The Censorship of South Park and Our Culture's Courage
Since April 21st, 2010, fear-driven censorship has once again been on the march. It marches at the expense of free expression, artistic liberty, and our collective understanding of the fundamental truth that thought cannot, should not, and never will be governed or truly conquered by any force on this Earth.
I am obviously referring to what the internet and the entertainment media have been talking about to death since Thursday morning: the censorship of the prophet Muhammad on the raunchy, rude, and fearless animated comedy South Park on Comedy Central. I will not bore readers with the details that most of you likely already know. If you are new to the controversy over this incident and want to fully understand the events that led to it, the New York Times has reported on it excellently. In addition, an editorial by Toonzone News’ editor-in-chief addressed the censorship of Muhammad in the episode Cartoon Wars just over four years ago with reason and class, and it’s as relevant now as it was then. Finally, if you are one of the few that have not seen it, here is the official statement that South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have issued about Comedy Central’s censorship.
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.
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Lest we forget, of course, South Park has been harshly but peacefully condemnedfor “blasphemy” as well as its content by at least one group aligned with the Christian faith–the Catholic League–in the past. Whatever you happen to think of that or other disputes, it suffices to say that these past controversies amounted to peaceful wars of words and ultimately never resulted
in any special treatment.
Now for all of the opposition that is being offered against this incident right now, I have to honestly and sorrowfully say that I don’t think it’s at the level that it should be just yet.
The opposition is not angry enough and it has yet to fully address all of the aspects of the issue. Meanwhile, in my view the few that sympathize with the network’s decision are utterly lost at sea. In response, I will humbly take it on myself to directly state some truths that we should not overlook as individuals or as a society.
The first critical thing to understand may be the most obvious, but it should be said in plain English often and without apology. This censorship this is absolutely a surrender to Islamic fanaticism and the threat of violence. In short, it is a clear concession to terrorism. In the episode 200, the image of Muhammad was censored while the prophet himself was talked about. After that episode aired, a member of the radical fringe group Revolution Muslim spoke out and suggested that South Park’s creators were risking violence because of that episode’s content. When the episode 201 aired, even saying “Muhammad” or “prophet Muhammad” meant a censorship beep. As the New York Times reports, Comedy Central declined to comment about whether Revolution Muslim had any influence on its decision. Perhaps that’s because everyone understands that they don’t need to.
Another critical fact about this censorship is that it is unprecedented. It is new. Things were not always this way. In the 2001 episode Super Best Friends, Muhammad was parodied along with a slew of other significant religious figures as a member of a goofy superhero team. With the multi-part episode Cartoon Wars from 2006, the image of the prophet Muhammad was controversial and ultimately never shown on television. In 2010, for the episodes 200 and 201 Muhammad was allegedly hidden in a U-Haul truck and disguised by a bear suit (it was really Santa Claus), drawn as a generic stick figure, and completely covered by a black censorship bar. Even without an actual visual representation of Muhammad on the screen, the episode provoked extremist reactions and the comments of Revolution Muslim.
Related to this, the reality is that the censorship also quickly expanded after the airing of 201. At first, the reruns of 201 were canceled and not hosted on southparkstudios.com. By Thursday night, Super Best Friends was pulled not only from South Park Studios, but from legal online sources such as Amazon Marketplace, Netflix’s streaming service, and the iTunes store. That’s right folks, we are now reduced to the point where they refuse to directly sell you a cartoon that so much as depicts the prophet Muhammad. At the time of this writing, the only method left is probably to buy South Park season 5 on DVD. This is assuming, of course, that the fools won’t find a way to pull that off of the shelves in a completely unhinged scorched-Earth strategy.
However, let’s realize something else that is important. It was not only references to Muhammad that were targeted for censorship. We have also been told by Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone that the moral lesson offered near the end of 201 said nothing at all about Muhammad. It was about “intimidation and fear” and, we can assume, about how it’s important to not succumb to these things. Comedy Central censored the entire bloody thing with beeps. Not only did they give in over Muhammad, they also fruitlessly silenced rhetoric that would have damned them for it — rhetoric in a two part episode that, on the whole, pretty much did exactly that anyway. So here we have in fact been confronted with the reality of two types of cowardice: cowardice against violent threats and cowardice against, of all things, the strength of a simple argument. One inevitably has to wonder: will Comedy Central silence Cartoon Wars next since it also debates this issue of whether free expression should ever succumb to the threat of violence? Tell us, Comedy Central. Tell us, Viacom. Are you that cowardly and afraid? We all hope not.
