Kudos to Kazakhstan! The powers-that-be there were said to have been mightily provoked by the newest comic sensation. That’s Sacha Baron-Cohen aka Borat, the Brit whose schtick is to pose as an ignorant crude bigoted sexist gay-baiting Kazakh journalist. The first reaction from a humor-challenged Central Asian “-stan” was rage. Pundits even speculated that President Nursultan Nazarbayev would raise the issue of Borat’s upcoming docu-spoof Cultural Learnings of America for Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan with President George W. Bush when he visited last month. Evidently he did not.
Kazakhstan’s second reaction was brilliant, an absolute winner. It gives me, from a totally unexpected direction, my reply to those who would muffle some range of free expression deemed (for any number of “good” reasons) beyond the pale.
The critical but calm response of the international community to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad’s tit-for-tat cartoon contest also bolsters my argument that censorship is a crude and largely unnecessary weapon against insults to religion or other core values.
Back to Kazakhstan.
At first there was President Nazarbayev fuming and foaming over the caricaturish Borat’s lèse-majesté vis-à-vis Kazakhstan, which led to considerable ridicule among bloggers, especially since the primary object of Cohn’s satire is the United States, not Kazakhstan. I haven’t seen Cultural Learnings of America for the Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan yet. I will, when it reaches my neck of the woods.
But inspired public relations, I might even say public diplomacy—Karen Hughes and the Pentagon take note—saved the day. I’m not referring to the long-winded, heavy-handed supplements about Kazakhstan’s economy, etc., that were placed in the New York Times and elsewhere. I’m referring to the decision to invite Borat aka Cohn to visit Kazakstan, where he can, according to Deputy Foreign Minister Rakhat Aliev, “discover a lot of things. Women drive cars, wine is made of grapes and Jews are free to go to synagogues.” In short, said Aliev, “it’s useless to offend an artist and threaten to sue him. It will only further damage the country’s reputation and make Borat more popular.”
Just like that! Any resemblance between Borat’s “Kazakhstan” and the real thing dissolves. The land-locked ex-Soviet Socialist Republic achieves a sophisticated, self-confident image. Already there are predictions that this humorous, tolerant response to apparent ridicule could increase tourism revenues. The country’s been put on the map. It’s leaders seem to be savvy. Kazakhstan could become the new New Thing.
The Satanic Verses
Rage and suppression is the common but unimaginative and counterproductive response to offensive artistry. When Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1989, he guaranteed that the book would become a best seller. Recently the number of copies sold was 60,000,000 and counting, for the most part outside the Muslim world, since no (or few) publishers behind the Green Curtain dared to publish it.
Of course, we have no way of knowing how many copies were smuggled in, but I suspect that most members of the Muslim intelligentsia managed to read it. I, for example, insinuated a few copies into Pakistan—in plain brown wrappers, of course, though my own reading of The Satanic Verses was less than enthusiastic. I found it, like many of Rushdie’s books, too adolescently clever for what it actually had to say. (Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, on the other hand, thoroughly deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature, about which and whom more later. Maybe.)
The Da Vinci Code
Christians in India tried to suppress a tedious film version of the poorly written, totally-lacking-in-wit The Da Vinci Code. Blasphemy, they said. Heresy, too. And they are right. However, this being the 21st century, keeping it out of the theaters would have served mainly to boost Indian video sales or downloads, a ploy still not available to those curious about The Satanic Verses. In America, where most people believe in heaven, hell and the devil, the reaction to The Da Vinci Code has been curious. It’s been a major hit in both film and book versions.
It’s a very naughty book, of course. What could be worse than claiming that Christ was not martyred? What could be more shocking than to propose that he married Mary Magdalene and sired children—with French descendants, no less!—and to accuse the Catholic Church of two millennia of coverups. Surely the denial of the central mystery of Christianity would have been reason enough to riot and kill. This is what happened over insults to the prophet of Islam. But no one died defending the faith from Dan Brown.
Not that faithful Christians in the West have taken the heresy of Christ’s marriage to Mary Magdalene lying down. Opus Dei, the controversial Catholic cult which provides the villains in The Da Vinci Code, have undertaken a campaign to set the record straight. So have American evangelicals. American Christians need not be confused by the fiction as Indian Christians feared would happen to their flocks.
And what a wise reaction this has been. Like most best-selling quick-read mediocre books that help people get through a long flight or a sleepless night, The Da Vinci Code is sinking below the literary horizon. It’s certainly not a popular topic of conversation any more, and soon it will be forgotten altogether.
Those Prophet-Insulting Danish Cartoons
The Muslims in many countries who rioted over the Danish cartoons produced perfect, almost confirmatory publicity for a controversial display of cartoons instantly considered to be ugly as well as humorless, eg, not worth of attention on any grounds. Was the cartoon project a principled celebration of free speech—or was it a despicable gesture of hostile bigotry? Or both? Whichever, hardly anyone outside of Denmark would have seen them or even heard of them, if the reaction in mosques and on the Muslim street had not been so intent on calling attention to them. But demands for censorship and for apologies from a government which had nothing to do with the cartoons, plus riots leading to deaths in several countries, absolutely guaranteed that other publications would reproduce at least some of the cartoons and that bloggers would spread them around the world.
Some Muslims indignantly claimed, in defense, that the West would never tolerant such insults to Christianity, which of course had already been demonstrated as untrue by the sophisticated reaction to The Da Vinci Code: freedom of expression means freedom of expression. The reaction to Iran’s cartoon contest set that claim totally to rest.
Back to Iran
Iran’s President Ahmedinajad threw a worldwide contest designed to accumulate a collection of holocaust-bashing cartoons. He thought he’d prove that Westerners are unable to countenance cartoons lampooning their own values, religion, sacred cows, that they are hypocrites when it comes to religious tolerance. There was plenty of publicity for the resulting exhibit. The cartoons were insulting in the extreme. The exhibit was indeed criticized for being the offensive event it was designed to be. But there was no violence. No one was killed. The Big Provocation was turned into a non-event. Go on line and check it out, if you want.
Principle and pragmatism
There are well-explicated, sober, principled arguments for not censoring obscene, blasphemous and/or unpatriotic expression. The point I’m making here, however, is that objectionable stuff doesn’t have to be censored. It’s usually so dreary, so mediocre, so uncreative, so awful in every way, that it sinks out of sight very quickly, in the process discrediting its creators as well.
Bad stuff disappears, that is, if those it offends don’t make a big deal about it, by rioting, threatening the author(s), calling for censorship. As soon as a reaction gets extreme, the offensive piece becomes a must read, must see item.
This pragmatic approach obviously does not come easily to Christians or Muslims. The suppression impulse is almost automatic, while tolerance is a hard learned lesson. However, the Zen Buddhists solve the problem differently, by not confusing the spirit with its incarnation or representative. “If you see the Buddha,” they say, “you must kill him.”