Paper that won't publish Mohammed cartoons oddly okay with Pope portrait made of condoms

Becket Adams was all over this last night but searing hypocrisy is always worth blogging, even if it’s being blogged late.

The portrait’s a commentary on Pope Benedict’s refusal to endorse condom use in Africa despite the epidemic of HIV there. It’s not an expression of hate, the artist who made it insists. That’s great, but neither were the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Charb, the editor of Charlie Hebdo who was murdered in the January terror attack, wrote a book (published posthumously) that criticized France for scapegoating Muslims immigrants for the country’s problems. The cartoons were never designed to incite the French against Islam. On the contrary: In their own way, they were an attempt to integrate Muslims into French life. Nothing is beyond satire in a republic that cherishes free speech, Charb argued. The sooner Muslims learned to shrug at blasphemous images of Mohammed, the more some of the cultural tensions between them and the rest of the population would ease.

So the Pope portrait’s not about hate — and neither are the cartoons. Why would the Times run the former but not the latter, then? Adams e-mailed the paper to see what excuse they’d give, knowing that the plain truth for the distinction could never be uttered:

“There’s no simple, unwavering formula we can apply in situations like this. We really don’t want to gratuitously offend anyone’s deeply held beliefs. That said, it’s probably impossible to avoid ever offending anyone,” the Times’ associate managing editor for standards Phil Corbett told the Examiner Monday, defending the newspaper’s decision to publish Johnson’s handiwork…

The Times’ Corbett told the Examiner, “I don’t think these situations – the Milwaukee artwork and the various Muhammad caricatures – are really equivalent. For one thing, many people might disagree, but museum officials clearly consider this Johnson piece to be a significant artwork.”

“Also, there’s no indication that the primary intent of the portrait is to offend or blaspheme (the artist and the museum both say that it is not intended to offend people but to raise a social question about the fight against AIDS). And finally, the very different reactions bears this out,” he added. “Hundreds of thousands of people protested worldwide, for instance, after the Danish cartoons were published some years ago. While some people might genuinely dislike this Milwaukee work, there doesn’t seem to be any comparable level of outrage.”

The point about high art versus low art, the former suitable for a museum and the latter suitable for *spit* the funny pages, is meaningless. No one at the Times would dare suggest in any other context that cartoons require recognition by a museum to qualify as “significant artwork.” The Danish Mohammed cartoons and Hebdo Mohammed cartoons were vastly more significant than this standard Piss-Christ-esque goof on the Pope in terms of the global reaction they provoked, yet the Times blacked out both of them. Even in the best-case scenario here, where Corbett’s not transparently bullsh*tting, he’s telling you that whether artwork is worthy of publication in the New York Times turns not on its news value but on whether elite opinion deems it aesthetically meritorious. As for the distinction between intending to offend, as the Hebdo cartoons supposedly did, and raising a “social question,” as the Pope portrait supposedly did, those are two sides of the same coin. The Mohammed cartoons raise a question too — “should a society that purports to defend free speech make exceptions under threat of violence for blasphemy?” — and that question has lots more currency in the west right now than what a former Pope thinks about condoms. Besides, who gets to judge on whether an artist’s intent was to offend or not? If all it takes to get a Charlie Hebdo cartoon into the NYT is for the editors to lie and say, “No, really, we didn’t think it’d provoke anyone,” they might as well do it. It means nothing.

The point about “different reactions” is as close to the truth as he gets. Back in January, when the Times was taking heat for not printing the Hebdo cartoons despite having printed anti-semitic cartoons in the past, editor Dean Baquet rambled on about how the worst of the Mohammed cartoons were especially offensive because they featured Mohammed in sexually explicit acts. How would the average Muslim family in NYC feel seeing an image like that in the paper of record, he wondered. A Politico reporter responded to him that the average Jewish family in NYC probably wouldn’t feel jazzed to see an anti-semitic cartoon in the paper either, yet the Times would run that. To which Baquet said this:

“I would really do some reporting — I did — to make sure these parallels are similar for the two religions. You may find they are not. In fact they really are not.”

The Mohammed image is more offensive to the Muslim than the Nazi image is to the Jew. Why? Because of the “very different reactions” that Corbett referenced in responding to Becket Adams. He’s not willing to be fully candid about what those “reactions” entail — Corbett mentions only protests, not jihadis shooting up the Charlie Hebdo newsroom — but we’re getting closer to real candor from western media types as the double standard between offending Muslims and offending Christians gets starker. (Some papers are already admirably candid about it.) Why keep pretending when everyone but everyone recognizes that fear, not “religious sensitivity,” is driving this? Better to admit it and earn a few points with readers for being honest about your motives than to keep dancing around the issue. In fact, despite the glaring hypocrisy of running the Pope photo, I’m glad the NYT went that route instead of censoring the photo out of an impulse to be “evenhanded” in censoring blasphemy towards all religions just because they’re afraid to offend Islam. The more they’re wiling to defend blasphemy of non-Islamic faiths, the harder it’ll be for blasphemy to become a wider cultural norm and the more a new generation of editors might be willing to rethink the aversion to Islamic blasphemy.

Exit question: When asked why they didn’t take the Pope portrait down, the director of the museum where it’s displayed said, “If museums made their decisions on donor threats or negative responses to programming, we as a nation and free society would be far poorer than the loss of a future donation.” Why isn’t that same standard good enough for newspapers and cartoons about Mohammed?