"Give up the cartoonists; they're in the attic." That is what many of us in the trade feel has been our lot since our brethren in Denmark were forced into hiding after drawing likenesses of the Prophet Mohammed. As art will do, "them damn pictures"-- Boss Tweed's term for Thomas Nast's cartoons from a more innocent time -- have exposed not just the internal dynamics of what some have called Islamofascism but the corresponding corruption of our own values and character in the West. Our insides have been illuminated like an electrocuted Daffy Duck in an old Warner Brothers cartoon. And we now see what we're made of: not a lot of guts, or brains either.
Admittedly, there's something about cartoons, which are by definition unruly, tasteless and immature, that brings out, if not the ayatollah, at least the disapproving parent in even the most permissive of adults. And granted, there may be a rights vs. responsibilities debate to be had over the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten's original decision to commission images of Mohammed. But once these images became a major news story (and given that they easily satisfied Western standards of legitimate commentary and in fact only became internationally controversial after being misrepresented to the larger Muslim world) I can see little reason -- other than bodily fear, bottom-line self-preservation, and just poor judgment -- that the U.S. media and the public officials entrusted with defending our freedoms wimped out so thoroughly when challenged to live up to their historic obligation under the First Amendment to keep the American public informed. When we withhold information in the name of a misguided sensitivity, by default we allow nihilistic street mobs from London to Jakarta to define the debate in this country. In effect, we have capitulated to intimidation and threats and negotiated with terrorists. No need for Zarqawi to behead us. We do it ourselves.
Defensiveness about caving in to the imams spread across the nation's editorial pages, while the 24-hour cable news talking heads clucked tongues about the irresponsible European press that had reprinted the offending images. Even cartoonist Garry Trudeau assured the San Francisco Chronicle that he would never depict the Prophet in his comics in a mocking way; nor would he show improper pictures of Jesus. As "Doonesbury's" Zonker might say, "Dude, this is so not about you!"
The images of Mohammed commissioned by Jyllands-Posten do not mock the Prophet any more than I dishonored Jesus Christ when I drew a cartoon of the Last Supper where Welch's grape juice was served. I was exposing the followers of Christ who used the doctrine of inerrancy to promote a crude agenda; the Danish cartoonists were not only exploring issues of self-censorship and intimidation but also depicting the hijacking of Islam by fanatics like the tormenters of Salman Rushdie and the murderers of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. I would further argue that publishing those cartoons was an act of democratic inclusiveness. In a society of laws, all are treated equally under the law. Law is "insensitive" that way, as is intellectual inquiry, as is satire. By engaging satirically with Islam, these brave artists included Muslims as peers in the tradition of satiric self-examination and irreverence that we have until recently taken for granted in the West. And Denmark's Muslims might have simply expressed their displeasure through the accepted democratic avenues of their adopted country if their unscrupulous imams and the corrupt Arab governments whose tyranny they serve hadn't manipulated the cartoons (by, for example, disseminating some offensive drawings that were not part of the original, rather tame, Danish package) to ignite riots across the Muslim world.
As newspapers in Europe and even Muslim editors in Jordan withstood the intimidation of the jihadists by reprinting the cartoons, the continuing timidity of the American media looks increasingly like cowardice, appeasement, or better-you-than-me cynicism. National spokespersons, meanwhile, have seconded the Muslim point of view; the public relations ambassador Karen Hughes compared the drawings to racial slurs, calling them "blasphemous," and former President Clinton described them as "appalling." By denying their audiences the opportunity to decide for themselves by looking at the images, American media outlets, with few exceptions, kept the public in the dark about the roots of one of the year's major news stories. (Though actually, adding to the absurdity of the mainstream media's editorial anguish, the images are only a mouse click away on the Internet.) The press's reticence is not going to make this controversy go away, any more than its ignoring the newly released images out of Abu Ghraib will make them hate us any less in the Arab world.
We expect such bad thinking and Dilbertism from the corporate media culture, but when artists fear for their lives because of something they've drawn, where are the defenders of free expression among their fellow artists in this country? I understand why newspaper cartoonists, who have seen their jobs shrink from more than 200 only 20 years ago to fewer than 80 today, are reluctant to stick their necks out. Hence, no special day sponsored by the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists designated to drawing the Prophet Mohammed or, failing that, turning in blank cartoons in solidarity with our fellow Danish artists in hiding. But what about those artists who enjoy the immunity of celebrity? Earth to Barbra Streisand. Earth to Alec Baldwin.
