Saturday, February 11, 2006

Cartoon Contest

The world has been gnawing away at its fragile cultural barriers lately. People seem to exalt offensively "free" speech because a hegemonic control over organized violence and information exists to put the uppety and powerless in their "place." To push those ethnic buttons, each group in this interethnic strife appears keen on staking out a claim on what aspects of its culture are sacrosanct and what assets cannot be claimed by other groups.

In my mind, the satirical cartoons of Mohammed aren't so different from a news video I recently viewed about a public high school teacher calling his pupil "niggah." Ok, so the prevailing theme seems to be that there are certain offensive ways of addressing one's own people or heritage that are only acceptable if engaged in by members of one's own group. Many Muslims are privileged to cite Mohammed and the Islamic creed in justifying political behavior. Similarly, in their estimation, black Americans uniquely possess the cultural right to address one another by racially sensitive terms. But, when the hegemonic power usurps this ethnic privilege in order to critique or deconstruct the ethnic speech or behavior, there is a violent and indignant reaction. Ethnic groups don't like to be told how to govern their own intra-cultural exchange.

The most evident and pressing notion that emerges from these controversies is that white/Western society controls, to a significant global extent, material and informational flows. Attained via the use of constant and concerted organized violence, the West maintains its domination over most of the vast non-Western sea of peoples. So, when the West affirms that it has the right to label or define the terms of someone else's intraethnic culture, violence is bound to erupt. Spasms of such conflict occur essentially only in the non-West at this historical juncture because the Western world has attained such an extreme level of wealth and control that underprivileged white people no longer need to revolt in a violent fashion - leaving such outbursts for the so-called ethnic entities that the West enjoys labelling as morally inferior because of this need to engage periodically in violent struggle with the West in response to their subjugation. When pushed to the limit, this paroxysm of anti-hegemonic fervor on behalf of the subaltern classes functions as an expression of inferior material status and invites a crackdown on these rebellious, ignoble savages.

This discussion of ethnic battles cannot possibly begin to explain the extent which certain groups have been included/excluded from the West. In America, the integration of Hispanics and Asians incorporates entirely different factors and is beyond the scope of this blogline. The cyberoisie might address such things later on, but these groups, like all other ethnic groups mentioned and assumed to be homogenous, classifiable, and generalizable are so complex that it becomes very difficult to reach any conclusions that could begin to be judged as scientific.

In the eyes of the subjugated groups (those actually present within the geographical confines of the metropolitan West, those who inhabit the periphery, and those of Western heritage who sympathize with the non-Western powerless), the Mohammed cartoons and the white use of the N-word are attempts to irreverently rub in the fact that the West is the ultimate legal arbiter of speech and violence. Though the West largely fashioned its dominance out of a persistent tradition of violence carried out under the aegis of the Judeo-Christian godhead, Western reactionaries feel that they must preserve their control over the discourse. The indefatigable power wielded by the West to crush resistance invites unfortunate violence upon the epicenters of Western life. A clash of civilizations exists empirically because people perceive it as such. However, normatively, a statement that there is an ongoing clash serves merely to egg on the perpetrators on both sides who seek to exacerbate tensions. There are huge numbers of Muslims and blacks who seek to justify their monopoly over their own cultural deities. Provocation of this desire to preserve the barriers of cultural exchange invites a seemingly irrational reaction on the part of the dominated groups.

Is this justified? Do white people have the right to toss around the n-word just because black people have this right? Do white people have the right to characterize the Islamic prophet because Muslims possess this right? To understand cultural barriers means that we must observe limits. There is undoubtedly humor in racist jokes and classifications that cannot be enjoyed by those outside the specific group because such labeling appears to threaten the group's power over its own destiny and image.

