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Fw: The Boston Globe OpEd Saturday Feb. 11th

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  • Israel Bonan
    ROBERT KUTTNER Preserve values in cartoons war By Robert Kuttner | February 11, 2006 READING ABOUT the escalating war of the cartoons and the deeper clash of
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 14, 2006




      Preserve values in cartoons war

      By Robert Kuttner  |  February 11, 2006

      READING ABOUT the escalating war of the cartoons and the deeper clash of faith versus reason, I recalled the wisdom of the British philosopher Edmund Burke.

      In March 1775, as King George grew more determined to punish uppity colonists in America , Burke gave an impassioned speech in the House of Commons, urging restraint.

      ''The question with me," said Burke, ''is not whether you have a right to render your people miserable, but whether it is not your interest to make them happy. It is not what a lawyer tells me I may do, but what humanity, reason, and justice tell me I ought to do."

      Did Europe 's newspapers have the right to print cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed? Certainly. That's free speech. Was it a wise thing to do? Probably not.

      Of course, in an open society, these decisions are not made by a government cultural czar. They reflect norms of what is sensible and decent. And anyone is free to break those norms. But they are worth upholding. In the United States , though we cherish free speech, mainstream media no longer play into religious and racial stereotypes, and that is a huge gain for tolerance and civility.

      Before World War II, cartoons, radio broadcasts, and the popular culture freely used coarse ethnic stereotypes. After Hitler, the mainstream press was shamed into dropping anti-Semitic stereotypes. It took another generation, until the civil rights revolution, before Amos 'n' Andy, blackface, and crude racial jokes dissipated. Gays got ridiculed for yet another generation.

      It's too easy just to dismiss this respectfulness as nothing but silly ''political correctness." The greater acceptance of religious and cultural minorities has made America a more civil place, and has increased our tolerance for difference. But that civility is now under assault from several forces.

      For starters, the mainstream media no longer is keeper of norms. If you can't find hate-mongering in your local paper, just look to the Internet. And Fox News has little respect for the norm that the respectable media doesn't do anti-Semitism anymore, with Fox's trumped up campaign against an imagined ''war against Christmas" -- most of whose offenders just happen to be Jews.

      It gets even more complicated because, in the stew of American pop culture, members of persecuted groups -- as far back as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor -- sometimes deliberately play off stereotypes, for shock or irony. But epithets sometimes used ironically by members of minority groups remain slurs in the mouths of nonmembers.

      Let's face it -- Muslims have not been admitted to the community of people whom it's not OK to ridicule. And you can hardly blame Europeans for being upset about Muslim immigrants in their midst who don't share Europeans' norms of civil society.

      But that doesn't make it smart to fan the flames. Otherwise, to quote another Enlightenment philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, we invite ''a war of each against all."

      In a sense, the rioting in parts of Europe is ''blowback" from European colonialism. France colonized North Africa , and engaged in the pretense that its colonial subjects were Frenchmen. Immigration by Arabs to metropolitan France , however, was not followed by true integration into French life. Two generations later, sullen resentment is the legacy.

      If the West stands for civility and tolerance and the West fears radical Islamists would undermine Enlightenment values with fanaticism, we need to be truer to our own professed values. One such value is free speech, but other Enlightenment values are civility and free rational inquiry. The West has to be careful lest it destroy what it most cherishes in the course of asserting Western values against those who threaten them.

      The other day, New York Times columnist David Brooks piously contrasted the enlightened West versus the Islamists: ''Our mindset is progressive and rational. Your mindset is pre-Enlightenment and mythological."

      He could have been describing George W. Bush. With his pandering to Biblical literalists and his support for a war on science when science clashes with professed religious faith, Bush is the first pre-EnlightenmentUS president. Radical Islam may be more crude in its tactics, but one form of religious fundamentalism only foments another.

      Enlightenment values, of reason, democracy, civility, and the coexistence of religious and cultural pluralism, are our most precious legacy as a society. In defending ourselves, militarily and culturally, against forces that would repeal the Enlightenment in favor of dogma, let's not become what we abhor.

      Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe. 









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