Some call it “festive abuse” and some have made a good living at it. One of those was Don Rickles – still around but growing mellow now, and certainly less active. He’s an old guy now and insult comedy is hard work, something for the young guys, but Don Rickles did have a good ride. Rickles started out in the fifties, in front of dull audiences who wouldn’t laugh at the right time, finally calling them “hockey pucks” – and they loved it, so he kept it up and got rich and famous. He’d insult anybody – that was the fun of it. Who would he insult next? Rickles knew how to build tension and have it explode at just the right time. In comedy, timing is everything, especially with insults. Then America got tired of him. Public figures started insulting each other. Fox News, where outrage and scorn are the norm, was launched. Ann Coulter showed up on the cover of Time. Bill Maher returned to national television. Who needed Don Rickles? Everyone was a provocateur, and everyone was offended all the time too. The world caught up to Don Rickles.
The world is still trying to catch up to conceptual artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano – whose work is intentionally provocative, as both believe art should be. Art should shake people up, making them see things in a new way. Serrano’s Piss Christ certainly did that – an artsy photograph of a small plastic crucifix suspended in a jar of his own urine, which may or may not be a comment on what we’ve actually done to religion over all the years. Serrano said it was a study in ambiguity. Yeah, well… whatever.
Most people might react with a shrug – this guy has issues he needs to work out – but there were those who didn’t shrug:
In 1987, Serrano’s Piss Christ was exhibited at the Stux Gallery in New York and was favorably received. The piece later caused a scandal when it was exhibited in 1989, with detractors, including United States Senators Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms, outraged that Serrano received $15,000 for the work, and $5,000 in 1986, from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts. Serrano received death threats and hate mail, and he lost grants due to the controversy. Others alleged that the government funding of Piss Christ violated separation of church and state. The work was vandalized at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, and gallery officials reported receiving death threats in response to Piss Christ. Supporters argued that the controversy over Piss Christ is an issue of artistic freedom and freedom of speech. …
During a retrospective of Serrano’s work at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997, the then Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, George Pell, sought an injunction from the Supreme Court of Victoria to restrain the National Gallery of Victoria from publicly displaying Piss Christ, which was not granted. Some days later, one patron attempted to remove the work from the gallery wall, and two teenagers later attacked it with a hammer. …
On April 17, 2011, a print of Piss Christ was vandalized “beyond repair” by Christian protesters while on display during the Je crois aux miracles (I believe in miracles) exhibition at the Collection Lambert, a contemporary art museum in Avignon, France. …
Beginning September 27, 2012, Piss Christ was on display at the Edward Tyler Nahem gallery in New York, at the Andres Serrano show “Body and Spirit.” Religious groups and some lawmakers called for President Barack Obama to denounce the artwork, comparing it to the anti-Islamic film Innocence of Muslims that the White House had condemned earlier that month.
Barack Obama didn’t respond – he had other things to think about – but many were outraged by what they saw as blasphemy, or at least a gratuitous insult. Those two Australian teenagers with the hammer had the right idea. Those Christian protesters in Avignon who vandalized Serrano’s photograph beyond repair had the right idea. Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms had the right idea. You don’t insult the deeply-held religious beliefs of others. If you do, you pay the price. Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms agreed with the French in Avignon, of all things. Screw artistic freedom and freedom of speech. We’re talking about Jesus here, not the Prophet Muhammad. And maybe no one should insult that guy either – or maybe folks should insult both of them and everyone should just chill.
That’s easier said than done, now that we have a situation where insult comedy meets provocative conceptual art, in the form of the political cartoon. The folks at Charlie Hebdo had a bit Don Rickles to them, with a dash of Andres Serrano, but there was no crucifix in a vial of anyone’s urine – just political cartoons mocking Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. A dozen of them died for that. Who were they going to insult next? We’ll never know – the survivors are regrouping. The world is outraged by what happened, but they didn’t attack Jesus, did they? They didn’t do what Andres Serrano did.
This makes all the current talk about artistic freedom and freedom of speech a bit of a muddle, and now the humane and very cool new Pope, who knows a thing or two about blasphemy – that comes with the job – and he has decided to offer the Church’s position:
Pope Francis waded into the debate over freedom of expression following the attacks in Paris, saying that killing in the name of religion is an “aberration,” but adding that those who deride other faiths can expect to provoke a strong – even violent – response.
Speaking in reference to last week’s assault on French publication Charlie Hebdo that left 12 dead, the pope said that “no one can kill in the name of God. This is an aberration.”
He added, however, that “there is a limit to freedom of expression.” The pope offered a colorful example, referring to a hypothetical case in which someone insults his mother.
“One cannot react violently, but if [someone] says something bad about my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s to be expected,” the pontiff said. “There are a lot of people who speak badly about other religions. They make fun of them. What happens is what happens with my friend [who insults my mother]. There is a limit.”
Got it? One cannot react violently, but make a gratuitous insult and you’ll get a punch in the mouth, as you should – but no one should kill you. He is making a distinction there, or just explaining human nature, but he was clear before this comment:
In recent days, the 78-year-old pontiff strongly denounced the attack by two militant Muslim gunmen on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical publication that has long derided Islam and other religions and their institutions, including the Vatican.
