Friday, February 03, 2006

The Copenhagen Interpretation

Blasphemy seems to be a hot topic this week whether it’s Danish newspaper cartoons or wearing t-shirts to the State of the Union Address.  A Danish paper printed a cartoon that purported to depict the prophet Mahomet with a turban made to look like a bomb.  It’s a well-known tenet of Islam that images of the prophet are strictly forbidden even when they are drawn to be flattering.  Moslems throughout Europe and beyond are demanding an apology for the Danish government which had nothing to do with the cartoon other than not to prohibit publication.  On the extreme, some are calling for Bin Laden to strike Copenhagen next, which has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the stereotype promoted by the cartoon itself.  

In the meantime, various western governments are struggling to make it clear that they do not approve of the cartoon or open acts of blasphemy, but still support the concept of a free press except when it comes to criticism of the war on terror itself.  Along with this, major American media outlets are self-censoring reproductions of the now newsworthy cartoon to assert their sensitivity. Naturally, this is precisely the kind of story that hits critical mass or more accurately critical mess quickly with the blogosphere.  On the American right, the running take is that this is yet more proof that Moslems are intolerant, irrational, and violent by nature.  Incredibly, the American right never quite recognizes that that’s exactly how much of the world sees Americans.

  Somehow, it’s okay to arrest people for wearing t-shirts with verbiage on it, but being upset by an act of what you consider blasphemy is to somehow not properly appreciate the concept of freedom of the press.  If you remember Mapplethorpe , Serrano, and the National Endowment for the arts, the right had a far simpler solution.  Don’t threaten to blow people up, just take away their money and use the story for political advantage.  I’ve seen a few suggestions that some Islamic states are using the cartoon to do exactly that.  

On the left, the reaction has been strangely muted as they wait for South Park or the Simpsons to take on the topic. They seem almost paralyzed by the pairing of free press, cultural sensitivity, and the ever elusive mantra of political correctness.  

I don’t have strong religious beliefs personally, so some of this is hard for me to relate to. One thing that has always put me off about monotheism is that it’s so obsessively possessive of its icons.  As a writer, I love symbols, but religions turn them into fetishes that I think if you asked a Martian, he/she/it might tell you just don’t seem healthy.  

The one way I can relate to this whole cartoon business, (and who the heck ever heard of Danish cartoons before this.  Up to now, Victor Borge was what passed for the Danish sense of humor) is my own memory of the role “fighting words” played in my growing up.  I’m Chinese-American and as a teenager I attended a New England boarding school where I was the only one of my kind there.  I look back and I wonder about the wisdom of locking two hundred teenaged boys together 24/7 and calling it “education”.  It’s almost like the founders of these schools had never read Lord of the Flies.  Anyway, teenage boys often like to experiment with fighting words.

I was there at an odd time in the development of “cultural awareness” in American in general, the early 1970’s.  At that point, most educated people understood that it was uncool to openly insult black people.  The black students at the school were sometimes criticized for hanging out together too much, but certainly no one would be dumb enough to call one of them the “N” word.  It helped that there were more than a few of them there and that many of my black schoolmates were good athletes or were assumed to be.  

I had a conversation with a perfectly well meaning white friend at the school one evening about the nature of being Chinese in America at a time when I still couldn’t articulate some of its complexities.  I tried to talk about how hard it was to be “different” and he responded by saying, “Well, I have a big nose, so I’m “different” too. Everyone’s different.”

It struck me as perfectly logical, but somehow ill-informed.
  For the most part, most of my classmates had no idea that the Chinese had ever been discriminated against as a group in the U.S.  After all, they had never been “slaves” and certainly as a group we did better economically than blacks or Hispanics.  I wound up making a speech at the school’s chapel service about some of the history.  The speech was very enthusiastically received, at least partly because it was politically correct to embrace these celebrations of difference at the time.  Still, one teacher did come up to me to compliment me on the speech and ask me if any legal discrimination still existed.  I said, “Basically, no.”

