April 22, 2010, 09:26 AM ET
'South Park' and the Prophet Muhammad
It looks as if South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have caved to the pressure of a radical American Islamic group that threatened (they say “warned”) them, on their Web site, that they would “probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh” (i.e., murdered) for making fun of the prophet Muhammad on a recent episode. The Guardian reports that in the follow-up episode (aired last night in Britain, tonight in the States) the writers “appeared to bow to threats of violence” from the American Muslim group. The show was labeled with the word “censored,” and the words “Prophet Muhammad” were beeped out. Muhammad dressed in a bear suit, which sparked the initial “warning,” morphed into Santa Claus in a bear suit.
As The Guardian points out, whether this is acquiescence or yet more mockery is hard to figure out. The nature of South Park is to be wickedly and cleverly degrading, profane, insulting, mocking, and darling all at the same time. My guess, not having yet seen it, is that it remains mockery. Throughout history, heretics have always found enormous wiggle room through esoteric writing—i.e., writing in such a way that censors think something is harmless, while those in the know understand the hidden meaning.
I fess up to watching South Park whenever I feel the need for “transgressiveness.” Who needs Marina Abromovic, the naked performance artist whose exhibition is currently at MOMA (causing a New York ruckus because visitors “are forced to confront” a decision about whether to walk through the gap between a couple of standing naked models)? Transgressive art is a bore; South Park shocks.
Out of curiosity, I went to the radical Muslim website that posted the initial “warning” about South Park. Although the site’s interactivity has been shut down, you can read a long-winded post on the controversy, and how the Prophet (peace-be-upon-him) doesn’t like to have his name taken in vain and how America is an evil imperialist nation spreading its pernicious hedonism throughout the world. I forced myself to slog through it. When I was finished, however, I experienced a strange sensation: I agreed with part of it.
Bear with me while I explain. In the middle of the ramble, the author writes that America’s is a “selfish culture in which the suffering of the many is justified by the enjoyment of the few.” He then points out that the principle of free speech, “as envisioned by the founding fathers of the United States and by wise men and women throughout the ages, is a universal principle that may protect citizens from political, economic, or religious persecution. Today it is understood much differently; today 'free speech' is interpreted as the right to promote pornography, homosexuality, slander, and libel against even that which is considered sacred.”
Minus the prejudice against homosexuality, many of us can agree with these words. Consider Monday’s Supreme Court ruling, which argued that the right of people to buy and sell videos depicting cruel dog fights and women crushing small animals under their high heels falls under the protection of the First Amendment's protection of free speech. The ruling deeply repelled me. I struggled mightily to find some part of what I studied in political science, my undergraduate major, or some part of what I’ve learned about the Constitution over the years, that would make the First Amendment somehow not protect this ugly sort of video. Yet I could not.
Those who understand the first thing about modern enlightenment in general, and the great American experiment in particular, know that the most libertarian reading possible of the right to free speech is the only viable choice. This is especially true after the horrors of the 20th-century, where various successive totalitarian regimes, suppressing all opposition, slaughtered human beings by the millions.
Yes, free speech in a raucous democratic society frequently plummets to levels of Dantean hell—worlds of the vulgar, disgusting, grotesque, immoral, horrifying, ugly, frightening, irreverent, profane and grotesque. Yet to be American means to be liberal (in the sense of modern classical liberalism)—i.e., to tolerate the worst excesses of the worst people. Why? So that when moments of real political and religious crisis emerge, the right to free speech is there.
I, too, wish our free speech didn’t always seem to boil down to protecting such things as crush videos, or even such dumb and ugly vulgarities as the Bad Girls Club that damage the dignity of women almost as much as outright pornography. To a certain extent, we’re all degraded by the background buzz of modernity, and the crisis of modern liberalism, at least in part, lies in the fact that our philosophical outlook makes it easy for our aesthetic and moral environment to slowly eat away our aesthetic and moral sensibilities.
Would that free speech were expressed in dignified debates over whether Locke or Hobbes was right, or about how to balance the rights of individuals with the needs of society as a whole. Would that free speech were necessary only to protect the right of people to protest factory farming, and not the right to sell videos of animals being tortured. Would that public behavior was more dignified and respectful, and that men and women in public dressed with more decorum and dignity. Would that all of these things were true, and more.
But they are not. At the same time, no individual or group—not even those using veiled threats—will survive long in the modern age by relying on censorship.