All of this said, it is not enough to only condemn Comedy Central.
Comedy Central has made itself a significant part of the problem, but it did not start this problem and it is not the only sinner. It is essential to understand this, lest this issue be narrowly defined by skeptics and censorship apologists as only a simple skirmish over a popular cartoon show that isn’t worth a human life. This controversy is one fight in a bigger battle. Comedy Central does what it does because of the cultural climate that has tragically been created by the riots that occurred in response to published editorial cartoons which attacked Islamic extremism. These Danish cartoons were printed by the newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 and were then eventually reprinted in dozens of newspapers throughout the European continent during the following year. Many of these cartoons depicted Muhammad, most notably the cartoon that drew a bomb where a turban would be. Angry riots were waged in 2006; propaganda at the time would have you believe that they were 100% spontaneous. Even today, propaganda would have you believe that Islam universally bans any representation of Muhammad when in reality, the truth is more complicated. Different schools of Muslim theology have different views about this. Furthermore, the fanatics’ propaganda wants you to believe that violence is without any doubt Islam’s mandated response to blasphemy. That is not true.
Many of these riots were violent. Danish embassies in the Middle East were trashed, and people died because of some of the protests. Since then, the political cartoons have been considered taboo by many, and depictions of Muhammad have been opposed by respectable, well-educated, and influential people.
It’s true. Consider the fact that from the start, these cartoons have been talked about but not shown by major newspapers in the United States. If there are examples, they are sadly exceptions to the rule. This subject has also proven controversial in academia; you can just ask professor Jytte Klausen of Brandeis University. She wrote a scholarly and well-researched book called The Cartoons That Shook The World. Its purpose was to analyze the Danish cartoon controversy and the political fallout it caused. It was true scholarship; it was a work on the opposite extreme compared to the deliberately silly satire of South Park. It was intelligent, it was well-researched and footnoted, and it was created with absolutely no intent to insult the Muslim faith in any way whatsoever. Among other images, the book was going to include a picture of a newspaper page that displayed the cartoons.
This book was accepted for publication by Yale University Press. Then Yale’s administration made the call to remove that image from manuscript. Let me just repeat that: Yale censored an image of a newspaper that included the very cartoons that the book was created specifically to discuss, analyze, and talk about. This would have been bad enough on its own, but they went even further; all pictures related to Muhammad were removed from the book, including a 19th century painting by Gustave Dore that had never before provoked any protest or been the subject of any controversy.
How was this decision reached? Yale University Press appealed to the University for guidance. The University consulted many experts about the ramifications of publishing these images and whether they should do so. The alleged consensus was that there was a risk of provoking violence around the world that shouldn’t be taken. These experts included diplomats and counter-terrorism officials, according to Yale’s claim (it did not name all of those consulted). At least some stood up for liberty. Others made excuses, and they won. One such man was John Negroponte, who among other things was once the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and its first Director of National Intelligence. He publicly endorsed the censorship. Another was Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International and the host of Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN. He summed up the surrender position quite well: “As a journalist and public commentator, I believe deeply in the First Amendment and academic freedom. But in this instance Yale Press was confronted with a clear threat of violence and loss of life.” Let’s be crystal clear about this, dear reader: no threat had been issued in response to the upcoming book. At the time, Cary Nelson, the president of the American Association of University Professors, bitterly commented that, “We do not negotiate with terrorists. We just accede to their anticipated demands.”
By the way, the censored illustrations and brief discussions of their context have all since been printed in a short book called Muhammad: The “Banned” Images. The man responsible for this is Dr. Gary Hull, an honors professor at Duke University and a real-life American hero. He accomplished this and made the book available ASAP by side-stepping University publishers, producing the book via independent contractors and an imprint created specifically for this purpose, Voltaire Press. The book has been for sale since October 29th, 2009. Hey, guess what everyone. No mass uprisings. The world didn’t come to an end.
So much for the experts.
Academia is unmistakably a battleground in this fight. So is far too much of the Western mainstream media. So is film. Let’s remember the man that Revolution Muslim referred to, the politically incorrect Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. He was murdered by a terrorist for making Submission, a ten minute film that attacked the abuse of Muslim women. The film aired on TV in many European countries, but it was pulled from the International Film Festival Rotterdam. They didn’t want to endanger the other filmmakers. The
writer of Submission, feminist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, went into hiding to protect her life. She intends to make a sequel to Submission someday, lest the message be sent that violence works. Meanwhile, I have heard of no upcoming Hollywood film that is following suit. Hell, I’m waiting for a Western film that will follow the example of Persepolis.