Not long after, one Saturday morning (we had school on Saturdays there) I was in the library with a younger student who had never much liked me.  He was from a family in its fourth generation there and its members were known for being very athletic but not terribly bright academically.  Traditionally, they all went to Princeton, something that still makes me chuckle when people talk about the evils of race-based affirmative action.  
I was on one end of the reading room looking at the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated, at the time one of the controversies was whether or not to put the then new swimsuit edition in the reading room as a matter of free press there or to make us check it out from the front desk.  He was looking at some magazine.  There was as third boy, also younger, in the room.

For some reason, the fellow who didn’t like me started calling me a “Chink” over and over.  These were, of course, fighting words.  In boy code, I think you weren’t supposed to let anyone get away with something like that.  I wasn’t sure at all what to do.  I wasn’t interested in fighting anyone, though still wonder if I should have.  I also for some reason didn’t want to go to the teachers to complain because that didn’t feel manly either.  Part of me was too flabbergasted to say anything at all.  I don’t think it was a good choice, but I did my best to ignore him and felt that it was important not to be driven out of the room.

The third boy very stalwartly asked the fellow why he was doing what he was doing.  The guy just kept on doing it.  This went on for probably less than five minutes.  At the end, I walked up to him and clenched my fist, then walked away.  I still feel the adrenalin and the never released anger of that moment whenever I flash on the incident.

Nothing much was ever said about what happened in there by any of the three of us for the two years after that.  I’ve never told anyone else the story.  For many years, I never much liked my boarding school experience and I imagine that incident played a role in that.  For whatever reason, I always felt apart from the rest of my school at least because it felt like things like that were just below the surface there just other similar folk were a bit too bright to be so “stupid” about it.

I don’t know if it was fear that kept me from reacting violently.  More significant, I don’t know why I didn’t say anything to the guy.  I do remember having this feeling between my shoulders and my fists that if I did start talking, I would start yelling very quickly, and I would have become much more physical.  I wasn’t sure that I would have been able to control myself and that played a role in my not initiating anything.  

One of the persistent mysteries for me is why the guy did what he did and whether or not he had any notion of what he was doing beyond trying to irritate me. Does he even remember the incident now?

I have no idea what happened to the other guy other than the fact that that was the generation of the family that stopped getting in to  Princeton.  Oddly, I’d even once been  to the guy’s house in Greenwich, though not exactly as a guest of the library boy.

Years later, in two entirely unrelated incidents there were two publicized incidents at my school.  In one, a young man came forward and filed a complaint that he’d been sexually molested there in a hazing ritual that he implied was somehow traditional.  Nothing like that ever happened to me, but the story got national press.  The school denied it and more or less got cleared.  The young man left the school, but the school went through the indignity of being investigated by the Department of Social Services.  The second incident was a Wall Street Journal article about how all prep school applicants to elite colleges weren’t created equal.  The poster child was an Asian student from a middle class New York family from my school who had much higher grades and scores than a couple classmates who came from influential families who got more acceptances at Ivy League Schools.

I felt vindicated by both stories in some odd way, yet the school administration and staff literally never had anything to do with what happened to me in the library.  I never even gave them a chance to respond.  Maybe it was because I didn’t trust them, but I imagine they would have done something though I remember having this fear that I would bring on some sort of weird retribution at the time by going to the “school about it”.  

I’ve told this story to myself many times since.  I can’t remember actually telling anyone else about it.  Possibly it’s because I still feel a sense of shame for not “fighting” and being manly or perhaps worse for not simply saying something.

I know from this memory that to have someone hurl “fighting words” at me with impunity or to seemingly make fun of doing so evokes the most violent inner fantasies.  When provoked, all that is rational, tolerant, and civilized about me evaporated inside me.  I wanted to threaten things.  I spent years in semi-irrational anger at the powers that let it happen even though I knew perfectly well that I never gave them the chance to do anything about it.  Part of me never let that five minute incident go.  One of the worst things was that I felt somehow socially powerless there.  I didn’t have a pack of “brothers” to back me up.  

The Danish cartoonist’s blasphemy may have been the product of ignorance.  It may have been the product of simply not caring.  I would never condone blowing up Copenhagen in retaliation for a cartoon nor would I even understand someone issuing a fatwah against the cartoonist himself.  But I can understand the level of anger for those who felt their religion has been blasphemed and laughed at.  

