Commentary Magazine


Topic: Theo van Gogh

The South Park Test

I admit it. Until now I have always been a bit of an Islamophobia skeptic. Living in the Middle East, I have no illusions about what radical Islam, given the right kinds of fuel and the right weapons of oppression, can do in the parts of the world under its control, or to immediate neighbors who challenge its reign. And while I share in many Europeans’ concern about the spread of violent Islam’s influence across the Continent, I have never really seen it as cause for panic about the future of Western civilization, or even of Europe. An inveterate optimist, I have a great deal of faith that Europeans, deep down, understand what has made them special and will do what’s needed to defend themselves and their culture. And as for the U.S.? It frankly never occurred to me that there was any danger, not now, not ever. Americans cherish their freedom too much and are too willing to defend it even by force of arms for fans of Jefferson and Paine to be truly worried.

Until now. And all because of South Park.

For those of you who’ve missed it, this week South Park attempted to parody the prophet Muhammad, just as it’s parodied Jesus, God, Moses, and every institution of religion big enough to merit its parody. Yet after an Islamist website posted a veiled threat, to the effect that the creators of South Park would end up like Theo Van Gogh, the film director murdered in Amsterdam for publicly criticizing Islam, the folks at Comedy Central buckled. The episode was removed from the website. For more details about this and similar acts of self-censorship in the past few months, read Ross Douthat’s crucial column in the New York Times.

Something has gone terribly wrong. The core of liberal society is the belief that every new thought, every iconoclasm, every “dangerous” idea, can be uttered somewhere, by someone, as long as it doesn’t openly incite violence — and that every sacred cow is ultimately just a cow. I may watch my tongue about the things I hold sacred, but as long as others have a right to criticize, parody, or publicly rebuke even those things I revere without fear for their lives, I know that society is a free society, and that when the time comes, I too will be protected. (It is the fate of the Jew always to wonder what will happen to him when the mob goes wild. That is why so many Jews are liberals.) Religion, especially, needs to be protected — both its affirmation and its negation — precisely because religion claims to hold in its hands the ultimate truths, on which life and death, war and peace, often turn. And the more power hungry a given religion appears to be, the more we have to protect every person’s right to critique it, whether through parody or public debate. Nor is this just a matter of legal rights: the moment someone feels that his life is in danger because he publicly criticized a religious figure or institution, we are all in trouble.

No cultural institution in our world has embodied this right more than South Park. Aside from being very, very funny (my apologies to the dour souls who disagree), it is also often vile, filled with offensive ideas, language, images, and more. I have often been forced to turn it off, especially if kids are watching. But that’s the whole point of it, as everyone knows. South Park has, until now, been the one place where every holy thing can be made fun of, every taboo broken — especially religion, in the best tradition of Voltaire and Monty Python. Nobody has to watch it if they don’t like it. But it should be out there, somewhere.

With the collapse of South Park‘s credibility as the slayer of all cows, something has been lost, something very deep to the inner logic of liberty. We have caught a glimpse of a world where religion is, well, so sacred as to brook no humor whatsoever. It is a dark world that we escaped several centuries ago, a world where power and claims of ultimate truths fuse together to crush freedom, creativity, and the bold human endeavors that have given us our entire world of scientific and political advancement. In a flash, we moderns are now forced to contend with the myth of our own invincibility: are we so arrogant as to think that modernity can never be undone? (Oh, and another thing: this seems especially ironic at a time when the Catholic Church has been hammered with demands for transparency and accountability an a willingness to defy centuries-old sanctities, yet many of us refuse to demand the same from Islam.)

Many of us have been hoping that the emergence of democracy and liberty around much of the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union could have an impact within the Islamic world as well — that somehow there would emerge a force of religious moderation, a realm of truly free speech, that could some day form the basis of peaceful coexistence and an end to the endless bloodshed. Instead, the battle lines are shifting the other way — and freedom is in retreat. South Park was a temple to the healthy cynicism and pushing of boundaries that have to exist somewhere if we are to feel truly free anywhere. We may hate it, and hate ourselves for enjoying it. But now we need to protect it. Or we, too, like the third-grader South Park recently depicted in a scathing assault on Facebook, will have 0 friends.

