gall and gumption

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Bad Taste and Beyond

Otto Dix was beyond bad taste.

George Grosz, violated canons of good taste on both sides of the Atlantic. This image clearly shows he was a degenerate.

And you know, if I wanted to understand what was in good taste or bad taste, one person I certainly would not ask would be Francisco Goya.

The current cartoon contentions do have one good effect, though we could have got it in some much more peaceful way: they remind us that visual art is strong stuff. Not content with the lion's share of the proposed budget for this year, the Joint Chiefs wrote a letter to the Washington Post complaining that Tom Toles's cartoon showing an armless, legless soldier in a hospital bed being visited by Donald Rumsfeld was "beyond bad taste." Then of course you've got all those angry Muslims.

I got into an argument about the Danish cartoons with a guy on the J-school list. A Dutch classmate had written in trying to stir up a discussion about the cartoons. He suggested we take a look at an article by Mark Steyn and an article in the Wall Street Journal on the Muslim reaction by a woman who is both a Muslim and an out lesbian. I wondered why on earth anyone would want to read Steyn on the Muslim reaction to the cartoons. He's just a smartmouthed hipster pundit. But it's like a 1980s hipster pundit. You suspect that he wears a skinny black tie and pushes the sleeves of his jacket up to his elbows and spikes his hair.

I, meanwhile, sent in a link from a blogger along with the question Why Read Mark Steyn?

The next person suggested that I should read Mark Steyn so as to have the novel experience of reading an opinion that was not the same as my own.

Oh, well, you know, if you want to take an email discussion down to the level where chairs start to be thrown I'm your girl.

I wrote back to the list:

Well, on Peter's advice (thank you Peter) I took the novel step of reading an opinion different from my own, in contravention to my well-publicized lifetime policy of avoiding such opinions as far as possible.

So I read the Steyn piece and I have now read the Manji piece as well, which I found impressive. oddly, even though I am neither a lesbian nor a Muslim, much less both. What we can do when we stretch our imaginations a little bit, eh, Peter? Again, I thank you for bringing me out into the human community. I never would have guessed there were so many kinds of people in the world!

This situation is a perfect example of a problem that besets the type of socieity that Karl Popper called an "Open Society." One characteristic of an open society is tolerance for diverse points of view, religions, cultural practices, customs, etc. How do tolerant societies deal with intolerance? Do they ban intolerance, or do they make room for it at risk to their own safety? Well, people -- and their governments -- will have different views as to how much intolerance they can tolerate. The US does not prohibit the publication of hateful views: Pat Robertson can call for the assassination of a head of state, Bill O'Reilly can recommend the bombing of San Francisco, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh can threaten actual living liberals -- Coulter recently expressed a wish that a sitting Supreme Court Justice be poisoned -- and we mostly feel that it is enough for public opinion to respond with the contempt that these expressions deserve. There are some thoughtful people who feel that all such speech should be more strongly sanctioned as it creates an atmosphere in which intolerance becomes more and more acceptable, and that the tendency is to degrade discourse with violence, sooner or later, as the result.

These calls for bloodshed, by the way, are much more offensive to me than "blasphemous" representations of religious figures (such as the Teremce McNally play that Steyn puts up as a straw man) because you know, if Jesus and the Prophet are *omnipotent* then I think they can handle it, and I may be perverse, but to imagine that lives should be threatened because of a drawing or a play or a novel's representation of a religious figure sounds a lot to me like idolatry -- which I understand to be the belief that the image is the same as the thing.

Coulter, when she suggested poisoning Stevens, immediately added that it was a joke. Well, what kind of person thinks that is funny? It packs a double insult, and you can't tell me that Coulter, and those cartoonists, don't know that perfectly well. That is, it is the expression of a sincere belief, but as soon as it delivers its little load of offence, the victim is told, "What's the matter, you can't take a joke?" This is such a low way of scoring points that the person who is the victim of it can only conclude that he is being taken for an asshole. Which makes it a triple insult.

And there are large tracts of the world -- including, I might add, parts of the US -- where an insult delivered in that way results in the shedding of blood. People get killed in bar fights for less.

