Thursday, February 16, 2006


Danish cartoons: not too funny, but definitely deadly

(This column will appear in the February 23, 2006, THE ALBANY JOURNAL)

People are dying in Pakistan because a Danish cartoonist drew a caricature of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper. Is that logical? Is it insane? And do Americans have any room to criticize when we have legislatures, school boards, and even Congress stirring up passions and wasting valuable time debating whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed in town halls, whether Bible should be taught in public schools, whether intelligent design is the academic co-equal of evolution, and whether we should declare that the American flag is a religious icon whose desecration would draw a prison sentence? (Note to the ignorant yahoos in Congress: an object can only be “desecrated” if it has first been “consecrated to a god or a deity.”)

The only advantage in the civilization sweepstakes that Americans have- so far at least- is that violent mobs haven’t stormed judicial buildings when courts ruled that their favorite religious icons couldn’t be displayed on public property or their prayers couldn’t be imposed on children of other faiths. So far at least we’ve managed to handle our religious disputes non-violently. Score one for the good ole U.S. of A.

Point two for us is that our most popular movie at the moment is a mediocre Steve Martin remake of The Pink Panther, the Inspector Clouseau Frenchified farce which has sight gags but no socially redeeming value whatsoever. Meanwhile, Turkey- our NATO ally Turkey!- has managed to produce The Valley of the Wolves-Iraq, a $10 million flick starring American actors Billy Zane (he played The Phantom about 10 years ago) and Gary Busey (one too many head injuries from motorcycle crashes, apparently). The topic of the movie? How American soldiers in Iraq machine gun small children and a Jewish doctor, played by Busey, harvests and sells their organs in Israel, the U.K., and in America.

Our country, which is in a race to the bottom when it comes to spectacularly bad taste (Jerry Springer, Fear Factor, and “reality shows” like “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé”) has been outstripped by this Turkish production, which is vile, bloody, defamatory, anti-Semitic, and wildly popular in Turkey, where it has set box office records.

Why would our only NATO ally in the region be so hot to see a movie that makes Americans out to be vicious killer scum? Turns out that Turks are highly offended by America at the moment due to the infamous bag incident. Haven’t heard of it? You’re not alone, because virtually no other Americans have, either. Here’s what Knight Ridder reported on it in a February 14, 2006, story:

“In that incident, U.S. troops arrested 11 Turkish special-forces officers in northern Iraq and walked them from their headquarters with bags over their heads. It was considered a bitter betrayal by a trusted ally. Turkish newspapers dubbed it the “Rambo Crisis.” Recent opinion polls rank it as the most humiliating moment in Turkish history.”

So here’s the deal. We have sunk so low that we are now hated by even our closest allies in the Middle East. A pretty sorry record for America, and even after the Bushies are long gone from D.C. and we are still digging out from under the enormous pile of debt which is their true legacy for America, we will be hated in every nation east of the English Channel.

In 2004 a Zogby poll surveyed six Arab nations and found that approval ratings of America ranged between a low of two per cent in Egypt (another ally on whom we have showered billions in aid) and a high of 20 per cent in Lebanon. Those holding a favorable view of the US in Saudi Arabia were four per cent, 11 per cent in Morocco, 14 per cent in the United Arab Emirates and 15 per cent in Jordan. That marked a relatively sharp decline compared to a similar poll taken in 2002, the year before we invaded Iraq.

In stark contrast to the stated views of our President and those who echo his talking points that the terrorists “hate our freedom and our values,” the same poll found that the only positive aspects of Arabs’ views of the U.S. were our freedom and our values. The most commonly noted positive attributes of the US (still only 24 per cent of the total responses in Lebanon and Egypt, 18 per cent in Jordan, 17 per cent in Morocco and just six per cent in Saudi Arabia) are "personal freedom", "opportunity" and American "entertainment" and "products." Just think how much lower we would have sunk if it weren’t for our blue jeans, rock music, and trashy movies.

So where do we go from here? My buddy Glenn (not a made up character like Lewis Grizzard, T. Gamble, and other famous Southern humorists have used as a literary sounding board) says that we Democrats can’t win an election just by pointing out where the Republicans have screwed up. Point well taken. But before we start doing something different, it might be smart to figure out what we have been doing wrong so that we don’t keep repeating our mistakes ad nauseam.

A good start might be to avoid coming across as big bullies who will get our way no matter what. Whether it’s attempting to manipulate oil prices, extracting trade concessions, or even pushing our democratic ideals on other countries, we need to remember our manners. Besides, installing democratic governments doesn’t necessarily mean that we have won the game. We can all agree that democracy and freedom are good things, but we might just take a moment to reflect that Iran has a democratically elected government, as do the Palestinians, and neither one of them is especially salutary in the areas of peace and human rights. We ought to acknowledge that democracies can be tyrannical, especially when the winners of the popular vote are infused with fanatical, exclusionary religious beliefs. Instead of being fixated on the issue of ballot boxes, we should, ever so politely, encourage expansions of freedoms for women and minorities in countries over which we have sway.

Secondly, starting a Moon Landing type ten year program for energy self-sufficiency would do more for our national security than any number of foreign military adventures. President Bush hit one correct note in his State of the Union, and that was our addiction to oil. It’s going to run out one day, and the sooner we prepare for that cold fact, the easier the transition to whatever comes next in the energy arena.

Thirdly, we need to recognize that America does have something important to offer the world, and it isn’t the arms or tobacco we are so happy to export to third world countries. It’s our educational system and our freedom. Instead of clamping down on immigration and visas, we should be encouraging the intelligentsia from every corner of the world to come here and study, and we should be encouraging some of them to stay and add to our heritage while others can go back home and, hopefully, emulate the best of what this country has to offer.


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