Friday, April 30, 2010

South Park, Freedom of Speech, and Bigotry

Well, it finally happened. A post about South Park has made it onto the Spoon pages. God help us all. I kid, I kid. I'm a big fan of the show, actually. And it's not just a TV show, as Matt Stone and Trey Parker frequently make strong political commentary on the cartoon, albeit without a clear angle - which is probably a good thing. Well, South Park has been in the news the past two weeks because of their depiction (sort of) of Prophet Muhammad on the show. In response, a group called Revolution Muslim threatened Stone and Parker. Comedy Central decided to massively censor the second of two episodes (bleeping out every mention of the name of the Prophet, putting a giant black censor bar over him on the show, and essentially bleeping out the concluding speeches in the episode - which apparently were about the dangers of fear), and then didn't rerun the censored episode, nor put it up on the website. In response, many have come down angrily on Comedy Central. Jon Stewart went off on the Daily Show about it. The Simpsons shouted out South Park. A lot of people are very pissed.

And they have a right to be. Sort of. Revolution Islam is apparently a fringe group of only a few deluded and misguided people. More people join groups on facebook to pray for President Obama's death than this group. So, yeah, not really a threat.

Now, were Muslims going to be angry about this episode? Sure. As is now commonly known, thanks to the Danish cartoons of a few years ago, depictions of Prophet Muhammad are not allowed in Islam. The response to those cartoons drew a lot of attention in the West...people couldn't understand why Muslims were burning foreign businesses in response to a cartoon. Don't they value freedom of speech? Is their culture so backwards? More about this in a second.

First, though, the episodes. So, Stone and Parker had some fun with this, putting the Prophet in a bear costume so as not to have him seen (and, thus, avoiding some crazy response in the town of South Park by Muslims if the Prophet was actually revealed). The episodes are premised on the fact that other ridiculed groups want to get the Prophet's secret for not being able to be mocked.
In the second of the two episodes, as I mentioned earlier, the Prophet is shown, but Comedy Central put a big black censored box over him, bleeped every reference to him out, and bleeped out more or less the entire last minute of the show, where the kids talk about the danger of fear-based actions.

The root of the issue here is the Danish cartoons and the response by Muslims throughout the world to them. So, the cartoons first. I saw them. Some of them were simply aiming to have a little fun. I don't get why they decided to depict Prophet Muhammad to do that, though. People get bent out of shape about the fact that Muslims get angry about depictions of the Prophet (and actually, all the prophets they believe in, including Moses, Jesus, and Abraham). Here's the thing...if you have a problem with Muslims, go after Muslims, not these figures. If you know something is forbidden and considered offensive to a group of people, why unnecessarily go after it, unless that itself is the source of the problem? I really doubt drawing a cartoon of Muhammad is really a central source of conflict. So the whole premise behind the need to be allowed to draw him makes no sense.

Now, that's just stupidity, but not something to get that pissed about. The real issue at hand is that some of the cartoons were quite bigoted, especially the one with Muhammad wearing a turban with a bomb fuse lit and a sinister glare. There's no getting around it...the cartoon is pretty racist. It says Muhammad was a terrorist and insinuates that Muslims are terrorists. They can try to talk their way around it, but it's pretty obvious what the point was. That's really the cartoon that should have provoked outrage, particularly because of the hypocrisy about it. The same Danish paper rejected cartoons about Jesus a few years earlier because they were thought to be offensive and not funny. So, offensive Muhammad cartoons generalizing about Muslims in a terrible way were fine, but not those about Jesus. Great.

Fact is, both should have been rejected, or both should have been run. I actually lean towards rejection, not because of freedom of speech, but because freedom of speech doesn't mean you should use that freedom to be a bigot. Or...they should have both been printed, but people should have been willing to condemn them while not attacking the press' freedom for bigotry.

About the Muslim's the thing. To understand it, you have to actually spend a few minutes understanding politics in the Muslim world. So, first of all, the obvious point - people are much poorer, and have less access to education in these countries. That is a simple fact. When you have lower levels of education, you are less able to discern appropriate from crazy. The appropriate response would have been for Muslims to organize protests against the cartoons, for their bigotry. For instance, insist that their governments refuse to sell oil to Denmark until the government rightfully condemns the cartoons as racist. That doesn't mean they get pulled, just that they acknowledge the cartoons (at least some of them) were flat out racist. This could mean refusing to buy any goods coming from Denmark - whatever those are. Pastry, maybe? This could mean refusing to sell them oil.

Violent actions against the West in general, along with threats of violence, are not okay, though. That is going to far, which is the response many Muslims resorted to. A big reason - they just don't have the level of education that would have probably would have steered them away from violence.

Now, the education factor isn't the only problem. There's the whole "blowing off steam" issue. Most of the governments in the Muslim world are not democratic. The West props up many, if not all, of them. These governments often suppress dissent amongst the populace. However, as a wide amount of research has shown, these regimes do allow controlled dissent. They, in fact, encourage it, because it lets the people blow off steam, but not at the government. So, what these regimes often do is stir up the pot, encouraging/enabling/openly supporting public dissent targeted at some non-government entity. This shores up support for the regime ("they're on our side on this issue"). In the case of the Danish cartoons, the autocratic regimes were more than happy to encourage unrest against the depiction of Muhammad. And, not surprisingly, they didn't encourage a more sophisticated form of dissent, like objecting specifically to the bigoted nature of some of the cartoons, or backing a more open political challenge, like challenging the Danish via limiting trade, limiting oil supply, etc. until they at least acknowledged the troubling aspects of the cartoons.

