri’s. “If it is the time to break taboos and cross all the red lines, we certainly do not want to stay behind,” says its website. Two of its cartoons involve familiar Holocaust denial; one has an undeserving Peter Jackson turn down Steven Spielberg’s new “Holocaust script” with the excuse, “I don’t think I have that much of imagination Steven, sorry”. The most shocking shows a post-coital Adolf Hitler in bed with Anne Frank—killed by the Nazis when she was fifteen—and crowing, “Write this one in your diary, Anne!”

As soon as these cartoons appeared, the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel lodged a criminal complaint with the Dutch public prosecutor; it is easy to see why. They are as senseless as the Muhammad caricatures, and more insulting. They don’t just conflate a prophet with the excesses of his adherents; they accuse a race of fabricating for its own gain the most horrific events in its history, and do violence to the memory of a murdered girl whose relatives are still alive. It is a simple matter to distinguish them from the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, though other cartoons may be more difficult to separate.

The Holocaust was long considered an inappropriate subject for any but the most sombre depiction, an injunction almost as firm as Islam’s against images of Muhammad. In 1980, Art Spiegelman began to serialise his comic Maus, which told of his father’s experiences as a Jew in wartime Poland and in concentration camps including Auschwitz and Dachau. Spiegelman softened his portrayal by drawing the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, the Americans as dogs and so on. Maus won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 but was at first suppressed in Germany for its treatment of the Holocaust; it is now taught in schools there. Last year, Joe Kubert’s Yossel and Pascal Croci’s Auschwitz—comic books dealing with similar themes without Spiegelman’s anthropomorphism—were translated into German and received a cautious reception. “Can you really show the savagery of the Holocaust as a comic?” asked Germany’s largest newspaper, Bild; many Jewish leaders thought that you couldn’t.

During the early stages of the war, American cartoonists drew attention to the plight of Jews in Europe and urged governments to give them refuge in the United States or Palestine. But most cartoon depictions of Jews have been outrageously insulting. Propaganda in Die Brennessel and Der Stürmer from the 1920s onward portrayed them as hook-nosed, unshaven and avaricious, as spiders sucking the livelihood from Germans, worms in the German economy, pimps luring women into prostitution, murderers draining the blood from children; they showed strapping Aryans pushing them off cliffs and having at them with swords. Many Muslim newspapers now work in the same tradition: their cartoons depict Jews drinking the blood of babies, playing puppet-master to the world and particularly the United States; they draw them as snakes, pigs, octopuses, devils, and frequently Nazis.

These unflattering portrayals are not relevant to the way the Western media should treat Islam, or the laws that should apply to racial or religious vilification. The fact that some Muslims incite hatred does not mean that other Muslims should be vilified, and the fact that some Muslim countries make hypocritical demands for religious accommodation does not require our hypocrisy. On past form the Hamshahri cartoons are unlikely to challenge the European media’s commitment to freedom of expression, because they are likely to be of a different nature to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons; we will know soon enough. But cartoons, however offensive, are a much better response than threats and firebombs, and are certainly to be encouraged.

15 February 2006

And we’re back

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:45 pm

dinoblog.jpgEagle-eyed readers will have noticed that there hasn’t been any activity here for several months, for which many apologies. There are a few reasons: I was very busy wrapping up a rewrite in time for Christmas; most of the website database got deleted during a server upgrade, and after restoring what I could (sorry to everyone whose comments were lost) I felt a little despondent about the transience of all things; and so on.

Another reason is that I’ve been taking some tentative steps into the print media, something I’d always meant to do after using this blog to hone my sense of outrage and perhaps develop something of a personal style. On 30 September last year I published a piece called “A Bad Example” in the Review section of the Australian Financial Review; it was about the Commonwealth Health Department’s petrol sniffing information kit and the unfortunate things Tony Abbott said launching it. It began like this:

Steven Uluru made front pages across the country in August when he appeared with a can of petrol under his jumper before a coronial inquest into the deaths of three other petrol sniffers. It was impossible not to be affected by the picture and its contrasts: the resort guests enjoying sundowners on the bright side of Australia’s most celebrated rock while the rock’s namesake, and one of its custodians, shambled dead-eyed through its shadow.

