Enough with the cartoons. It's not about cartoons.
The riots and demonstrations across the Middle East and Western Europe (though not yet playing here) over some cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad have set off a parallel intellectual riot in the West over the nature of free speech and free expression. Many pundits and editorialists have worked feverishly to keep this a debate about the propriety of running cartoons. Some news outlets are updating their procedures so as not to offend "religious" sensibilities in the future.
The quotation marks around the word "religious" should say it all. We're not talking about "religion." We're talking about a specific religion - Islam. Does anyone truly think that the burning of Danish embassies and calls for the "slaughter" of those responsible by Muslim protestors have really taught the BBC or the New York Times to be more polite to evangelical Christians or Orthodox Jews? Does anyone really think that Arabic newspapers - often state-owned - are going to stop recycling Nazi-era images of Jews as baby killers and hook-nosed conspirators because they've become enlightened to notion that words can hurt? Considering that an Iranian newspaper just announced a contest for the best Holocaust cartoon, the odds seem slim. Besides, why belittle the Holocaust for something a Danish newspaper did? (Partial credit given for the answer: "It's always useful to pick on the Jews.")
Personally, I didn't think the cartoons were particularly good. They also seemed to be published out of a desire to offend Muslims. The editors and many defenders of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper claim otherwise, saying that they needed to prove there was a climate of fear in Denmark generated by Muslims. They proved there were Muslims eager to generate a climate of fear by offending those Muslims. They succeeded.
But the issue of "offense" is a distraction too. Let's assume that the publication of the cartoons was motivated entirely out of a desire to offend Muslims - or at least some Muslims. How does that change how we should view events now? If I needlessly offend my neighbor, shame on me. If, in response, he burns down my house and threatens to murder my entire family, who cares what I said in the first place? There is a call for a worldwide Islamic boycott of Danish products because of what an independent newspaper did in a free society. (The boycott shouldn't hurt sales of Danish hams, thank goodness.)
Overreactions are usually about something bigger. The whole point of the "last straw" metaphor is that small things can set off disproportionate reactions. One Muslim protestor in Britain held up a sign saying "Freedom Go To Hell!" Do we really think that a handful of cartoons in Denmark transformed him from a Jeffersonian democrat into a jihadi? Was the holder of the sign "Behead Those Who Insult Islam" a pacifist until recently?
Maybe, just maybe, these guys brought some issues to the table long before they ever heard of these cartoons.
It seems obvious, to me at least, that this is clang and clatter that comes with a clash of civilizations. Last year the (false) Newsweek story that American interrogators were flushing Korans down the toilet caused lethal riots in Afghanistan. In Paris, Muslims riot or threaten to riot about everything from schoolgirls without headscarves to the lack of halal Brie. Around the world, Muslims suffer from a mixture of legitimate grievances and an enormous inferiority complex. Muslim, and particularly Arab, governments have a vested interest in stirring up this sort of thing because it distracts from their own corrupt regimes. And the Muslim "street" seems to fall for it every time.
And so does much of the Western press. Sure, this is about freedom of expression, but it's also about so much more. Journalists just love to talk about freedom of the press. But they don't like to talk about that enormous chip on the shoulder of the Muslim world, and they really hate to say anything offensive to "oppressed" peoples.
Denouncing the State Department for criticizing these cartoons only makes sense if you look at this situation through a very narrow prism. The U.S. government is fighting a conventional war in two Muslim countries and a clandestine and diplomatic "global war on terror" that involves the entire global Muslim community. I don't like the U.S. picking on little Denmark either, but we should at least recognize that the Bush administration has in mind a bigger picture than those who think this is just about some cartoons.