There’s more. Writing for the New York Times today, Ross Douthat takes note of other past compromises such as “…the German opera house that that temporarily suspended performances of Mozart’s opera “Idomeneo” because it included a scene featuring Muhammad’s severed head,” as well as “Random House’s decision to cancel the publication of a novel about the prophet’s third wife.” This novel was The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones. Fortunately, it was ultimately published by Beaufort Books instead and people are free to judge its merits for themselves.
Who still wants to argue that this is just about some silly cartoon?
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To return to the issue of blame, I’ll take things even further. Some have said that Islamic extremism and Revolution Muslim are exclusively to blame. They must indeed be vigilantly and relentlessly opposed. However, just as the problem is not all about Comedy Central, our greatest challenge is not Revolution Muslim or Islamic radicals as a group. These individuals are crazy and intolerant today, they were crazy and intolerant yesterday, they were crazy and intolerant before I was born in 1982, and they’ll be crazy and intolerant tomorrow. The fanatics are not new, and truth is that the fanatic himself will never become extinct so long as human nature is as imperfect as human thought is free. The conclusion to draw from this reality is as logical as it is painful to understand. It is we that have changed. Consider where we stand now: there is a serious debate about whether it is acceptable to risk violence in exchange for a freedom that our fellows and our ancestors have willingly fought and died for.
Now some have come to the conclusion that, well, the censorship is really quite understandable because Comedy Central ought to protect itself and the people that work for it. This line of thought has been propped up by no less a prominent figure than Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show. Now yes, Islamic radicalism was justifiably eviscerated by Mr. Stewart on his show, and he does not approve of the censorship. More power to him. But Mr. Stewart also remarked that Comedy Central writes the checks. It’s their right to censor South Park, he says. I’ll freely admit that this is true. After all, the network has censored language for years. But how unfortunate that he and others are right in the process of side-stepping the real question: was this censorship the right thing to do?
We have to understand the context of the so-called warnings that were issued between the airing of 200 and 201. As has been reported, Revolution Muslim is a very small organization based out of New York City. It doesn’t have more than twelve people working in its office. At best, Revolution Muslim is a fringe group of extremist crackpots, not an Al Qaeda cell. According to the New York Times, even the FBI and the New York Police Department believe that there is nothing that law enforcement can do about the group right now. Of all things, this is the group that the apologists say that Comedy Central is justified in surrendering to?
But make no mistake: the censorship apologists can and should be treated seriously and respectfully. They can be confronted and defeated on their own terms. So let us assume for a moment that direct threats have been made against Comedy Central that we do not know about, or that there really was a small possibility that referencing the prophet Muhammad in 201 would have provoked a violent response.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am completely certain that most Comedy Central sympathizers don’t like that Muhammad was censored on South Park. Maybe Jon Stewart honestly doesn’t think he’s in a position to condemn his bosses even though he hosts the hottest television show on the network. I really doubt that Fareed Zakaria and John Negroponte want to believe that censorship is necessary. I am even willing to concede that the decision to censor Muhammad probably wasn’t an easy snap judgment. And yes, there is always that slim chance that tragedy will happen if you do not surrender to the threats of the fanatic. Yet ultimately, this point of view amounts to an attempt to rationalize what has happened.
You can’t do that.
You cannot advocate playing it safe while imagining that you stand for liberty and against the tyranny of fear without indulging in extreme self-delusion. This is following the path of least resistance. I’m personally no fan of Noam Chomsky, but he understood the principle of free speech when he said that “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like.” This is an excellent point, and not just because of the way it advocates tolerance. The greater message is that if you believe in certain principles, then you believe in them when it is hard to do so. With that in mind, I submit the following: if you believe in freedom of speech, then you believe in it when it is challenged.
Terrorism attempts to force or coerce change through intimidation and fear. It is not merely a challenge against a Government, nor is it someone else’s problem. Terrorism’s true target is culture and civilization. Its true target is the people. Its true target is us. Terrorism does not work when it threatens us. Terrorism does not work when it kills people. Terrorism works when it achieves change in response to its actions. The fanatic does not care if you submit to him while calling him a radical bastard. He cares about having his way.
