“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
—–Evelyn Beatrice Hall (describing Voltaire’s attitude toward freedom of speech.)
“We will defend to the death your right to say anything to get a laugh, unless you are threatened by religious zealots and terrorists, in which case we will fold like Bart Stupak in an origami competition.”
—–Ethics Alarms (describing Comedy Central’s attitude toward freedom of speech.)
Standing as an example of America’s ideals carries some responsibilities as well as benefits. News organizations operate with the Constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press, but they are sometimes called upon to protect that right when it is under attack. This requires integrity, sacrifice, acceptance of responsibility, and guts. Critics of popular leaders, government policies or wars have a duty to follow in the best tradition of Patrick Henry, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and Eugene V. Debs, and not clam up when threatened with imprisonment, censorship and violence.
Yet the cable channel Comedy Central, which has so smugly and “bravely” turned its rapier (or sophomoric ) wit on Presidents, celebrities, dictators, demagogues, popes, and evangelists, has chosen to ignore its duty and betray its nation’s ideals by censoring itself, through its program “South Park,” in response to a threat from Islamic extremists.
Last week, in response to the 200th episode of “South Park,” in which the Prophet Muhammad was depicted in a bear costume, a Muslim group issued a dire warning to show creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker that “they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show.” The post on RevolutionMuslim.com included a graphic photo of Van Gogh, who was murdered in 2004 by an Islamic militant in retribution for his film critical of Islam. There was also a link to a news article about where the two live, an implied threat that “we know how to find you.”
Yup, that’s scary, but it’s just too bad. Comedy Central can hire bodyguards, it can put Stone and Parker in a bunker, in can alert the F.B.I. What it can’t do, and maintain any legitimate respect, is allow threats to determine what the channel’s comics can lampoon and what they can’t. If Comedy Central doesn’t have the stomach, fortitude and courage to be an equal opportunity jester, then it should get out of the business, now. An intimidated comic is a worthless comic. This is a channel that made its reputation taking on the rich, famous and powerful; if it is vulnerable to threats of any kind, then its reputation is a joke…and not the funny kind.
And that, sadly, appears to be the situation. Last night “South Park” continued its edgy Muhammad storyline, but per orders of Comedy Central brass, the words “Prophet Muhammad” were repeatedly bleeped out. The character of Muhammad, meanwhile, became “he who must not be seen,” as he was covered by a large block labeled “censored.”
This is, in a word, disgraceful. Comedy Central, in its cowardice, is encouraging more threats, more capitulations, and more censorship enforced by thugs, bullies, and terrorists. The channel’s willingness to let threats control its Constitutionally protected speech echoes the similarly craven refusal of much of the American media to print or broadcast the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, which were also the subject of extremist threats. Maybe it’s worse: I’m not sure whether Jon Stewart mocked the news media at the time. He should have.
“Better Red than Dead,” the campus cynics chanted in the Sixties. Their message was that American values are only worth fighting for when you know nobody’s going to fight back very hard. Comedy Central was fond of accusing the Bush Administration and Dick Cheney of taking away our freedoms, but Stewart and his colleagues knew that they weren’t going to rounded up or hurt in any way, so they could afford to be “fearless”. Apparently it is only when our freedoms are really under attack that Comedy Central backs down.
Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, W.S. Gilbert, George Bernard Shaw, H.L. Mencken, Thomas Paine, Lenny Bruce and Molly Ivins are rolling in their graves, and not with laughter, either.