I admit it. Until now I have always been a bit of an Islamophobia skeptic. Living in the Middle East, I have no illusions about what radical Islam, given the right kinds of fuel and the right weapons of oppression, can do in the parts of the world under its control, or to immediate neighbors who challenge its reign. And while I share in many Europeans’ concern about the spread of violent Islam’s influence across the Continent, I have never really seen it as cause for panic about the future of Western civilization, or even of Europe. An inveterate optimist, I have a great deal of faith that Europeans, deep down, understand what has made them special and will do what’s needed to defend themselves and their culture. And as for the U.S.? It frankly never occurred to me that there was any danger, not now, not ever. Americans cherish their freedom too much and are too willing to defend it even by force of arms for fans of Jefferson and Paine to be truly worried.

Until now. And all because of South Park.

For those of you who’ve missed it, this week South Park attempted to parody the prophet Muhammad, just as it’s parodied Jesus, God, Moses, and every institution of religion big enough to merit its parody. Yet after an Islamist website posted a veiled threat, to the effect that the creators of South Park would end up like Theo Van Gogh, the film director murdered in Amsterdam for publicly criticizing Islam, the folks at Comedy Central buckled. The episode was removed from the website. For more details about this and similar acts of self-censorship in the past few months, read Ross Douthat’s crucial column in the New York Times.

Something has gone terribly wrong. The core of liberal society is the belief that every new thought, every iconoclasm, every “dangerous” idea, can be uttered somewhere, by someone, as long as it doesn’t openly incite violence — and that every sacred cow is ultimately just a cow. I may watch my tongue about the things I hold sacred, but as long as others have a right to criticize, parody, or publicly rebuke even those things I revere without fear for their lives, I know that society is a free society, and that when the time comes, I too will be protected. (It is the fate of the Jew always to wonder what will happen to him when the mob goes wild. That is why so many Jews are liberals.) Religion, especially, needs to be protected — both its affirmation and its negation — precisely because religion claims to hold in its hands the ultimate truths, on which life and death, war and peace, often turn. And the more power hungry a given religion appears to be, the more we have to protect every person’s right to critique it, whether through parody or public debate. Nor is this just a matter of legal rights: the moment someone feels that his life is in danger because he publicly criticized a religious figure or institution, we are all in trouble.

No cultural institution in our world has embodied this right more than South Park. Aside from being very, very funny (my apologies to the dour souls who disagree), it is also often vile, filled with offensive ideas, language, images, and more. I have often been forced to turn it off, especially if kids are watching. But that’s the whole point of it, as everyone knows. South Park has, until now, been the one place where every holy thing can be made fun of, every taboo broken — especially religion, in the best tradition of Voltaire and Monty Python. Nobody has to watch it if they don’t like it. But it should be out there, somewhere.

With the collapse of South Park‘s credibility as the slayer of all cows, something has been lost, something very deep to the inner logic of liberty. We have caught a glimpse of a world where religion is, well, so sacred as to brook no humor whatsoever. It is a dark world that we escaped several centuries ago, a world where power and claims of ultimate truths fuse together to crush freedom, creativity, and the bold human endeavors that have given us our entire world of scientific and political advancement. In a flash, we moderns are now forced to contend with the myth of our own invincibility: are we so arrogant as to think that modernity can never be undone? (Oh, and another thing: this seems especially ironic at a time when the Catholic Church has been hammered with demands for transparency and accountability an a willingness to defy centuries-old sanctities, yet many of us refuse to demand the same from Islam.)

Many of us have been hoping that the emergence of democracy and liberty around much of the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union could have an impact within the Islamic world as well — that somehow there would emerge a force of religious moderation, a realm of truly free speech, that could some day form the basis of peaceful coexistence and an end to the endless bloodshed. Instead, the battle lines are shifting the other way — and freedom is in retreat. South Park was a temple to the healthy cynicism and pushing of boundaries that have to exist somewhere if we are to feel truly free anywhere. We may hate it, and hate ourselves for enjoying it. But now we need to protect it. Or we, too, like the third-grader South Park recently depicted in a scathing assault on Facebook, will have 0 friends.

