Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The "Left" and I Part Company On This One

Robert Fisk, Socialist Worker, random letters to the editor everywhere and many other "leftists" have all taken the position that the cartoons published in the Danish paper and elsewhere are primarily a representation of Western racism and should be condemned. Nonsense.

As a leftist I thought that our goal was liberation through thorough and robust debate and confronting irrational ideas and superstition in particular? This means that if someone is offended because we say that the world is round then too bad. The truth hurts. If we are constantly weary of offending, then truth, yes I believe in such a thing, will never over come the backward state of affairs today that allows gays to be treated like second class citizens, intelligent design to be taught in schools and people in the US and Britain to believe that the war in Iraq is being prosecuted for humanitarian ends.

Much of the sentiment not to offend and to side with reactionaries at times comes from a sincere desire to defend oppressed people and expose the hypocrisy of Western imperialism that consistently speaks of democracy and tolerance and practices support for dictatorship and racist laws at home and abroad. In Europe and the United States it also comes from a desire to side with people of color who have traditionally not assimilated into our societies as well as people from other European countries. And this gets to the crux of the matter, assimilation. If a society is going to function a certain set of ideas must be widely accepted otherwise sectarian conflict will ensue. This is not to say that Vietnamese or Algerians that move to France should all have to become Christians or cook fancy entrees but they should accept that women's equality before the law or universal suffrage need to be accepted.

In the Western tradition, where today's Left traces its roots, the American and French revolutions put into practice universal values that have allowed us to create political systems that now allow universal suffrage and equal protection before the law. This is not the end of our program, nay it is just the beginning, but it is a start that puts us, those who embrace universal values, ahead of those who choose a chosen group or a sacred text as the basis for society. Anticipating the counter-argument, that the West at times uses these values to enforce intolerance and is just as exclusive as alternative systems, I would agree to a degree, but this does not negate the fact that the Rights of Man or the Bill of Rights allows ALL people to be accepted and treated as equals not just a specific ethnic group or a divinely anointed. We should then embrace liberal ideas when freedom will be advanced by such a defense. Not as Confederates did to defend slavery but as Northerners did to liberate.

The Left then should defend the oppressed, but not blindly. Multi-culturalists in particular have had a hard time with this idea seemingly supporting every movement from the Nation of Islam to the Tamil Tigers. Just because people are discriminated against doesn't mean that the movement that they found to over come this discrimination is worthy of support. If the movement that would come to power as a result of victory would be worse for the women or workers of said movement, then it is not worthy of unconditional support.

Another way of looking at the issue is through the lens of immigration. Let's say there is a small Scandinavian country with a functioning social democratic system and you want to do your internationalist duty and allow millions of people to come into your country from all over the world where people are fleeing economic and political despotism. If said immigrants bring with them backward ideas, like sexism, religious superstition, belief in inequality, etc... what will be the result for your good deed? It could transform the place into a backward place not because said immigrants are inferior human beings but because their cultural traditions have been respected. Should we thus sacrifice equality and social democracy on the alter of tolerance for oppressed groups?

To the cartoons. They may have been published by racists to inflame. So what? Chill out Jihadis; fly a kite, smoke a joint and jerk off to a Playboy if you are so uptight.


T. Fons said...

Agreed. I have not been reading my leftist journals lately so I didn't even know that the Left was offended by the cartoons. Shame on them for feeling the need to be contrary to the trend in Western opinion on this. The Jihadists are wrong on this one and should be condemned.

The sharing of ideas (right and wrong, left and right, up and down) should be strengthened, not discouraged.

John Brown said...

"This means that if someone is offended because we say that the world is round then too bad. The truth hurts." So in other words, it's true that Mohammed (and all Muslims) are terrorists, which was the point of the most inflammatory of the cartoons, and this truth should be told. Equally reactionary and racist was the conclusion of your article - that nice, enlightened social-democratic Western nations should protect themselves by limiting immigration. I found your article because it was posted on Counterpunch; it would seem more at home on some right-wing nativist site. (And I happen to think this controversy is complex, and not simply a matter of Western arrogance and racism; of course much of the protest against the cartoons should be critically examined; but it's simply not true that only "Jihadists" are offended and so on.)

