Monday, April 26, 2010

Context is King

Ross Douthat:
In a way, the muzzling of “South Park” is no more disquieting than any other example of Western institutions’ cowering before the threat of Islamist violence. It’s no worse than the German opera house that temporarily suspended performances of Mozart’s opera “Idomeneo” because it included a scene featuring Muhammad’s severed head. Or Random House’s decision to cancel the publication of a novel about the prophet’s third wife. Or Yale University Press’s refusal to publish the controversial Danish cartoons ... in a book about the Danish cartoon crisis. Or the fact that various Western journalists, intellectuals and politicians — the list includes Oriana Fallaci in Italy, Michel Houellebecq in France, Mark Steyn in Canada and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands — have been hauled before courts and “human rights” tribunals, in supposedly liberal societies, for daring to give offense to Islam.

But there’s still a sense in which the “South Park” case is particularly illuminating. Not because it tells us anything new about the lines that writers and entertainers suddenly aren’t allowed to cross. But because it’s a reminder that Islam is just about the only place where we draw any lines at all.
Except that it's not at all the only place. Just in the last few days since the airing of the South Park episode we had an apology to Polish-Americans and a line crossed with regard to Jewish Americans (apology soon to follow, one hopes MORE: Here it is -- ed.). Here's a pretty good reason why the Vatican would be a bit miffed ... and surely there are enough insults to hurl at a murderous African dictator such that "Mahmmy" isn't necessary?

There are plenty of lines that society is asked not to cross that have little to do with Islam. Like all things in life, offense is largely about context. One of the reasons South Park is able to so brilliantly skewer topics that are verboten to polite discourse is that Parker and Stone are as skilled as they come at layering their gags with intricate contexts that allow them to say the normally unspeakable.

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