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Strange Herring

I know that Iran is close to getting a bomb, and the national debt now exceeds the number of calories in a KFC Double Down, and earthquakes are killing thousands of people worldwide, but this is serious.

Speaking of earthquakes, according to one expert, naughtiness causes them. Whether he’s an expert on naughtiness or seismic activity is unclear.

Blago wants the court to subpoena the president of the United States as a witness in his corruption trial. Just picture that scene… There are also all kinds of alleged allegations allegedly alleged against the alleged pres — the president.

If you’re looking to raise the I.Q. of your kiddies, Mensa’s here to help. Years ago I devised one of my own brainiac games. It was called Cromwell and was like chess, only the king, the queen, and the bishops were all dead. Two new pieces were added: this guy Phil and his young son Leonard, who played the lute. Tournaments could last years, as no one was sure of the object, given that pieces could not only move in any direction for any number of spaces but also across boards, even games, so that a knight could wind up owning Park Place. Needless to say, it failed to catch on, but it did catch fire, which landed me in court more than once. Then I turned 12.

Who needs nukes when you can have one of these thingees: “the Prompt Global Strike warhead would be mounted on a long-range missile to start its journey toward a target. It would travel through the atmosphere at several times the speed of sound, generating so much heat that it would have to be shielded with special materials to avoid melting.” Wow. That’s almost as fast as it took Benjamin Netanyahu to say feh to Obama’s mini-nukes summit…

Those animation farceurs Trey Parker and Matt Stone have had their lives threatened by an Islamic website, which is “annoyed” that Mohammad was depicted — in a bear costume. Never mind that Siddhartha Gautama has been shown snorting lines of coke, or that Jesus, whom Christians believe to be a divine person and not merely a prophet or a supremely enlightened avatar, is regularly reduced to, well, a cartoon. Given what was done to Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, the threat is no joke.

But wait: turns out Comedy Central censored the episode and saved their lives! — if not their artistic integrity. (All right, all right, but these things are relative, you know…)

Chachi has a Twitter account. And he definitely does not love Joanie, if Joanie is another one of those bleeding-heart commie Hollywood liberals. (So he just never wants to work again, is that it?)

This has been a long time in coming, ladies and gentlemen, and now finally, finally, we can rest easy.

A software engineer and a next-generation iPhone walk into a bar

Mum and daughter are banned from Euro Disney because they were dressed as princesses. Man, the French take their revolution seriously…

New $100 bills will have hidden images running vertically. Will depict dogs playing poker, sad clowns, and Elvis on velvet.

Those hysterical Hitler-parody rants on YouTube? History.

A drunken sailor takes offense. (H/T Midwest Conservative Journal)

I want one of these, but only if it comes with Surround Sound.

One of the guys who voice the Geico ads has been fired for bad-mouthing Tea Partiers. Forget car insurance, thank goodness for unemployment insurance.

When will the hate finally stop?

Finally, for those who hate the Yankees, witness their first triple play in 350 years. Yes, not since Ezekiel Fear-the-Lord threw to Samuel Temperance Search-the-Scriptures, who tossed it to Elijah Miserable Reprobate has New York seen such a thing…

I know that Iran is close to getting a bomb, and the national debt now exceeds the number of calories in a KFC Double Down, and earthquakes are killing thousands of people worldwide, but this is serious.

Speaking of earthquakes, according to one expert, naughtiness causes them. Whether he’s an expert on naughtiness or seismic activity is unclear.

Blago wants the court to subpoena the president of the United States as a witness in his corruption trial. Just picture that scene… There are also all kinds of alleged allegations allegedly alleged against the alleged pres — the president.