Perhaps they should have been punched, not shot down, or perhaps he’s only saying that he understands human nature, which is what it is. He’s probably felt like punching the guys at Charlie Hebdo himself. He gets it – but you just don’t shoot people. That’s a no-no. On the other hand he did say that there is a limit, that every religion has its dignity.
At the National Review, Charles Cooke is confused:
By proposing that insults against his mother would prompt him to “punch” the speaker – and that such violent responses are “normal” – Francis not only limited the force of his initial statements, but he gave succor to the notion that those who give gratuitous offense should expect retaliation.
It is one thing to say, “we strongly support the legal rights of provocateurs but, clearly, we dislike their output” but it is quite another to suggest that those who insult others will likely “get a punch,” or to submit that, if one wishes to stay safe, “one cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.” Whatever Francis “really meant” here, one thing is absolutely clear: The language he used was imprecise, poorly judged, and terribly, terribly timed. There is never – ever – an excuse for violence against peaceful critics. It is not in any way “normal” to see such foul play. What happened to that simple formulation: “turn the other cheek”?
Amanda Marcotte goes further:
Religion is an idea, and, as an idea, it should be eligible for criticism, discussion, and yes, mockery. The only reason so many believers demand special exceptions be made for religious ideas – exceptions to be backed up with violence, no less – is because they know full well that their ideas don’t hold up well under scrutiny. Not only do they not have any evidence for their claims for the supernatural, but the logical arguments all break in the other direction. Even here we have the pope calling for a general stifling, with violence, of criticisms of all religions. But he, being the pope, just by existing, is declaring that some religions are false religions. So, why on earth should the rest of us be restrained from pointing out the same of his religion and other religions? It makes no sense at all.
Why did Andres Serrano catch so much grief too? And Marcotte adds this:
Because of the gulf between the preciousness with which people treat religious beliefs and their actual merits, I would argue that we need more mockery and more blasphemy. A lot of people out there are nursing doubts and want to extract themselves from the yoke of false belief. Seeing that you can not only reject religion but make fun of it without God striking you down with a lightning bolt is liberating for a lot of people. Religions amass power by bullying people in just the way that Pope Francis is doing, complete with threats of censorship and violence. We should stand up to these bullies. Making fun of them is an excellent way to do that.
In conclusion, fuck you, Pope Francis.
Your religion is dumb and the more whining you do about people saying that, the more I hope people keep saying it.
Amanda is not shy about her opinions, but she’s safe. Evangelical Christians from Arkansas don’t shoot people for saying such things, very often, and the Catholic Church hasn’t burned any heretics in centuries. They even admit that Inquisition thing was kind of a mistake. Amanda Marcotte is safe to say these things.
Andrew Sullivan, however, is more thoughtful:
I was actually surprised and gladdened by the response to the slaughter – an overwhelming wave of revulsion and disgust, expressed with great dignity and courage (and yes, it was an absolute disgrace that Obama sent no one of a higher rank than the ambassador). I had begun to think that a defense of free speech was no longer a pillar of the American right or left, but for a while, at least, I was wrong. People do draw the line at the murder of blasphemous cartoonists in the name of God. It seems we have at least achieved a consensus on that. Two cheers!
That is from a devout Catholic, even if he is gay, and there’s more:
Can you imagine Charlie being allowed to be published on any US campus? For merely its depictions of Jews and Christians, it would never survive. It is, after all, a “macro-aggression”, right? Students would need counseling for years to recover from such images. Still, hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue, and in an America dedicated to rooting out “hate speech”, this is probably as good as we’re likely to get.
Then the deeper disappointment – even now, many will not concede that religion was the root cause of the attack, and that the name of that religion is Islam.
Sullivan is simply not impressed with those who say ISIS is distorted Islam, and they kill more of their own anyway:
Yeah, they have murdered thousands of Westerners and far larger numbers of Middle Eastern and Nigerian and Pakistani Muslims. Yeah, they did that. They also declared at every one of their slaughters that their motivation is Islam. They have beheaded people, mass murdered school children, flown planes into buildings, cut women’s genitals, employ sex slaves, commit mass rape, and on and on. They have taken over a large part of the Iraqi and Syrian deserts to advance their desire for religious purity.
But Islam has nothing to do with this. There are just a few loonies who are suffering from false consciousness, and their real motivations are economic or personal or secular or just purely violent. You can believe that, if you want. Or you can pretend to believe it because it might be more pragmatic to do so. Or you can open your eyes. This is not to say that most Muslims support this kind of mass murder – and the global Muslim response was particularly encouraging. But it is to say that it is not a coincidence that so much terror and violence all over the world is currently being committed in the name of Islam. Some core parts of it are, quite simply, incompatible with post-Enlightenment thought and practice. And those parts have all the energy right now.
And the core issue here is blasphemy. For almost all of human history, rooting out blasphemy has been the norm. Many Western countries still have moribund blasphemy laws and the Muslim world is crammed with them.
