America’s disappointing reaction to South Park censorship
America’s failure to rise up against the intimidation of cartoonist Molly Norris and South Park animators is a sad sign, says Alex Spillius.
(TELEGRAPH) The trouble with terror is that it can be terrifying. Just ask Molly Norris, a cartoonist from Seattle.
As far as we know, she hasn’t been explicitly threatened by Islamic extremists, but evidently she feared she might be.
Her error was to post on her website an illustration with many different household objects with speech bubbles all claiming to be the likeness of Mohammed, including a tea cup, a domino and a box of pasta. It was part of a mock campaign to dedicate May 20 as “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day!”
Ms Norris pinged her cartoon to a few bloggers and talked to local radio, saying she it was “a cartoonist’s job to be non-PC.”
Quite reasonably, the radio man asked her “are you sure you want to do this?”
Bold as you like, she replied: “Yeah, I want to water down the targets …”
Ms Norris had launched her pretend promotion in response to the treatment by Comedy Central of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, the satirical animated show.
Its 200th anniversary episode featured a parade of celebrities and religious figures it had parodied over the years. Aware of the offence that depicting Mohammed could cause to Muslims, the show’s characters debated how to represent the prophet, eventually deciding to hide him in a bear costume.
That prompted a New York-based website, RevolutionMuslim.com, to warn Parker and Stone that “what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh”.
Lest we forget, Van Gogh was the Dutch filmmaker murdered by a fanatic, his head almost severed, for a film depicting Koranic verses on the naked female form. The website also had information about where the animators lived.
“It’s not a threat, but it really is a likely outcome,” said Zachary Chesser, a resident of Virginia who wrote the posting. “They’re going to be basically on a list in the back of the minds of a large number of Muslims. It’s just the reality.”
On the next edition of South Park, the producers placed a big “Censored” over Mohammed and beeped the utterance of his name. For good measure the channel deleted an entire segment about censorship and refused to put the show on the internet.
Norris was therefore inspired to let her own genie out of the bottle. Within a few days there were 8,000 members of a Draw Mohammed Day! group on Facebook. A counter group, Ban Draw Mohammed Day, started up. Bloggers picked up the campaign.
Thoroughly overwhelmed by the response, and realising that the ideological battleground was no place for coffee-guzzling Seattleite, Ms Norris removed the cartoon and its “campaign”.
Revealing something of her reasons, her newest cartoon is a mock advertisement: “Try the New Diet of Fear! … All you have to do is tick off a few million Muslims and you’ll be too afraid to eat!”
No one should blame Norris for withdrawing from the fray, for this kind of case throws up lingering and insidious uncertainties. Any threat could blow over quickly or endure, Rushdie-style, for decades. The row over the cartoons depicting Mohammed in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten percolated for months before bubbling over into violent protests.
But what has been disappointing in the land that prides itself on free speech is the relatively meagre coverage given to the South Park-Norris affair. Even the new pro-drawing Facebook community now shows sign of losing heart.
Politicians and commentators here love to label objects of scorn as “un-American”. There is nothing more “un-American” than the denial of humorous free speech by the threat of violence, whether direct or indirect.
The American media has been more or less cowed into self-censorship by a jihadist group that has, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s Centre on Extremism, all of 12 members.
But, as we all know, the internet is a perfectly even playing field when it comes to incitement. Few major papers around the world have published those Danish cartoons. Who wants to look over their shoulder on the way home from work? Which editor wants a colleague maimed or killed thanks to a valiant editorial decision?
Let’s leave the last word to that other animated institution of American popular culture, The Simpsons. During the opening credits of last Sunday’s episode Bart Simpson scribbled on the blackboard: “South Park – We’d stand beside you if we weren’t so scared.”