The Lileks Zone

Mohammed Cartoonist gives up her life to keep it

Is there anything more craven than having an argument on one site, getting tired of it, and taking your final response over to another behind a paywall? Probably not. I’ll spare you the particulars, but here’s the gist: the argument concerned the Seattle cartoonist who proposed “Everyone Draw Mohammed Day,” and kicked it off with a simple cartoon showing everyday objects claiming they were Mohammed. Obviously they were not. But this simple assertion of commonplace freedom-of-speech – just because they say we can’t draw this doesn’t mean we can’t – earned her a fatwa. On the advice of the FBI, she’s giving up her life and “going ghost,” quitting her job, hoping to disappear so no one cuts off her head.

This is not surprising. It should not be surprising that this is not surprising. We’ve come a long way from Martin Luther: from “Here I Stand” to “There I Go.” What was dismaying to many was the reaction from quite a few: she earned it. Should have known better. Stupid thing to do, and indefensible. The person online with whom I had the argument called it blasphemy, one of those terms that’s not exactly rich with strict legal meaning.

I don’t have a problem with drawing Mohammed, and while I understand it is offensive to some, that’s the price you pay for living in a free and diverse society. The argument against it seems to be this: we must persuade, not insult. Granted. We must persuade the other side that we have the right, and must be open to persuasion that we should not do it. Fine; that’s a conversation. But “should not” turns into “can’t,” eventually, and
I’m not willing to have a basic right granted on the precondition that I agree not to use it.

The other person argued that it was wrong to show the pictures to the widow of a Muslim marine he knew who died fighting for this country, and I agreed, not possibly imagining why I would. He then inquired: If it’s wrong to put it in front of her, does it become right away from her?

Of course it does. This comes down to maddening examples of what is, and is not, art; the drawings that got the cartoonist in trouble, for example, where not drawings of Mohammed. They only insisted they were. Can something be a thing it is not if it lies about what it is? The images of the cartoon reside on my hard drive right now in the browser cache. Having visited a Fark thread on the subject, there’s probably one with Mohammed with a bomb for a turban. They exist as ones and zeroes on a hard drive, and cannot be seen unless summoned. If I never summon them, they still exist, just as a picture in a room without light is still a picture. (Think of the files on the hard drive as the painting, and the code that puts them together a beam of light.)

So if it’s wrong to show them at all, then it’s the very existence of the images that is wrong. That’s a remarkable amount of power to ascribe to something that literally is not the thing it says it is. And it opens the door for proscribing anything that is defined by the offended, not the intentions of the artist.

This is not a prescription for artistic or intellectual freedom.

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September 2010