If you’re looking to raise the I.Q. of your kiddies, Mensa’s here to help. Years ago I devised one of my own brainiac games. It was called Cromwell and was like chess, only the king, the queen, and the bishops were all dead. Two new pieces were added: this guy Phil and his young son Leonard, who played the lute. Tournaments could last years, as no one was sure of the object, given that pieces could not only move in any direction for any number of spaces but also across boards, even games, so that a knight could wind up owning Park Place. Needless to say, it failed to catch on, but it did catch fire, which landed me in court more than once. Then I turned 12.

Who needs nukes when you can have one of these thingees: “the Prompt Global Strike warhead would be mounted on a long-range missile to start its journey toward a target. It would travel through the atmosphere at several times the speed of sound, generating so much heat that it would have to be shielded with special materials to avoid melting.” Wow. That’s almost as fast as it took Benjamin Netanyahu to say feh to Obama’s mini-nukes summit…

Those animation farceurs Trey Parker and Matt Stone have had their lives threatened by an Islamic website, which is “annoyed” that Mohammad was depicted — in a bear costume. Never mind that Siddhartha Gautama has been shown snorting lines of coke, or that Jesus, whom Christians believe to be a divine person and not merely a prophet or a supremely enlightened avatar, is regularly reduced to, well, a cartoon. Given what was done to Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, the threat is no joke.

But wait: turns out Comedy Central censored the episode and saved their lives! — if not their artistic integrity. (All right, all right, but these things are relative, you know…)

Chachi has a Twitter account. And he definitely does not love Joanie, if Joanie is another one of those bleeding-heart commie Hollywood liberals. (So he just never wants to work again, is that it?)

This has been a long time in coming, ladies and gentlemen, and now finally, finally, we can rest easy.

A software engineer and a next-generation iPhone walk into a bar

Mum and daughter are banned from Euro Disney because they were dressed as princesses. Man, the French take their revolution seriously…

New $100 bills will have hidden images running vertically. Will depict dogs playing poker, sad clowns, and Elvis on velvet.

Those hysterical Hitler-parody rants on YouTube? History.

A drunken sailor takes offense. (H/T Midwest Conservative Journal)

I want one of these, but only if it comes with Surround Sound.

One of the guys who voice the Geico ads has been fired for bad-mouthing Tea Partiers. Forget car insurance, thank goodness for unemployment insurance.

When will the hate finally stop?

Finally, for those who hate the Yankees, witness their first triple play in 350 years. Yes, not since Ezekiel Fear-the-Lord threw to Samuel Temperance Search-the-Scriptures, who tossed it to Elijah Miserable Reprobate has New York seen such a thing…

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“Eurabia” Debunked

Is Europe committing demographic and cultural suicide? Is the continent turning into “Eurabia” — a land populated primarily by Muslims? That is the case made in a series of popular books by the likes of Bernard Lewis, Mark Steyn, Tony Blankley, and Oriana Fallaci. Personally I’m skeptical. For much the same reason that I was skeptical about the prospects of a Y2K or avian-flu catastrophe: disasters that are so widely predicted seldom occur because corrective action can usually be taken in time. Justin Vaisse of the Brookings Institution, formerly a French Foreign Ministry staffer, suggests some other reasons for skepticism in this Foreign Policy article.

He points out that, while there are currently 18 million Muslims in Western Europe, or 4.5% of the population, and there will be increases in the future, “it’s hard to imagine that Europe will even reach the 10 percent mark (except in some countries or cities).” Why not? Because “fertility rates among Muslims are sharply declining as children of immigrants gradually conform to prevailing social and economic norms. Nor is immigration still a major source of newly minted European Muslims. Only about 500,000 people a year come legally to Europe from Muslim-majority countries, with an even smaller number coming illegally — meaning that the annual influx is a fraction of a percent of the European population.”

Moreover, he writes, fertility rates are actually rising in European countries: “In 2008, fertility rates in France and Ireland were more than two children per woman, close to the U.S. (and replacement) level; in Britain and Sweden they were above 1.9. And though in the 1990s European countries set an all-time record for low fertility rates, figures are now rising in all EU states except Germany.” And, no, those increasing fertility figures are not due to Muslims alone. Although Muslim migrant women have a lot of children, overall they “have a negligible impact on overall fertility rates, adding a maximum of 0.1 to any country’s average.”