I implore each and every one of you to seriously think about the reality of the world we live in. When do you think Islamic radicalism will dissipate to the point that it will be completely safe in your mind to reference Muhammad, let alone to think about and portray and discuss him in the same way that we do Jesus Christ? Is it ten years? Twenty years? Thirty years? Will it be when you’re a grandfather or a grandmother? For how long would you like to wait while fear-based censorship becomes progressively more ingrained and accepted in your culture? Who will decide when it’s safe enough, and how? At what point do our institutions and our media and our entertainment industry declare with a unified voice that is enough is enough?
Principles are not principles if you abandon them at the first sign of a reasonable excuse.
My plea is that you do not feel disappointed about this censorship. Do not feel sad. Do not satisfy yourself with the idea that season 14 of South Park will eventually be released on DVD completely uncensored, which it damn well better be. Above all, don’t feel passive or decide that this is the only way that things can be.
You should be mad. You should remember every attack of any variety against our way of life and etch them into your mind. Let them inspire not rage, but renewed determination. This is about you.
We must insist that Muhammad return to television and to the internet until Muhammad becomes an uncontroversial part of our public discourse. Because the human mind must be allowed to create and to think and to assert completely unencumbered by fear. Most importantly, do not keep your discontent quiet. Do not be content with complaining on Twitter, or on Facebook, or on your personal blog. Contact Comedy Central and its corporate parent Viacom directly, and let them know exactly how you feel. Be respectful but tough. Don’t spam them, wait for just a little while and see what happens. Then protest all over again if nothing has changed. The best possible response to censorship is to strongly and consistently say, “No.”
There’s more to it than even that. Go out of your way to see, show, and understand what the clueless executives and the foolish faction of intellectuals don’t want you to see. Watch for other threats of compromise and take a stand when they emerge. Do all of this with the knowledge that this cultural battle can be won. In the long run, we lose only if we forfeit the game. That’s true for a very simple reason.
There are more of us than there are of them.
Todd “GWOtaku” DuBois is a contributing writer for Toonzone.
References, Links of Interest & Further Reading
- The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and CNN’s report and security brief on the South Park controversy and the protests of Revolution Muslim.
- Ross Douthat for the New York Times: Not Even In South Park?
- Toonzone News: Muslim Group Posts Warning to “South Park” Creators; 201st Episode Censored
- Toonzone News: Law Enforcement, ADL, & CAIR on “South Park” Threat and Episode Censorship
- Toonzone’s 2006 anti-censorship editorial: Comedy Central, You ********! by Maxie Zeus, a.k.a. Jay Allman
- The Washington Times’ Editorial: Comedy Central Caves To Terrorism
- The Boston Globe’s Editorial: Don’t Censor South Park
- Official Anderson Cooper 360 video: Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaks out against the censorship of South Park
- Juan Cole: South Park Controversy and the Fallacies of Muslim Extremists
- Religionfacts.com: Islamic Figurative Art and Depictions of Muhammad
- Wikipedia’s article on Depictions of Muhammad
- The Guardian: No freak-out over South Park by Zahed Amanullah
- The American Muslim: South Park Cartoon and the Muslim Lunatic Fringe by Sheila Musaji
- The American Culture: “South Park,” Blasphemy and the Ghost of Theo Van Gogh
- CNN’s Todd Leopold on the South Park controversy
- The Daily Beast: Stand With South Park! by John Avlon
- The Reason Blog: Michael C. Moynihan endorses the proposed “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” on May 20th.
- American Thinker: Why did Yale censor the Danish cartoons? by Seth Corey, MD
- Muhammad: The Banned Images at Amazon.com
- The Cartoons That Shook The World by Jytte Klausen at Amazon.com
- Yale and the Danish cartoons – revisited by James F. Smith for the Boston Globe, featuring an interview with Jytte Klausen
- BBC News: What the Muhammad cartoons portray by Martin Asser
- The Statement of Principle supporting free expression in the book Muhammad: The “Banned” Images at The Volokh Conspiracy
- An image that portrays all 12 of the “Banned” Jyllands-Posten Danish cartoons
- Wikipedia’s list of newspapers that reprinted the Jyllands-Posten cartoons
How To Contact Viacom and Comedy Central
Viacom’s Mailing Address:
New York, New York 10036
Viacom’s Phone Number: (212) 258-6000
Viacom’s Feedback Form: http://www.viacom.com/contact/Pages/default.aspx
Comedy Central’s Feedback Form:http://www.comedycentral.com/help/questionsCC.jhtml
Comedy Central’s Email Address: email@example.com
Comedy Central’s Phone Number: (212) 767-8600
Comedy Central’s Fax Number: (212) 767-8592