Cartoon lunacy has returned once again with the usual menu of outrage, effigy-burning, hurt feelings and apologies.
As artists and literalists duke it out both in the U.S. and in Europe, it no longer seems implausible that the world will go up in a mushroom cloud because some fevered fanatic couldn't take a joke.
Or even get it.
In Europe, it's the Swedes this time who have offended Muslims with cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, including one that shows the prophet's head on the body of a dog.
Outrage, never far from the front burner where the date palms grow, was swift. Egypt complained, Jordan condemned, Afghanistan protested, and Iran -- that arbiter of taste and protocol -- suggested ways Sweden could become a better country.
In Pakistan, where effigies are a cottage industry, "Muslim youth" burned a straw likeness of Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who bravely and beautifully articulated why Westerners allow cartoonists to be offensive:
"We are eager to ensure that Sweden remains a country in which Muslims and Christians ... can live side by side in a spirit of mutual respect," he said. "We are also eager to stand up for freedom of expression, which is enshrined in the constitution ... which ensures that we do not make political decisions about what gets published in newspapers."
As in the case with the Danish cartoons that sparked riots in 2006, this batch may be offensive without being especially humorous or trenchant. A drawing does not a cartoon make.
But Western principles protecting the right of free speech allow even for mediocre expression. And principles of tolerance mean not just for others' beliefs, but also sometimes for our own hurt feelings.
These lessons of freedom and tolerance, which we can't seem to export with much success, are also apparently lost on some American newspaper editors who declined recently to run two of Berkeley Breathed's "Opus" comic strips out of concern -- or was it fear? -- that they were potentially offensive to Muslims.
Breathed's home paper, The Washington Post, was among 25 that opted out. (Disclaimer: Breathed and I are both syndicated by The Washington Post Writers Group and I confess to great affection for Opus, who is a penguin.)
Except for the timing of these two cartoonish eruptions, Breathed's comics and the European depictions wouldn't belong in the same paragraph. When it comes to quality of execution and depth of thought, there's little comparison.
Breathed's strips were so good, in fact, that the wrong people are offended. Now that's funny. He wasn't ridiculing Muslims; he was making fun of Americans, especially the macho, hubristic variety who think they know what's best for everyone else.
To paraphrase another cartoon character, we have met the joke and it is us. Where is the outrage?
The first "Opus" strip, which can be viewed on Salon.com and at comics.com, shows Lola Granola dressed in a Muslim headscarf and veil.
"A Muslim fundamentalist?" asks her boyfriend, Steve. "No. Radical Islamist. Hot new fad on the planet." The final panel suggests that, given Lola's new identity, Steve will be denied her affections.
The second strip continues the plotline and shows Lola and Steve preparing for the beach. Steve urges Lola to wear that "smokin' hot yellow polka dot bikini" and reminds her, "You love freedom. You love hotness. And you love that I'm so darned smart about what's best for you." Lola emerges from the dressing room covered head-to-toe in a "burqini."
OK, who gets the joke?
Interpreting cartoons is risky business, as they're not intended to be taken literally. And, reading letters posted at Salon.com, it's clear that everyone has his own interpretation of what the strips are saying. Breathed himself prefers to stay strictly out of it.
What seems clear, however, is that strip is making fun of a certain shallowness on our side of the pond. Breathed is often hard on males and no one looks more foolish in these strips than the character Steve, who is oblivious to all but his own needs and desires.
If anyone is offended, it should be American males.
What is also clear is that the editors who killed these strips surrendered in advance of controversy. Thanks to previous acts of protest and intimidation, radical Muslims have succeeded in directing editorial content of America's free, and formerly courageous, press.
The joke really is on us. And it's not funny.
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