This is an issue:
The map from the Pew Foundation shows where blasphemy laws are on the books. See a pattern here? Pew notes that 64 percent of the world’s populations still live under blasphemy laws and they are marginally more common than the other deeply anti-Enlightenment prohibition on apostasy.
Again, it’s vital to point out that Islam is the norm for most religions on planet earth since the beginning of time – except for a brief period in the modern West. It is not so much that they have gone backward so much as we have gone forward so rapidly on the question of religious liberty and free speech that some core elements of Islam cannot tolerate it. It’s too great a cultural gulf.
I have tentative hope that this vast gap on a fundamental question may take as long for Islam to arrive at as Christianity did. But that means a century at least of more bloodletting – and given the presence of so many disaffected young Muslims in Europe, a series of slaughters to come, and the possible erosion of support for free speech outside these rare moments of cherished unity. I see no other way of getting through this: surveillance, vigilance, an end to invasion, occupation and torture, and patience – and to give not an inch to any infringement on free speech.
The rest is for the Muslim world.
That said, what do we do? Sullivan offers this:
I think it’s perfectly possible to agree with that analysis of what is going on, while disagreeing on what to actually do about it. There’s this tendency to conflate a willingness to recognize some core illiberal parts of Islam as the problem with an invade-occupy-and-torture strategy of the last administration. But the two are easily separable. In fact, it is perfectly obvious at this point that a military strategy will not only fail but actually make things worse. There is no doubt in my mind that the invasion of Iraq, for example, advanced the cause of Jihadism as much as the brutal torture of Muslims by the CIA and every other branch of the armed services as well. The two brothers behind the Charlie massacre were both converted, we are told, by images from Abu Ghraib and Gitmo.
That ties our hands:
We cannot be the reformers of the Islamic world – again, that would make matters worse. Equally, in my view, we must not give an inch on freedom of expression, especially blasphemy. We need to drop the double standards and not self-censor with some religions, while ripping on others. We should have the right to rip on them all. If you’re going to publish photos of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, you sure can publish the rather innocuous cover of Charlie now at large.
Of course, and that means we stop this blasphemy nonsense and used the tools we have to solve the actual problem we have:
Our main current tool is NSA spying. It’s very hard to know how necessary our current expansive spying apparatus really is – because it’s cloaked in the secrecy that effectively ends democratic accountability, except via the executive branch, which, even when held by a liberal Democrat, is far too terrified of presiding over another attack to question anything the CIA or NSA tells them. But do I prefer that kind of surveillance to drone wars that seem to be fomenting more Jihadism than they eliminate? I’d say so. I’d rather not do either, but it’s clear we have a real problem, and that terror directed at basic freedoms of travel and expression requires vigilance. If that means a retreat on privacy, that’s a trade-off I’m prepared to make.
But even the best intelligence will fail in the face of well-concealed sleeper cells or lone wolves or lone packs.
The French identified the Charlie mass-murderers long before the attack. They failed to prevent it. (They tell us they are preventing many plots, and again, we have to trust them, even though in the US, little trust can exist when high intelligence officials like Clapper and Brennan lie directly to the Congress and the public and even spy on their over-seers and are never held to account by the president.) But the fact remains that some of these attacks will succeed – because they only need to win once, while we have to win every time. We cannot ultimately control that but we can control our response. We must make sure we do not take the Jihadist bait, with racist or polarization, and ratchet up a cycle that only leads to more Jihadism and more terror. That’s where I think Obama’s strength lies in this: with his remarkable imperturbability and emotional calm. I think that’s a shrewder defense than declaring a “war” on Jihadism with every attack.
And there’s something else:
We can end the worst provocations – by closing GITMO and truly pressuring the Israelis to stop the explosive settlement campaign to wipe Palestine off the map. And we can keep calm and carry on. The huge crowds in France last Sunday were magnificent. A bigger test comes now – whether we can soldier on without further polarization and a common defense of core Western ideas. I think we can. Because I think we must. Even as so many dead lie round.
That will happen, but the cartoonist Matt Wuerker points out something else:
Satire intended for a small readership of Danish nativists no longer stays in Denmark. Cartoons that work for a sophisticated Parisian audience are now flashed around the world to an audience that wouldn’t know the difference between brie and Beaujolais. All that most people in places like Yemen or Pakistan see in those cartoons is someone defiling a religious tenet. They also fail to understand the difference between Charlie Hebdo and Le Monde, or Mad Magazine and Time.
This, I think, is the crux of why, in this day and age, “those damn cartoons” seem to be so uniquely inflammatory. Cartoons, because they’re mostly visual, can uniquely carry satire across cultural and language barriers. In some ways, this is a great asset, but that transmission of images doesn’t mean the joke, the intent, the cultural resonance is transmitted as well. In fact, the tone and humor often are lost in transmission while the offense and provocation are not.
Damn the internet! This here Information Age is going to get us all killed – but there’s not much that can be done about that – and certain people really aren’t going to chill out. This isn’t a Don Rickles stand-up routine in Vegas. No one’s laughing, even if they should. Gratuitous insults never seem gratuitous to the insecure.