Some thirty years later, I still have this question about it.  Why is it so easy and even fun to provoke someone different yet why is it so hard to simply do the reverse.  In my four years at that school, there were any number of small kind gestures from others directed to me, particularly the third guy in the library who spoke up.  Somehow though, it’s the act of thoughtless cruelty that stays with you.  If we could find a way to make kindness Velcro to us and cruelty slip off like teflon, then I think we’d get somewhere as a species.  If someone found the way to do that and it happened to take the form of a religion, I might even invest my soul. At leat then, I would have some sense that the technology of the soul is finally edging ahead of our very advanced technology of mutual destruction.   

As an outsider though, I’d tell you that the monotheists, for the most part, pretty much  have made an art of making mutual cruelty far outlive whatever usefulness it might have to our species.  
Btw If you’re wondering what the Copenhagen Interpretation has to do with any of this, it was a turn of the century conclave of physicists who brought “mystery” back into scientific inquiry through quantum theory.  Maybe in 2006, this Copenhagen incident might help us better understand the mysteries of the way souls connect and disconnect a little better.  We’re put on the earth to do something more than to just provoke each other to violence.

One of the great mysteries in physics remains the question of what holds the nucleus of the atom together ( the so called weak atomic force) By all rights, matter shouldn't hold together at all.


At 2/04/2006 12:35:00 AM, Blogger benny06 said...

Thanks for sharing your story. As you know, I posted my thoughts on my blog about the incident. As someone who grew up in lower economic classes (sorta akin to JRE), I had prejudices because of my social-economic class. Religion did not play into it, and still doesn't today. But I can appreciate what it means for you as an Asian-American, and I am grateful for working and living in a diverse community, even in a town of 125,000. I have a Korean man on my staff, and he is happy that he can use his real name, and have a community that he can share his language with as well as his identity.

College towns can be great or miserable. I live in one that is great in diversity.

At 2/04/2006 09:54:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

One comment I couldn't post on my own blog, as I am not allowed to view it for some reason. I saw the movie Munich and I was very disappointed because I got bored.

At 2/05/2006 10:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gosh, this is a tough one. Freedom of speech is so important in the public arena because someone will be offended by everyanything, truly.

Yet racial slurs are so hurtful & grotesque.

I say the most satirically brutal things about Christianity because I feel like Christians who support war while pulling their forelocks to the Prince of Peace and of Tending the Poor are so hypocritical that I can't contrive things awful enough to say.

I think that blue-eyed/brown-eyed workshop is much more to the point where people can find out what it feels like to be arbitrarily labeled.

Being a fat person -- a category which folks sensitive on all other fronts seem to have no compunction about piling on, I figure, the teflon tactic is probably the answer until people one by one learn to be less hateful

I also think, however, that religions which are willing for whatever reason to kill or countenance killing people have lost their right to be holier than thou.

At 2/05/2006 11:25:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I may be the only person in America whose seen neither Brokeback or Munich, so won't have an opinion on either until they come out on DVD.

Mr. Pogblog,
I more or less agree with you about religions that kill people not deserving a whole lot of sympathy.
I was just trying to get at the whole business of purposely getting under someone's skin and then expecting that person to be nice about it. To be provoked, react, and then have someone say, see I told you they were "crazy and violent" doesn't feel quite fair to me.

At 2/06/2006 06:44:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

Decided to post one more on your site since you are a movie lover.

I saw "Good Night, and Good Luck". Wonderful presentation of Ed Murrow and wish we had someone like him to take on the establishment with grace, eloquent discourse. We have lost the language now, but wonderful then.

My only negative: I felt I was getting lung cancer from all of the cigarettes consumed.

At 2/09/2006 12:04:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Good Night and Good Luck is definitely on our will rent list. I don't know if the movie mentions Murrow's Harvest of Shame documentary, but even in Murrow's time the media was very sensitive to criticism of the status quo. Corporate controlled media is hardly a new phenomenon, it's just something that's gotten more obvious.


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