Retaliation for obdurate white behavior brings on the potential for cartoons satirizing Jesus with a machine gun aimed at the barbarians/infidels or depicting a Jew swiping a gentile's possessions. Ethnic stereotyping always consists of truthful (and potentially hurtful) elements. The hegemonic civilization is held to a higher civilizational standard, however, precisely because it already is in the lead. (Thus, Danish newspapers are said to be compelled to observe standards not observed in the Arab press and the Israeli government is obligated to abide by rules not followed by other Middle Eastern regimes). The West is castigated for pushing Islam a la limite. My sympathy goes out to those Danes and those Muslims who aren't engaging in the fundementalist discourse. The reactionaries on both sides fall into foolish assumptions about the intentions of that mysterious Other. The Other is exotic, seductive, dangerous. The more we seek to understand the Other, the more we erect barriers around Us that excludes Them. Thus, additionally and paradoxically, the more the Other seeks to call attention to its status, the more it identifies itself as different and separate. There will never be an end to ethnic, racial, or cultural conflict. It is a permanent feature of human, tribally fragmented civilization. Of course, its permanency ought not be exalted, but it's idealistic to declare postmodern society as postethnic. Ethnicities hybridize and collate, but they do not disappear.

I simultaneously mock, celebrate, and condemn ethnic divisions because it's so incredibly difficult to preserve a one-sided perspective. Though my voice arises from the hegemonic West, I cannot stop myself from advocating the position of the oppressed Other. I find myself caught in the middle of the civilizational schism.

So who wants to submit a cartoon satirizing Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed? Can we extract ourselves from the ethnic categories to which we belong and critique all our affiliations? Or are we limited to labelling/classifying only according to the cultural and "legal" rights ascribed to us?


Sam said...

what if we just depicted abraham actually killing isaac? go straight to the beginning of the lineage of all three religions. I think that it is entirely possible and, at least in my eyes, acceptable to critique whatever we feel like, whether it is a group we belong to or not. And I find it of particular interest that along with the furor over the depiction of the prophet mohammed, much of it is over the portrayal of muslims as a violent people. much of the protests only serve to support this as you have demonstrators holding up signs calling for the killing of anyone who dares criticize islam, pretty non-violent. you also have the detaining of jihad momani and hisham khalidi, editors of jordanian papers that reprinted the offending cartoons with a call for "Muslims of the world, be reasonable."

I guess what I'm trying to say is that while this is definitely an example of the break between the western and islamic worlds, as always there are broad generalizations being put forth of the groups involved. it just strikes me, as has mr. momani stated in his editorial: "What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?" (
At least to me, and perhaps it's my hegemonic western sensibilities speaking, the kidnapping and killing of civilians is much more offensive than a cartoon.

benpiven said...

i agree in principle with the idea that the actual enactment of violent ideas is more offensive than the cartoons. but, what's the ratio of the number innocent muslims killed by the west to the number of innocent westerners killed by violent islamists? i would hazard a guess that the ratio is staggering. it seems like the operative justification is that there's a certain multiple that determines how many muslims the west can kill in retaliation for dead westerners. eye for an eye or 4 eyes for an eye?

moreover, the "civil" strife that has plagued the islamic world for many years has certainly resulted in much more muslim-on-muslim crime than muslim-on-westerner. think iran-iraq war, lebanon, algeria, afghanistan. if the west completely disengaged from the entire islamic world, islamist militias or government forces would probably commit far more deadly acts than even the west could manage...

Mike said...

First off, you need to substitute "White Man" for the "West" in all of your writing on this stuff, because when ethnic groups have beef with the West, it's not so much Western civilization as it is with the White Man. I know you probably chose the West moniker out of professional politeness, but that's really what the issue centers around here. The N-word, Chink, Spic, etc. have much less to do with the irresistible strength of Western civilization imposing itself upon other cultures, as intellectual elites are fond of thinking, but rather ethnic groups' disdain for white people using those terms is well, because they're white. Who made up those terms? White men. Why did they make them up? To degrade and humiliate minorities. That's a black and brown man's beef with white people using those words, NOT because of some complex clash of civilizations argument. Not to say that stuff isn't very important, it is, and it does have an impact, but that's not the main thing thing I think about when somebody calls me a chink, I'm thinking, "who the FUCK does this racist white dude think he is?" In a larger context, black people get pissed off when white people make commentary on them because everything they say will have overtones of racism and oppression, whether its intended or not. When a fellow black person makes a critique on his or her race, that distrust isn't present. In other words, it's less about culture and a whole lot more about race, though of course the two are interrelated.

