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Re: <nettime> publication of "Jyllands-Posten" cartoons is not...
Dan S. Wang on Sat, 18 Feb 2006 22:37:00 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> publication of "Jyllands-Posten" cartoons is not...


> It seems to me that in the midst of this intelligent conversation, the
> elephant sitting in the room is being missed.  Freedom of speech amounts to
> a kind of religion in American culture.   It is only useful to term it a
> religion if you acknowledge that it is a civilizational ideal and political
> common sense for American culture the same way other kinds of beliefs are
> for other cultures.  Thus the "cultural sensitivity" referred to (more or
> less negatively) by free speech advocates in this discussion is equally true
> of the upholders of free speech, for whom the concept of free speech holds
> sacred status.  My point is not only that different cultures think
> differently about fundamental social issues, but that these social entities
> have power in disparate degrees.  If the free speech advocates were
> acknowledging that theirs is a specific political ideology maintained by
> U.S. politicians, corporates, bureaucrats, hackers, civil liberties
> advocates and others, ie. specific to the historical formation of the
> American subject, it would be easier to find a way to discuss these issues
> with others with different political formations.   It's not that I think an
> ideal dialogue of rational understanding is always or necessarily possible,
> but this lack of geopolitical reflexivity on the part of people saying free
> speech is always, necessarily and absolutely a higher value than all other
> values, is giving me a pain.  Let's have some global self-awareness here.
> 
> Jody Berland


I think it is worth pointing out that the cartoons were not published in the
US, and even now, weeks into the blow-up, the images have not been re-published
by American print media. At least I haven't heard of this happening. If it has,
it has not been big news. I think it is worth asking why there is this
non-event, this easy, un-agonized restraint on the part of the American press.
Because the images are easily available online, the 'freedom of speech' issue
is hardly the point.

I think the difference in the European and American handling of these images
points to the divergent history of the Left. I would argue that in the US over
the past 25 years, basically ever since Reagan took power, beat down the air
traffic controllers' strike, and launched into a business-class
counterrevolution that to this day continues to intensify, the broad
progressive front in America has permanently shifted much of its focus to the
culture wars. What is non-sexist language, what so-called Great Books are in
need of deconstructive analysis, what authors from the colored margins need to
be included in the canon, who and when can somebody (anybody?) use the word
'nigger,' etc, those are the kinds of battles in which an oppositional
force--barely recognizable as a 'Left'--has made itself felt in this country.
Of course there were many logics internal to the New Left that led to
identity-centric concerns, chief among them the gender democratization ushered
in by second-wave feminism. But looking back on it, I don't think it is
entirely coincidental that culture wars emerged as the primary outlet of
oppositional voices at the same time that the Right moved to effectively and
aggressively dismantle the American version of the welfare state. Seen in this
way, the shift to culture was, it must be said, no matter the importance of the
speech, sensitivity, and inclusion issues addressed in the culture wars, a kind
of concession by the oppositional sector. ('Oppositional sector': what else can
I call a Left with a minimal class analysis informing its practical struggle,
which by the time I'm talking about is what the resistance had largely become
in North America?)

There were victories in this sphere--ones that fundamentally changed American
society for the better, even. Victories that account for why this most
right-wing of executives, even he, the other day, in speaking for the first
time of the cartoon-inflamed protests, while defending the free press of the
European allies still felt the obligation to scold the papers on their lack of
sensitivity and respect for the beliefs of others. The victory of America's
minorities on the level of hate speech and cultural representation has forced a
changed behavior inside the business world, as well, and this is why the papers
here do not publish the cartoons.

The problem is, these were about the only real victories in nearly a
generation, the only area of life in which what was once called the Left in
America successfully forced the dominant powers to respect their demands. In
just about every other area of life, it has been defeat, concession, and more
defeat.

Moreover, these victories were often won through a deployment of a moral
argument, which is always a double-edged sword in that the force of it weighs
heavily on your enemies in a nation full of pious rulers like the US, but once
adopted by those same actors becomes a moral credit to them. Here again, we see
W extracting the full logical benefit of such moral turnarounds: we respect
diversity, all religions, etc (just look at the faces in my cabinet), therefore
our military causes *must* be morally correct, and our enemies evil.

So, I would say that the lesson from the American experience goes like this: in
times of full Right wing assault, that is to say, in times of desperation, the
battleground of culture (ie language and media representation) becomes a
tempting base to which the Left may retreat, consolidate itself, and renew its
struggle from the flank. But even considering the serious internal logics of
such strategic shifts (and right now that internal logic would be the charge of
blasphemy), one must ask, is such a shift politically productive in the long
run?

The European Left has been much more successfully focused in maintaining its
commitment to the economics. But now, as the minorities of Europe increasingly
make demands (and, increasingly, face punitive treatments of all sort),
oppositional forces in Europe may be facing a strategic watershed similar to
what happened in the US. This is the challenge, given that the political
conditions in Denmark now are similar to that aggressive first wave of
deregulation/privatization that washed over the US in the 80s. Many ordinary
citizens in Denmark, whose parents' generation worked to construct one of the
most equitable societies in the West, now see optimism and a brighter Danish
future only in a neoliberal agenda, and accept the incremental and steady
erosion of some of those cornerstone achievements. That is exactly what
happened in the US. The (former, or residual?) Left responded by successfully
(and I'm not saying it was easy; I worked on introducing sexual harassment
policies while a student in the 80s, and administrations across the country
were for a long time dead set against such innovations) laying claiming to the
nation's cultural agenda. Now we have a 'polite' and 'respectful' and
'responsible' press and a president who owns the diversity agenda. White people
can't use the word 'nigger.' All this, while the full force of the Right wing
agenda takes ever more extreme, more violent, and yes, more pious, forms. We
should at least consider strategies that do not eventually arm our enemies with
new moralities.

So I don't think it is particularly helpful to draw the argument as 'free
speech and democracy' on one side, and 'cultural sensitivity' on the other, as
has emerged on nettime. The critique of those who protest the publication of
the cartoons ought to be presented in terms of strategic choice: is this charge
of blasphemy--with all respect due to the authenticity of the offense--not a
supreme diversion at best? Are not the demands for apologies, retractions, and
future restraint--in a word, for 'respect'--ultimately an admission of
desperation and powerlessness, given the real, concrete, bruised, burn-marked,
feces-smeared, and torn-bodied suffering being inflicted on... [people in Iraqi
prisons, in secret torture jails, in front of firing squads in Indonesia, in
city jails of LA, etc, etc]? Put another way, I ask those on this list who feel
no offense over the images to show a different kind of restraint--do not
trouble to defend the cartoons, they have an elite defending them already.
Instead, train your sights on the limits to and profitable outcomes of their
so-called ethic of tolerance, for that is what needs to be exposed. And to
those who do take offense, I ask you to consider the structure of a perceived
conflict, which so easily calls forth a kind of moral outrage whose defining
feature is not its strength, but its plasticity--do you really want to give
your enemies the added weaponry of your morality?

Dan w.

  

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