T. Fons said...

One more thought on this:

Some of the commentators in the muslim world have raised the issue in reverse. They say the west would complain if papers in the Muslim world published cartoons related to the Holocaust. They are right--people in the west would criticise the cartoons--and they would say that it was another example of their Jew-hating agenda--that would be true. But few in the west would call for the shutdown of the newspaper that printed the cartoons or riot in the streets and burn the embassies of the countries that host the newspaper.

The discussion should always be on the quality of the idea expressed, not the author or publishers right to express it.

yugoslav said...

I want to give my support especially to this statement: Just because people are discriminated against doesn't mean that the movement that they found to over come this discrimination is worthy of support. If the movement that would come to power as a result of victory would be worse for the women or workers of said movement, then it is not worthy of unconditional support”.

The left, now, find themselves very often supporting some retrograde movement (“resistance” in Iraq , Hammas).

Islamic fundamentalist should not get any support from the left because their main goal is establishing Islamic state and everything else is temporary (freedom. Independence, liberation from occupation, etc).
This demonstration are obviously organise by some Islamic fundamentalist or some government which use this as cover up for their other failures).
The cartoons: As I understand those published caricatures probably properly depicted what ordinary Danish think about Muslims or what cartoonist think that that ordinary Danish think about Muslims. That was happening in September, created some steer In Denmark, it was just local issue and that’s all.
All was happening now is just demonstration of power and manipulation by Islamic fundamentalist movement and should be recognised as that and condemned by left. No support or understanding.

Asharak said...

So, john brown, if an atheist bashes Islam because he or she think it's just as ridiculous as every other religion, that's "racist" as well? And since when are Muslims a race?

And I'm with anton on this one. The sympathetic ear this sort of religious victim culture is getting from so-called leftists is completely wrongheaded. If Bible-thumpers became outraged over negative depictions of Jesus Christ in a similar fashion, they would be mocked, and rightly so. Yet somehow we're expected to be sensitive just because it's Muslims doing it.

Amal A said...

I consider myself a leftist and I'm irritated by the leftists jumping on the bandwagon of hysteria about the cartoons. I believe Muslims, like any group, have a right to object at racist and offensive material. And it is not very helpful for western government to just say we have free speech because we all know that free speech is not absolute. Some European countries have laws against anti semitic material. The US had debates and attempts to regulate "hate speech" etc.
My problem is with the nature and terms of the protests: the violence, the ambiguous target: not the publishing newspaper but the Danes, the West, etc. And finally, some protestors are calling it blaspheme and want it prosecuted under blaspheme laws. That cannot be supported by the left.
And lets not forget the forces behind it. 10 thousand Yemeni women don't just take to the streets over night; an official body is behind them. The violence in Syria and Lebanon are clear examples of political manipulations. Leftists need to reflect on this as well.
But I really feel that some leftists just go weak in the knees the moment they see a crowd of people protesting. Doesn't matter who or what. Hey, it's the "people", the "masses." Grow up.

Anonymous said...

From reading the original post it seems clear that either the author a) has little understanding of the nature of oppression of muslims in Denmark. Or b)is insincere in describing himself as "leftist".

The author accepts the understanding of the issue as framed by the danish ruling class: "free speech" versus "islamic fundamentalism".

But in reality the issue is racism & classism: the officially-sanctioned abuse of an underclass in one of europe's most homogenous & xenophobic societies.

In Denmark - and Western Europe - the term "Muslim" has been transformed from a religious designation into an ethnic category rapidly evolving into a term of racist abuse. Members of this underclass are systematically denied access to the job market. In Denmark this discrimination is sanctioned by the government. Employers can specify to government job centres that they require "white-only" labour. Immigrants are also subject to stringent laws about whom they can marry.

This is the context that the cartoons originate in: a further gratuitous attack on a despised minority, issued by the newspaper tied to the ruling party. That party which was elected by a large mandate. It's programme centered on "getting tough on foreigners". And it must constantly ratchet up the racism pressure in order to maintain its support amongst its ethnic-Danish voter base. The cartoons seemed the perfect means of provocation at the time.