Now, in terms of the Cartoon Incident that is rapidly devolving into madness, that's a different story--a clash of civilizations argument does work here, though it must be taken into account that the White Man factor is also very high in this case. Here, I think, is the great Deity Pissing Contest--my god is better than your god, blah blah blah. And as your friend noted, of course it's much worse to blow up yourself than write some stupid offensive cartoons. Every society likes to ignore whatever evils they commit--Native American slaughter, anybody? Both sides in this manner have it all wrong. Middle easterners shouldn't be blowing themselves up and White westerners shouldn't be invading their countries to take their oil. The old way of invade, divide, and conquer doesn't work in modern society because too many people get pissed off. It's too hard. If you really want to get ahead, you improve your infrastructure, become economically powerful, and expand your cultural and diplomatic influence.

Or maybe I'm just biased because that's how baller Asian countries are doing it.

benpiven said...

It looks like there's a bit of a conflict here between the racial and cultural ideas that deal with social tension. The conceptual problem cannot really be resolved regarding this differential between the cultural and the racial, because those terms are so intertwined and so fraught with contradictions and subjective definitions. Furthermore, the notion of the West is incredibly fluid, given that the West includes many groups that weren't considered Western a hundred years ago. Also, the physical boundaries between West and non-West do not correlate with where the actual power centers are within the Western world.

Some advocates of globalization contend that the erasure of systems of racial classification would mean cultural unity of many different peoples under the rubric of the West. Since nonwhite racial background is usually linked to some non-Western culture, these categories are inextricably linked. Some people certainly encounter more of a cultural problem in assimilating themselves to the Western idea, while others find that there's some kind of racial glass ceiling that hampers progress due solely to an involuntary racial variable.

Either way, in terms of the contest of civilizations, you're right about the Asian tigers who've managed to downplay their racial differences in order to emphasize the potential embedded in the process of voluntarily improving economic status. So perhaps certain nonwhite countries face more of a racial problem than others in trying to find their figurative lost remote. Some people claim that Islam is universal and deracialized, but I'm not so sure that's so accurate. Christianity, though similarly diffused across the world and encompassing limitless populations, certainly relies upon a racialized and European historical core.

Regardless, racialized boundaries are so easy to draw up, so it seems much more nuanced to focus on cultural difference. But perhaps we're not at that point yet where either that arch-conservative phony colorblind ideal or the truly tolerant republicanism has triumphed. As Mr. West quipped, race matters.

Scenario said...

I like your blog. Of you course I agree with Dawson that it’s ludicrous that he shouldn’t be able to use the word, but as I found out the hard way, you just have to suck it up and not use the n-word cuz it’ll piss people off.

“Similarly, in their estimation, black Americans uniquely possess the cultural right to address one another by racially sensitive terms.” Good point, except that the term “nigga” is now socially acceptable when used by Asians, Latinos, and whoever else who wants to use it but isn’t white.

Mike said...

Nuanced doesn't particularly mean more accurate in this case. I think you underestimate just how much race matters, and that it matters most to a group that isn't a racial minority. I'm talking about conservative whites. Race matters to conservative whites perhaps even more than it does to disenfranchised minorities like blacks and hispanics--they don't want anything to do with minorities, are extremely racially exclusive in their culture, and either on a deep-seated or overt level think racial minorities are biologically inferior to whites. Surely, many liberal whites feel the same way, just on a reduced level, but the sentiment exists, and minorities are acutely aware of this feeling, much more so than say, the racially accepting white liberal.

Yes, the n-word and its usage is fraught with contradiction, but all you need to know is this: other minorities, though I don't necessarily support this, can use the n-word because there isn't such a dire and tragic history of say, Asians enslaving African-Americans. When a white person says it, it's loaded with implications of the slavedriver whipping the Negro, telling him to pick his cotton faster. That's why black people get so pissed off when white people used the n-word. No group of people has been so active and so incredibly good at slavery and racial subjugation than whites. As Muhammad Ali noted, "no Viet Cong ever called me nigger." Over time, the word has evolved into one of friendship and comraderie, and surely some whites intend to use it in that manner, but you have to understand--other racial groups haven't had the distinct dishonor of playing the role of the oppressor. That's all it boils down to, not culture, not background, not creed, but race and racial history of oppressor and oppressed.

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