WASHINGTON — The trouble started in Denmark, a faraway country of which we know little. It revolves around cartoons, an art form we associate with light humor. It has sparked riots in Surabaya, Tehran, Peshawar and rural Somalia, places where there aren't many Americans in the best of times. Perhaps that explains the muted American reactions to the violence, anger and deaths — nine so far — sparked by a dozen Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Nevertheless, the controversy has exposed a few less attractive political undercurrents in America, too:
Schadenfreude — or, rather, Americans feeling just a teensy bit relieved that Europeans are the object of flag burnings and riots instead of themselves. To my embarrassment, I felt an involuntary twinge of this myself when I read of cartoon-inspired riots outside a Norwegian NATO base in Afghanistan. In Oslo last year, I was told by a well-traveled, well-educated Norwegian that "America is the most dangerous country in the world." (I wonder if he thinks so now.) But I also hear a note in the sanctimonious State Department communique, which proclaimed that "inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable." Actually, the European newspapers weren't trying to incite hatred; they were making a point about their own laws and traditions. Were we rushing to look good in the Muslim world at a moment when Europeans, for once, look worse?
Hypocrisy of the cultural left. Dozens of American newspapers, including The Washington Post, have stated that they won't reprint the cartoons because, in the words of one self-righteous editorial, they prefer to "refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols." Fair enough — but is this always true? An excellent domestic parallel is the fracas that followed the 1989 publication of "Piss Christ," a photograph of Christ on a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. That picture — a work of art that received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts — led to congressional denunciations, protests and letter-writing campaigns.
At the time, many U.S. newspapers that refused last week to publish the Danish cartoons — the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe (but apparently not The Washington Post) — did publish "Piss Christ." The photographer, Andres Serrano, enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame, even appearing in a New York Times fashion spread. The picture was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art and elsewhere. The moral: While we are nervous about gratuitously offending believers in distant, underdeveloped countries, we don't mind gratuitously offending believers at home.
Hypocrisy of the right-wing blogosphere. Remember the controversy over Newsweek and the Koran? Last year Newsweek printed an allegation about mistreatment of the Koran at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base that — although strikingly similar to interrogation techniques actually used to intimidate Muslims at Guantanamo — was not substantiated by an official government investigation. It hardly mattered: Abroad, Muslim politicians and clerics promoted and exaggerated the Koran story, just as they are now promoting and exaggerating the Danish cartoon story. The result was rioting and violence on a scale similar to the rioting and violence of the past week.
But although that controversy was every bit as manipulated as this one, self-styled U.S. "conservatives" blamed not cynical politicians and clerics but Newsweek for (accidentally) inciting violence in the Muslim world: "Newsweek lied, people died." Worse, much of the commentary implied that Newsweek was not only wrong to make a mistake (which it was) but also that the magazine was wrong to investigate the alleged misconduct of U.S. soldiers. Logically, the bloggers should now be attacking the Danish newspaper for (less accidentally) inciting violence in the Muslim world. Oddly enough, though, I've heard no cries of "Jyllands-Posten insulted, people died." The moral is: We defend press freedom if it means Danish cartoonists' right to caricature Muhammad; we don't defend press freedom if it means the mainstream media's right to investigate the U.S. government.
Of course, some good may come out of this story, even in this country. If nothing else, this controversy should bring an end to that naive, charming and sadly incorrect American theory of international relations that "the more we all learn about one another, the less we will fight." Gradually, the Islamic world is learning that we don't respect religion in the same manner they do. Slowly, we are learning that they feel differently about the printed word, and the printed picture, from us. And somehow, I've got a feeling that this new knowledge will be not the beginning of understanding but the inspiration for more violence.