Vaisse adds another reason we shouldn’t worry. He cites polling data to show that “to large majorities of Europe’s Muslims, Islam is neither an exclusive identity nor a marching order. Recent poll data from Gallup show that most European Muslims happily combine their national and religious identities, and a 2009 Harvard University working paper by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris demonstrates that in the long term, the basic cultural values of Muslim migrants evolve to conform to the predominant culture of the European society in which they live.”

I would add another point: that continental societies have more resiliency than it may appear on the surface to Americans who caricature Europeans as effete surrender monkeys. While most European nations are not willing to engage in vigorous military action overseas (France and Britain are partial exceptions) they have shown far more ruthlessness in policing their own borders. France, in particular, as this AEI study notes, has been extremely aggressive in going after Islamist terror cells, giving their law enforcement and judicial authorities more power than in the U.S. Islamist excesses such as the killing of Theo van Gogh or the attempted murder of the Muhammad cartoonist are triggering a backlash. Europe, I predict, will not be subsumed into the umma as so many alarmists claim, based on worst-case projections.

Is Europe committing demographic and cultural suicide? Is the continent turning into “Eurabia” — a land populated primarily by Muslims? That is the case made in a series of popular books by the likes of Bernard Lewis, Mark Steyn, Tony Blankley, and Oriana Fallaci. Personally I’m skeptical. For much the same reason that I was skeptical about the prospects of a Y2K or avian-flu catastrophe: disasters that are so widely predicted seldom occur because corrective action can usually be taken in time. Justin Vaisse of the Brookings Institution, formerly a French Foreign Ministry staffer, suggests some other reasons for skepticism in this Foreign Policy article.

He points out that, while there are currently 18 million Muslims in Western Europe, or 4.5% of the population, and there will be increases in the future, “it’s hard to imagine that Europe will even reach the 10 percent mark (except in some countries or cities).” Why not? Because “fertility rates among Muslims are sharply declining as children of immigrants gradually conform to prevailing social and economic norms. Nor is immigration still a major source of newly minted European Muslims. Only about 500,000 people a year come legally to Europe from Muslim-majority countries, with an even smaller number coming illegally — meaning that the annual influx is a fraction of a percent of the European population.”

Moreover, he writes, fertility rates are actually rising in European countries: “In 2008, fertility rates in France and Ireland were more than two children per woman, close to the U.S. (and replacement) level; in Britain and Sweden they were above 1.9. And though in the 1990s European countries set an all-time record for low fertility rates, figures are now rising in all EU states except Germany.” And, no, those increasing fertility figures are not due to Muslims alone. Although Muslim migrant women have a lot of children, overall they “have a negligible impact on overall fertility rates, adding a maximum of 0.1 to any country’s average.”

Vaisse adds another reason we shouldn’t worry. He cites polling data to show that “to large majorities of Europe’s Muslims, Islam is neither an exclusive identity nor a marching order. Recent poll data from Gallup show that most European Muslims happily combine their national and religious identities, and a 2009 Harvard University working paper by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris demonstrates that in the long term, the basic cultural values of Muslim migrants evolve to conform to the predominant culture of the European society in which they live.”

I would add another point: that continental societies have more resiliency than it may appear on the surface to Americans who caricature Europeans as effete surrender monkeys. While most European nations are not willing to engage in vigorous military action overseas (France and Britain are partial exceptions) they have shown far more ruthlessness in policing their own borders. France, in particular, as this AEI study notes, has been extremely aggressive in going after Islamist terror cells, giving their law enforcement and judicial authorities more power than in the U.S. Islamist excesses such as the killing of Theo van Gogh or the attempted murder of the Muhammad cartoonist are triggering a backlash. Europe, I predict, will not be subsumed into the umma as so many alarmists claim, based on worst-case projections.

Read Less




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