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Comedy Central, You ********!

I never thought I’d say this, but here goes: I miss the censorship battles of the 1970s.

That’s Muhammad holding the salmon helmet. On the left. See him? We don’t either.

Back in the days when CBS was cutting explosions from The Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Show, animators only had to worry that a bit of necessary violence would disappear from their finished ‘toon or be dropped from a storyboard. But say what you will about Peggy Charren, at least she never threatened to kill Chuck Jones. But the days are darker now, and although Charren and her crew have lost almost all of their clout, there’s a new pressure group on the block, and, as a clutch of Danish caricaturists have discovered, these guys mean business. And the media has taken notice.

The latest victims are Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators and producers of the hit cartoon South Park. Their most recent episode, “Cartoon Wars,” took up the controversy about whether TV and print media should surrender to threats by refusing to publish or broadcast images of Mohammed. The plot of the episode had the Fox network weighing whether to broadcast an episode of Family Guy that featured an innocuous image of the Prophet. The story concluded with Fox executives refusing to cut the offending gag, but (irony of ironies) Comedy Central had that very scene cut from South Park. In real life, apparently, network executives are less brave and principled than their fictional counterparts.

I’m not actually a big fan of South Park; too often, it seems to me, the show is offensive for the sake of being offensive. But Parker and Stone are genuine satirists, and with “Cartoon Wars” they have completely exposed the double standards employed by their network. For, only moments later, they inserted a lengthy scene showing Jesus (the central figure in another religion you might have heard of) defecating all over George W. Bush and an American flag.

Comedy Central has clammed up over the incident, giving reporters who’ve inquired a short, bland statement: “In light of recent world events, we feel we made the right decision.” But people at the network have privately told ABC News and other media outlets that the cuts were made “over concerns for public safety.” Translation: The network is afraid of Muslim nutcases, but not Christian nutcases.

Such an attitude is understandable—even justified. But the attitude does not justify such an abject surrender.

It can and has been argued that there is a difference between the right to give offense and the wisdom of actually doing so: just because Comedy Central has a First Amendment right to broadcast an image of Mohammed does not mean that it has to exercise that right. That’s true, but it misses a crucial point: the decision to not give offense should be an unconstrained choice made from a sense of tolerance and respect. When it is made out of fear—as Comedy Central has admitted is the case in this situation—it represents a surrender of the very right. After all, a government that censors media content backs its dictates with the threat of force, and media that operate under such a regime watch what they say or print out of fear of the consequences. An extralegal group that threatens violence against the same media is trying the same coercive tactic—and it is succeeding. And a media that exercises self-censorship out of fear rather than self-control is a media whose First Amendment rights have taken on a fictitious cast.

In the days following 9/11 we were told that we had to carry on as though nothing very terrible had happened. If we failed to go work, or failed to go to the mall, or otherwise failed to carry on a normal existence, then “the terrorists would have won.” There’s nothing very brave about going to work or going shopping, and carrying on normally was a very easy way of “fighting back.” But in the face of threats of violence, the American and international media—not just Comedy Central but also such august organs as The New York Times—have shown that they would rather see the terrorists win their point than defend their very birthright.

Maxie Zeus, a.k.a. Jay Allman, is Toon Zone’s former editor in chief.

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