I first got a whiff of the cosmic ramifications of this story last December when the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten contacted me for an interview about the threats I had received after drawing an Arab driving a Ryder Truck loaded with a nuke (this was in 2002, before Iran) under the caption "What Would Mohammed Drive?" Though this cartoon was more inflammatory than any of the ones that have caused riots around the world, I was merely denounced on the front page of the Saudi Arab News by the secretary general of the Muslim World League, and my newspaper, syndicate and home computer were flamed with tens of thousands of e-mails, viruses and death threats aimed at intimidating my publishers and shutting me up.
Still, this was a bit more excitement than I had in mind when I addressed the first East-West journalism conference, held in Prague, in July 1990, about the incendiary role of the cartoonist. I explained to the freshly minted free press there about how the American cartoon was born in revolution. (The very first, designed by Ben Franklin, showed a snake cut into eight segments, each representing one of the colonies. The legend above it read "Join or Die.") The best political cartoons, I told them, are always created in the spirit of the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution. They question authority, challenge the status quo and are inevitably accused of "Disturbing the Peace," borrowing the title of one of Václav Havel's books. If the editorial cartoons are doing their job, efforts will be made to suppress them.
So that week in Prague, hearing the easterners repeatedly admonished to be "responsible in their journalism," I took the opportunity to point out that the Japanese word for cartoon is "irresponsible drawings." Responsibility, of course, like beauty, lies always in the eye of the beholder. The reporting of some of the great journalists present there at that conference -- datelined Vietnam, for example -- was often labeled "irresponsible." Václav Havel's writings were called "irresponsible" by the Soviet thought controllers who not long before had convened in the hotel where we were staying. The list of "irresponsible" expression goes on: from the Washington Post's coverage of Watergate to the New York Times' revelations of warrantless wiretapping.
Having grown up in the Southern United States during the era of the civil rights movement, I remember how business, civic and religious leaders called Martin Luther King Jr. "irresponsible" as a way of disagreeing with his means without having to actually take a moral stand on his ends. Those cautioning "responsibility" in today's cartoon controversy -- in both the West and the Middle East -- have much in common with those "good people" of the segregated South, who preferred, as King wrote, "a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." Their own decent, Christian values were embarrassed by terrorists who burned crosses and bombed churches in the name of Jesus, as Islam has been subverted by the hooded thugs of Muslim extremism. And like the politicians and oligarchs of the segregated South, the corrupt leadership of these Arab countries encourages the anti-cartoonists because their violent passions are a diversion from the government's own neglect and abuse of its people.
Why haven't the true Muslims, moderate religionists, men and women of good will, risen up to condemn those who so disgrace their faith? We constantly ask this question even though the answer is contained in the reluctance of our own civilization's instruments of free expression to confront the problem. "Fill the jails" was Gandhi's strategy of non-cooperation with a non-democratic system, for making society look at right and wrong in a fresh way, and it was one that Martin Luther King adopted in 1963 when he flooded the jails of Birmingham to defeat segregation. I submit that just as that nonviolent demonstration of solidarity and defiance exposed a corrosive political system and channeled the outrage of helplessness constructively, so would a form of cartoon direct action have advanced the true interests of Islam.
King wrote in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," "Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with."
Here's what the American media might have done and could still do in response to the cartoon riots. In the spiritually expansive style of Gandhi and King, they could summon their aggregate moral authority and humbly dedicate a page of their newspaper or half a minute of their newscasts to showing the cartoons and explaining why they must, not as a taunt but as a restatement of democratic principle, as a prayer for coexistence. If everyone had stood up for Denmark's embattled cartoonists, then the taboo images might have lost their meaning, as going to jail lost its stigma when it was in the service of freedom. Collecting his Nobel Peace Prize on the heels of the Birmingham campaign, King noted that "every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities." Perhaps one day the Jyllands- Posten cartoonists will be recognized for their contributions to democratic health and a peace truer than the one they have disturbed.