Saturday, April 24, 2010

South Park and Free Speech

On November 2, 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was brutally murdered while bicycling to work. He was shot eight times, had two knives planted into his torso (one with a five-page note threatening Western governments, Jews, and one of van Gogh's colleagues), and was decapitated.

On January 2, 2010, Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard was attacked in his home by a man wielding an axe and knife. Although he managed to emerge from the ordeal unharmed (thanks to quick thinking and a conveniently located panic room), it was only the most recent in a long series of attempts on his life.

What did van Gogh and Westergaard do to deserve such brutal treatment? Simple: They'd both criticized Islam.

To be more specific, van Gogh made a short documentary named Submission, which focused on portions of the Quran (Islam's holiest book) that advocated misogynistic ideas and justified the mistreatment of women. Westergaard, on the other hand, drew a cartoon that depicted the Muslim prophet Mohammed with a bomb attached to his turban, apparently in an effort to skewer that religion's alleged propensity toward violence. Since Islam prohibits any depiction of the image of Mohammad, that cartoon - combined with its offensive message - was used as grist to fuel hundreds of violent protests, including the aforementioned attacks against Westergaard himself.

Now two more Western artists may find themselves under attack for daring to disparage the Muslim faith - none other than Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the wildly popular profane animated sitcom, "South Park".

It all began last week, when - to celebrate their 200th episode - Parker and Stone decided to pay tribute to all of the celebrities and prominent historical figures they had mocked during their past thirteen years on the air. Since, back in 2005, they had attempted to support Westergaard during the initial furor that erupted around his Mohammad cartoon by showing the image of the Muslim prophet in one of their own episodes (a decision that was ultimately censored by their superiors at Comedy Central), it only seemed logical for them to make a second stab at free speech. Hence their 200th episode contained, among a wide number of other deliberately offensive images, that of the prophet Mohammad donning a bear costume.

For that silly image, Parker and Stone may wind up paying with their lives.

We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.

Such was the "warning" that appeared on the popular jihadist website Revolution Muslim. Accompanying the message was a picture of Theo van Gogh shortly after his murder (complete with stab wounds and severed head) and a listing of the home addresses of Parker and Stone, as well as the location of the studio in which they animate "South Park" episodes and the headquarters of Comedy Central.

Now let me make one thing clear - I do not always agree with the views espoused by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. While I don't find them "offensive" (at least in the traditional sense of that word), I often feel that their political views are surprisingly reactionary for a show as risque and controversial as their own. From their remarkably uncharitable characterization of Al Gore to their oversimplification of the origins of our economic crisis (although that episode at least contained a remarkably shrewd skewering of anti-Semitism), there have been repeated instances where I have watched an episode of "South Park" and walked away shaking my head at the message they've attempted to send. If nothing else, though, Parker and Stone are extraordinarily courageous in their willingness to step on toes - and push the boundaries of good taste - in the names of both comedy and, yes, meaningful satire.

Characteristically, Parker and Stone decided to react to the death threats with comic defiance. Since the 200th episode was only the first installment in a two-part series, they decided to go ahead with the second installment exactly as they had originally planned it, threats and intimidation be damned.

Comedy Central had other ideas. In a recent public statement, Parker and Stone explained:

In the 14 years we've been doing South Park we have never done a show that we couldn't stand behind. We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode. It wasn't some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle's customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn't mention Muhammad at all but it got bleeped too. We'll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different and we'll see what happens to it.

Four months ago, when the most recent attempt on Westergaard's life was made, I quoted a challenge that Westergaard posed to Muslims living in Western democracies:

Many of the immigrants who came to Denmark, they had nothing. We gave them everything - money, apartments, their own schools, free university, health care. In return, we asked one thing - respect for democratic values, including free speech. Do they agree? This is my simple test.

There is another test that exists today, one which the executives at Comedy Central failed. It exists in the form of a simple statement, issued almost three centuries ago, by the French philosopher Voltaire, whose principles established the foundation of that right to free speech which is so essential to liberty:

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.

I don't know whether the executives at Comedy Central agree or disagree with the position espoused by Parker and Stone on this issue. What I do know is that they have, for more than a decade, reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in financial rewards as a direct result of the things Parker and Stone were willing to say. Comedy Central is the direct beneficiary of the Voltairean maxim articulated above, owing their very existence to the fact that we live in a society which prizes the right to free expression as not only practically necessary, but morally right. It does not reflect well upon them that, when the stakes were raised, they were unwilling to go the distance in defending the principles on which they have built their corporate empire.

I deeply hope that, when the history of our era is written, this particular chapter does not prove to be a tragic one, particularly for the creators of "South Park". Regardless of what winds up happening, though, of this much I can be certain - Trey Parker and Matt Stone behaved, for better or for worse, bravely stood by the most important values of the free world. Comedy Central did not.

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