South Park Versus the Mob

Posted by on April 26th, 2010 at 1:57 AM

In the recent censorship incident the producers of South Park are in the position of the district attorney when the Mafia starts killing witnesses.  All the appeals for courage and all the denunciations of the cowardice of the perpetrators will not change the fact that dead people can’t testify.  The Mafia is an appropriate comparison because the threats made against South Park are in some ways more akin to extortion than conventional terrorism.  A typical terrorist campaign attempts to achieve an absurdly ambitious goal with an absurdly miniscule amount of force.  For example, in 40 years of terrorism after 1967, Palestinian terrorists managed to kill something like 2100 Israelis.  No one is going to surrender their country to avoid this level of casualties.  A modern army can kill that many non-combatants in an afternoon by mistake.  The campaign against depictions of the prophet Muhammad on the other hand brings to bear an absurdly disproportionate amount of force to stop something most people in the West don’t have the inclination to do in the first place.  One of the basic rules of commercial entertainment is that regardless of how reverent you attempt to be, you can’t mention religion in any way without gravely offending someone.  Therefore, if the goal is to draw a big audience and make a lot of money, the safe course is to avoid the topic altogether.  Most of us, even before 9/11, while in principle believing we had the right to depict any religious figure in any way we wished, would in practice have been happy to indulge Muslims in this preference of theirs not to have the Prophet depicted, particularly since we’d normally never have any occasion to in the first place.  Even when we did have some sort of conflict with Muslims it was seldom if ever directed at the founder.  The Danish Jyllands-Posten, lulled into a false sense of security by a period of reason and good fellowship in Europe dating all the way back to 1945, published their suite of cartoons featuring Muhammad on the assumption that no one was crazy enough to sacrifice their lives and liberty or commit horrible crimes over a drawing.  The response of the fanatical end of Islam was, in effect, yes as a matter of fact we are crazy enough, and if that wasn’t sufficient please let us know and we’ll be crazier still.  The position this places the would-be blasphemer in is that you can visually depict Muhammad, but only if you’re willing to see blood shed over it.  Courage will allow you to express yourself, but it won’t prevent the violence.  The net result is that the fanatics get their way and the only cost is to brand millions of completely innocent Muslims as murderous barbarians.

Whereas the fomenters of the Jyllands-Posten backlash were analogous to Mafia extortionists, the website that spooked Viacom over the South Park episode were more akin to the two bit street punks who try to gull a few storekeepers into thinking they’re a full scale extortion ring.  The problem from Viacom’s point of view is that they couldn’t be sure whether the threat could be followed by violence or not.  Unlike the Mafia extortionist, who provides both the threat and the violence, the religious extortionist puts out a general call for violence and independent and unaffiliated fanatics carry it out.  Viacom figures they don’t know one way or the other whether the violence will follow the threat, and they don’t know but that the threat might lay dormant for weeks or months and then be carried out, and they’re not sufficiently invested in South Park‘s freedom of expression to find out.  It’s a perverse circumstance that Matt Stone and Trey Parker have managed to become conservative icons while producing the most sacrilegious show ever to air on television.  An interesting aspect of the libertarian ideology is that a libertarian is as likely to be an atheist as a radical leftist is likely to enjoy folk music.  While they are of the right, libertarians are not so much conservatives as radical free-thinkers.  South Park‘s rather nuanced view of religion is that while religion is a positive social force, all religious beliefs are false.  This is a nuance that won’t mollify a sincerely religious person the least little bit.  To a sincerely religious person whether a religion is true or not is the only thing that matters.  Viacom for its part has no particular stake in Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s desire to be sacrilegious; they just want the money.

The problem the West is having with the fanatical end of Islam is that they act as if they actually believe there’s a God.  What the West has learned is that even if you do sincerely believe in God, if you want any peace you can’t act that way.  After all, if you truly believed that those who follow the wrong religion will be subjected to eternal torment then you’re doing them no favors by allowing them to do so.  For instance, during the Cold War, if you believed as Jesus told you that death is an illusion, and the atheistic regimes of the Soviet bloc were depriving millions of even opportunity to save their souls from eternal damnation, then you would be honor bound to not only risk nuclear war but to engage in it.  After all, eternal bliss would compensate the just for any suffering they endured.  The Western idea of religious liberty imagines that a roulette wheel has been set in motion.  The roulette wheel doesn’t represent chance it represents uncertainty; there is a single predetermined outcome, but we don’t know what it is.  You can place your chips on any number you like.  What we agree is that while the wheel is in motion, we leave each other’s chips where they lay.  You can even bet on double zero, though there’s no payoff.  We can give each other tips on the best number to bet on, but really, in the best circles it’s considered uncouth.

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One Response to “South Park Versus the Mob”

  1. vns says:

    Maybe you could explain global warming or Rauschenberg’s art too? With due respect.