The easy charge is hypocrisy. In response to the Danish cartoon riots, the Boston Globe editorialized that "As with the current consensus against publishing racist or violence-inciting material, newspapers ought to refrain from publishing offensive caricatures of Mohammed in the name of the ultimate Enlightenment value: tolerance." The popular blogging law professor Eugene Volokh promptly went back through various prominent blasphemies against Christianity over the last few years and discovered¯what a surprise!¯that the Globe had somehow never managed to summon the least condemnation of the blasphemers in the name of that ultimate Enlightenment value, tolerance.
That’s not to say the Globe ¯which is really just a stand-in for an entire American mind-set¯didn’t feel the need for tolerance back when Andres Serrano was pissing on Christ and the Brooklyn Museum was touting the Virgin Mary done in feces. But it always ran in the other direction: Those offended must learn they live in an enlightened world where they are required to swallow their hurt in the name of tolerating those with whom they disagree.
As it happens, that’s not untrue, although it leaves unsettled the complicated linguistic role of blasphemy in a modern Western culture. The role of art is much diminished by the avant garde ‘s demand for more than a hundred years that art shock and offend. What’s left that’s still shocking? John Synge could cause riots in the streets of Dublin with The Playboy of the Western World . The Brooklyn Museum has to work like a demon to get anybody to notice, and then trumpet the notice as loudly as it can¯and still nobody picked up a cobblestone and flung it through the window. Here in New York, we used to do that in Astor Place just to express dislike of a British actor’s interpretation of Hamlet. There’s something pathetic about how far a poor artist has to go these days to get the blasé bourgeoisie even to notice that it’s being needled.
Now, one could ascribe the Boston Globe ‘s hypocrisy to cowardice, tied precisely to this point: It’s easy to denounce the people who protested against "Piss Christ" when nobody’s rioting in the streets over it or burning down Andres Serrano’s consulate in Beirut. Praising the publication of the Danish cartoons might have genuine consequences, and¯so this line might go¯the Globe simply isn’t brave enough to face that.
I’m not convinced that’s the explanation. Oh, there’s plenty of weaselly cowardice going around. "Abject" expresses the official reactions of most European governments, and the Danish newspaper that printed the cartoons has finally humbled itself in a statement for which the word "groveling" has been hanging around for centuries, waiting for something to describe. But the Globe surely doesn’t think of itself as cowardly for its editorial¯if for no other reason than that it wasn’t called to editorialize on the matter in the first place. It chose to enter this fray, and the editorial writers almost certainly believe they were acting as judicious and wise counselors about the manners needed for democratic exchange.
Political correctness is another possible explanation. There was a lot of that going around as well. "None of us are totally free of stereotypes about people of different races, different ethnic groups, and different religions," Bill Clinton announced . "There was this appalling example in northern Europe, in Denmark . . . these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam." Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department weighed in with a denunciation of the Danes. Despite the murder of a Catholic priest in Turkey, apparently because of these cartoons, the Vatican issued a statement in which obtuseness seemed caught in a death struggle with inanity¯and for much the same reason: It’s not nice to tease our backward brothers, or hold them to the same standards we might hold Danish newspaper editors.
This is infamous and offensive. But is it the motive of the American newspapers like the Boston Globe that editorialized against the cartoons? I think this may be an insufficient explanation. The key phrase is the Globe ‘s qualifier: "as with the current consensus against publishing racist or violence-inciting material." Tolerance for diverging viewpoints isn’t the reason the Globe refuses to publish racist material; if anything, such tolerance ought to require publishing the vile stuff. A newspaper doesn’t publish racist remarks because they’re wrong ¯and error has no rights. Oh, the erroneous holders of such errors may have some rights, but the error itself has no business in a newspaper.
So was the Boston Globe practicing hypocrisy when it editorialized against baiting Muslims in a way it has never editorialized about baiting Christians? Put that way, the answer is obviously yes. But the Globe ‘s writers see the whole thing instead as a matter of race. That’s their religion¯by which I mean the thing they treat as a blasphemy to deny¯and once it is cast in those terms, the Danish newspaper must be denounced. The Globe isn’t being hypocritical at all, for when has error about the deepest things we believe ever had rights?
Well, sometimes, in America. We could push this into an analysis of the Christian origins of the idea of tolerance, and we could point out the ways the categories of race fit poorly the definitions of Muslim and Christian. But it’s also interesting to note the reason the Boston Globe will never believe it has been hypocritical.