For those interested in further backround on the Danish context, I recommend:

"Rotten Judgment in the State of Denmark


"European arrogance versus muslim fanaticism"

Of course this situation has been exploited by both ruling regimes in the Middle East & jihadi Islamists: it is a means for the former to establish their badly-needed Islamic credentials at absolutely no domestic cost [Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Fatah]. For the latter it is a "godsend" means to radicalise broad swathes of the Islamic masses.

see also:
"The Danish cartoons: a neo-colonial slap"

Perhaps American so-called "leftists" who have little or no understanding of these issues should refrain from commenting before investigating more thoroughly

I also ask: is Playboy considered to be part of the American leftist tradition? by which tendency of the American leftist tradition?

IFStone said...

Anton, I guess you are not a true leftist.
I for one am relieved that your true capitalist pro-Western nature has finally been revealed!

OK, that was a joke ... I know Anton will get it but I'm not sure about some of the other readers...

This was a great post and a good discussion. I have no right to an opinion on this topic, being vastly ignorant of Islam, European culture, and Counterpunch (it's not similar to Playboy, right?), but if I were to opine, I would say that the riots are about more than cartoons. And I question whether the rioters are all "jihadists."

On the other hand, violence bad, free speech good, etc. What I am saying is I don't yet know what to think. I don't want to dismiss the protests, and I don't think we should be rioting over cartoons... so....?

Good to see people discussing it seriously though. Yesterday Minnesota Public Radio had a good and enlightening commentary from a young Muslim man. Note to media: more of this, please.

(think they'll listen?)

Anonymous said...

I think your comments were right on. It's ridiculous to think that anyone should be so concerned with how religious fundamentalists feel. Fuck em. It's not an issue of imperialism or racism - it's an issue of irrational religious beliefs, and the irrational [religious] people who hold them.

Guerrillas in the Midst said...

What if it's a cartoon of Indians? Is the mascot issue any different?

It's pretty easy to tell the offended to go "smoke a joint and jerk off to Playboy", but it seems that responsibility and respect of those who make these charicatures ought to be the focus of your efforts. I think you might be telling the wrong people to "chill out".

Consider the work that Adbusters does. "Culture Jamming" and the like. Should we say, "Oh, just chill out you guys. Advertising is just an image. Go smoke a bowl."

Once the argument is "elevated" beyond race, then the picture is percieved whites.

anton said...

If people make offensive caricatures of Cherokee, Chinese or any other group they have the right to do so and their right to do so needs to be defended. A famous case in the US is the neo-Nazi's that wanted to march in predominatly Jewish Skokie, IL. I think that they should have been able to march anywhere they pleased. Am I going to help organize a counter-demonstration? Yes. Ususally we have far more anti-racists then racists at these types of events. Sometimes it's better to just ignore them however.

Guerrillas in the Midst said...

Yeah, ignoring problems has always solved them...

I understand the difference between defending what someone says and their right to say it.

Question again: Are CultureJammers, then, violating the free speech of the PR industry? Are creative individuals who "art" over billboards violating the "free speech" of the advertising industry?

You see, reducing the debate to merely "racial cartoons" is a convenience. Moreover, its harmony with individualism is pretty apparent as well. Reducing the problem to race and freedom of speech makes it pretty easy to ignore important variables.

These things don't occur in vacuums and our response to these matters ought not reflect vacuous thinking. For white folks, it's about race. The previous Biko quote was apropos. White people are still telling people how to respond--even so-called sympathizers. But it's much more than "oh, can't you deal with a little racist humor?". I think some racist jokes are hysterical. And people's right to say them is important.

George Carlin's jokes about Richard Pryor et al. being niggers was poingnant ("they call each other that. Why? Because they're niggers!". But he also acknowledges CONTEXT, something of which privelage saps from thinking. It's pretty easy to talk about free speech when one isn't confined to a miserable post-holocaust existence.

Freedom to vs. freedom from?