There is no such thing as selective tolerance, and yeah, there are risks to living in an open and tolerant society. But one of the reasons why people organize themselves into societies is because they can solve some problems -- sanitation and public health, transportation, making lots and lots of money, art museums and libraries -- by putting their heads together and figuring out a solution. Along the way, the very effort binds us together.

So I see no other way for societies that truly value openness and freedom for all to be anything but steady and serious in their commitment to tolerance. And if I am enjoying the material benefits of living in a particular society and those benefits are a direct result of a commitment to that principle, I should not find it onerous to be required to share that commitment.

But our globe is becoming one society, a very contentious one, and there are people who don't share my view of the importance of tolerance. It is absolutely necessary to bring them around (what choice do we have?), but I don't see how I could begin a conversation on the indispensable value of tolerance by poking them in the eye and handing such an opportunity for hell-raising to the very worst of them. That is simply not prudent, nor is it good faith.

Well, the writer who had suggested that I read something I didn't agree with wrote back with an apology. Here it is:

If you took my response to you about Mark Steyn as dismissive and condescending, I apologize.

And if I misread your original statement, "MARK STEYN? Why read him of all people?" as dismissive and condescending to his article and viewpoint, I apologize for that, too.

I thanked him, of course, and called attention to his magnanimity in apologizing to me for my error in misreading his intentions.

Now, I have to tell you that the motivation for this particular dodge has always been a complete mystery to me. I am in the wrong about 70 percent of the time, at a modest estimate. I am wrong daily. I wake up in the middle of the night and lie awake thinking about all the ways that I have ever been wrong. Have I fixed it? Can I fix it? When? My mother gives me advice with the greatest reluctance. Her rare advice is almost always right. Instead of advice she usually gives me sayings, like "Three things once set loose can never be brought back; smoke, words, and I always forget what the third one is." I may have the exact wording wrong but she never remembers what the third one is. She thought once it might be a belch but she wasn't sure. Another one is from the Bible: "I have not done the things I ought to have done and I have done the things I ought not to have done."

The second sounds to me like one apt description of the human condition. I am wrong, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be wrong again, my life will be a series of blunders and recoveries until the day I die. I would prefer that it not be so, but I have met myself before. It seems like it would be a huge bother, another burden to lay on my conscience, to try by such transparent and lame artifices to maintain an appearance of always being right. I would fail. My lack of conviction on this point would convict me every time. So I don't even bother to try.

A recent ex-boyfriend was particularly fond of using the "I apologize for your error" device. I used to ask him, "Why are you afraid to admit you were in the wrong? Do you think you are going to persuade me that you are never in the wrong, do you think you can persuade me by lying? But he was one of these people who think that they can burrow their way inside your head using the tools of the soggiest psychobabble and then live up in there like a boll weevil and explain all your deepest motives to you. It baffled and pissed him off that I was relentlessly superficial. To which I confessed readily: I once said to him in one of these arguments, "I live on the top storey of the tallest building in the capital city of the land of Reallydon'tgiveafuck."

Note also in the previous quotation from the apologizer, that he apologizes for thinking so ill of me as to imagine that I was dismissive and condescending to Mark Steyn. Perhaps he came back from having held Steyn's hand in the ambulance after this vicious attack from big bad old me. Well, from my penthouse apartment I wrote back and said I did intend to be dismissive of Steyn, in the confident belief that a person who so liberally dished out dismissiveness and condescension as Steyn did must certainly be able to take it. Or if not then he could do like Liberace and cry all the way to the bank.

At that point my correspondent wrote me offline to call a truce. To which I agreed readily. He wrote back and said we were in agreement about the main thing, that the Danish cartoons were in poor taste.

Which was not, of course the main thing, nor was that suggested by me, nor would I have agreed had my consent to this proposition been asked. But it seems churlish to point it out. Not to mention a total waste of breath.


At 6:42 AM, Anonymous tom said...

I'm entirely in sympathy with yr drift. Here's the thing: We know all sorts of cartoons that cannot be presented in US media, for various reasons - none of them really having to do with actual tolerance. Selective tolerance might not be honest or noble, but that doesn't enable even the most open society to wean itself from a self protecting sense of obligation to practice it, nearly all the time. It's where tolerance shades into manners, courtesy, respect, and where these things shade into repression, inhibition, prohibition, that matters get damn murky, I fear. And yes, Steyn is a waste of pixelage.


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