Hence, the mob mentality. A populace with limited education, regimes stirring up the pot without giving any political objectives (and using it to shore up support), and then many Western countries throwing the "freedom of speech" flag to cover the obvious racist nature of the cartoons themselves. It's no wonder things got so crazy.

That's a more full picture of the cartoon controversy. It's not that Muslims are so backwards that they can't take a joke. It's that there were a number of factors in play. Yes, the reaction was problematic. Violent protests in Pakistan don't accomplish much. However,
the "politics for dummies" version of the issue doesn't help, either. It's not an essentialist issue. It's more complicated than that.

So, instead of looking at the cartoon issue in light of the bigotry, the politics of manufactured dissent from autocratic (or autocratic-like) regimes, and the issue of poor education systems, we get the "Muslims are crazy" arguments and knee-jerk free speech defenses. It's not that parts of any of the arguments are wrong, it's that none of them are correct by themselves.

So, yeah, South Park. No, it shouldn't have been censored. Freedom of speech is important, and just because a tiny group puts out a death threat, that doesn't mean you cave. But, like most everyone in the West, South Park interpreted the Danish cartoon issue like fifth graders. Look, its a cartoon show, I don't expect them to provide context about the issue - that's the media's job (which they, not shockingly, have failed at). But, they didn't have to simplify it so much.

The depictions of Prophet Muhammad, and the angry responses to it, are not just about freedom of speech. Yes, Muslims responded in an unproductive way - if you lack any context, sure, it looks insane. They bear plenty of blame. But so do the racists at the Danish paper, the leaders in Denmark who enabled the bigotry, the authoritarian-like leaders in the Muslim countries who stirred the pot, and the press, who painted it as a black-and-white issue.

So South Park, I 'ain't mad at ya. I am a little disappointed, though - you guys are smarter than that. You played into the super-simplistic version of the problem. But you're not the real issue here.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Wikileaks, the Military, and Accountability

In case you haven't heard, wikileaks, a website that publishes anonymous leaks of sensitive government/organizational documents (which Spoon blogger Falcon wrote about a few months back), has come under fire lately. In this age of government secrecy, a website like this is pretty important. It recently put out a horrifying video, leaked from the U.S. military, showing an attack on July 12, 2007 in Baghdad that killed 12 people, including two Reuters news staff. None of those killed were seen as hostile. The story obviously got a lot of media attention, and has drawn the ire of many, including U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who called the release irresponsible, stating that wikileaks has no accountability. A secret report from the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Center goes so far as to call wikileaks a threat to the military.

Accountability...that's an interesting word to use. It is particularly ironic, because, if anything, I'd say the military doesn't seem to be accountable for its actions. This terrifying video shows the cold-blooded murder of unarmed civilians. The official story from the Pentagon was that the helicopter fired because it was itself under fire. The video shows that this is clearly not the case, and the conversation between the troops makes that point, too. Nothing in the records show that U.S. forces were under fire at all. This appears to be a complete fabrication, and a case of the military trying to cover its ass. Some legal experts suggest that the crew may have acted illegally.

Is releasing information a threat? Really? Particularly when that information shows the military, a government, or an organization/business acted with duplicity, and possibly illegally? Of course, the military establishment and government officials attacked wikileaks, because it makes them look bad. That's not surprising. It's just odd that they use "accountability" as the source of their attack.

I do agree that, oftentimes, websites put information up that is completely false, or problematically skewed, and don't face any repercussions for their actions. Hell, that's our mainstream press today, to some extent. But here's the thing...wikileaks didn't manufacture this video. It's real. The documents and footage that go on its site are real.

The reason we have a need for leaks like this is the increasingly secretive nature of governments. They do everything to cover their collective asses on seemingly everything. It'd be one thing if this video was leaked solely to fan the flames over this incident. That's the issue. Nobody did anything about this when it happened. Gates thought it would just go away. Some argue the military did not sufficiently investigate this, and other, instances where journalists were killed, or did not publicly disclose its findings. Some international law and human rights experts also think the killings in the wikileaks video could be war crimes. These are all quite serious issues. At the very least, the military should have been far more active in investigating this incident, along with others.

Instead, they assumed it would just go away and now that they are being pressed on it, they're getting defensive. Nobody was punished for this, nobody outside the military seems to have investigated this, and Gates sure as hell seems disinterested in dealing with it. Hence, his ridiculous response to the video. If there's anyone who seems to lack accountability at this point, its the military leadership.
The soldiers in the video themselves seem to be more interested in making things right than the military leadership, which isn't necessarily that surprising.

The reason we need websites like wikileaks is because those in power seem disinterested in holding anyone accountable for their horrific mistakes, and our press isn't up to the task like they used to be (which has a lot to do with the political economy of the mass media, but that's a whole different topic). Yeah, maybe wikileaks is a threat to the military. But maybe that's a good thing. If Gates et. al. aren't interested in accountability, somebody needs to pick up the slack.