The coroner, Greg Cavanagh, immediately adjourned the proceedings, held in the small town of Mutitjulu, some 20 kilometres from Uluru. He later explained that he hadn’t been distressed by the sight but had been frustrated by his own inability to help. “I was angry with myself at my impotence to stop what was going on,” he said. “No one, not me, white lawyers, uniformed police, Aboriginal men and other community members, did anything.”

If only Tony Abbott had been there. The federal Health Minister invoked—perhaps milked—the scene when he launched his department’s new petrol-sniffing information kit last Friday.

“That was a terrible thing, and getting the message out that petrol sniffing kills people and it can kill them fast, that’s important if communities are to do their bit to end this dreadful scourge,” he said. Although Steven Uluru won’t be able to read the flipchart himself, “the people who love him hopefully will, and rather than permit him to wander sniffing petrol all day, they will insist that he attends some kind of rehabilitation program”.

Of course Steven Uluru and everyone he knew had tried every kind of rehabilitation program available to sniffers the Northern Territory, but the facilities have been famously lacking. It was difficult to see how much good the information kit would have done in his case, and it was satisfying to be able to point that out. The article went over reasonably well, so last Friday I published another one, again in the AFR‘s Review section, this time called “No Laughing Matter” and about the Danish cartoon controversy. I concluded that both sides were to blame for the whole thing getting out of hand.

Of course freedom of speech is critical to any non-dystopic society, and its interaction with religious sensibilities must be debated. But these issues need the right cause, and the Jyllands-Posten cartoons are hardly up to it. There is much to be said about Islam’s relationship with violence, with women, and with other faiths, and much of that might be blasphemous but worth defending; these cartoons attempt none of it They are empty provocation; they express nothing beyond their own mischief. And, fatally, they’re not funny. Freedom of expression covers worthless as well as weighty expressions, of course; but to defend such a gratuitous exercise with so much righteous bluster seems itself gratuitous. It appears to be driven by the same moral panic—the fear that Islam threatens our most cherished institutions—that prompted the Jyllands-Posten’s ill-fated initiative.

It is true that many protesters are now demanding government intervention of a kind that would seriously deform the boundaries of our freedom of expression. They are free to ask it; we are free to refuse. As a corollary to religious freedom, most Western democracies have abolished their laws against blasphemy or allowed them to atrophy. Some Muslims have asked how Denmark’s Lutheran majority would feel if Jesus were given the Muhammad treatment; doubtless many would be outraged, but it is unlikely that legal sanctions would result. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and the public reading of James Kirkup’s poem suggesting Christ was gay attracted plenty of protest but no prosecutions, exactly as it should be.

At the same time, many democracies have strengthened their laws against racial and religious vilification and incitement to hatred. Some critics argue that it is hypocrisy to prosecute extremist Muslims and neo-Nazi propagandists while allowing cartoonists to draw Muhammad however they like; but these arguments ignore critical differences. Blasphemy is not vilification: it is not committed against people but against God, who hardly needs our protection. We have to understand that many Muslims are deeply pained by portrayals of or disrespectful references to Muhammad; we need to use our freedom sensibly and not gratuitously. But until mockery becomes incitement to hatred—until it turns from God and threatens people—it is a matter of personal responsibility and cannot be the subject of legal proscription. That is where we have placed our line, and it is a reasonable boundary.

I’ve already learned a couple of things about writing for newspapers—which Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur strip calls “dinosaur blogs”—as opposed to the writing straight to the Internet. The first was that whatever personal style I had developed here was of little use in print, partly because space limitations preclude the kind of rambling delivery I prefer, perhaps also because of the need to mask suspicions of personal inadequacy with an authoritative-sounding tone. The second was that links really help in presenting an argument: they save you having to summarise everything and reduce your responsibility for accurately putting someone else’s case—readers can simply see for themselves, if they’re interested. In a newspaper you can use quotes, but again space constraints limit their effectiveness. When consumer-grade electronic paper becomes popular, it’s likely that many of these differences will disappear as newspapers embrace the advantages of hypertext.

On the other hand, newspapers’ editorial oversight gives them more credibility than most weblogs out in the anarchy of the Internet. They also have a proven financial model (for now) and so tend to pay their writers better. So I’m going to try to do more dinosaur blogging, but will continue to post here when I wind up with something that doesn’t fit anywhere else. I will also try to restore the hundreds of comments on Missy Higgins: lesbian?, because they’re brilliant.

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