This just in: it really ticks people off when you mess with whatever they perceive as holy.
I’ve been reading about the demonstrations around the world against U.S. use of the Koran as an interrogation prop at Guantanamo. Newsweek published an article on May 9 charging that interrogators tried to psych out Muslim prisoners by flushing a copy of the Koran down the toilet. This report — received not so as a news flash but the last straw in a huge pile of such news—triggered worldwide protests and riots in which hundreds were injured and as many as twenty killed. Clerics threatened to declare holy war on the U.S. Vivid outrage is beamed into American homes nightly via the TV news.
It set me to remembering fifteen years ago, when Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association (and other rabid-right groups following its lead) raised zillions of dollars to save the nation from the depredations of one artist with a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
When Andres Serrano photographed a crucifix immersed in urine, his impulse in producing a series of works that juxtaposed religious symbols with bodily fluids was to assert a pervasive holiness, in line with Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 “Footnote to Howl”: “The bum’s as holy as the seraphim! the madman is holy as you my soul are holy!” But propagandists in possession of a disturbing image and an appetite for power don’t much care about artistic impulses. Before long, the campaign against irreverent and challenging art had blossomed into what Pat Buchanan termed a “culture war.” Its success in winning loyalty oaths and funding cuts at the NEA was trivial—like Serrano’s work, not the crux of the matter, just a convenient handle for a much larger campaign—in comparison with its role in feeding the censorious spirit that still takes huge bites out of our public cultural life.
Serrano’s intentions were innocent if controversial, and the principle at stake was freedom of expression. But the Christian right’s response to the work of a single artist serves to demonstrate the incendiary use to which religious symbols can be put. U.S. interrogators’ desecration of the Koran, on the other hand, while being federally funded, was not intended as a work of art, so freedom of expression isn’t the issue. They used the Koran and other religious signifiers in interrogations in the hope that their intense power could be wielded against believers. It didn’t require any spin for the story to produce shock; the shock was part of the intention. The news was received by Muslims around the world who had already seen the leashes, the hoods and chains and the hoses. They already knew how many Muslims had been “detained” and tortured by the U.S. When the news of the Koran’s desecration came, it came as confirmation.
On this past Monday, Newsweek retracted its story, saying it was based on a single source who had now “backed away” from it. Too bad they didn’t have the courage to say the White House made them do it. Wednesday’s Washington Post reported that similar charges have been made repeatedly since 2002 by former detainees and a chaplain at Guantanamo. But why should that count? The mainstream media have been as affected by the post-culture wars mood of deference to authority as the rest of us.
The thing that stands out most strongly was said by Michael Isikoff (famous for carrying the Monica Lewinsky story straight from Ken Starr, and more recently, for winning an award for his reporting on Abu Ghraib), one of the reporters who wrote the Newsweek article. He was quoted in Tuesday’s New York Times: “Neither Newsweek nor the Pentagon foresaw that a reference to the desecration of the Koran was going to create the kind of response that it did. The Pentagon saw the item before it ran, and they didn’t move us off it for 11 days afterward. They were as caught off guard by the furor as we were.” Ooops! I wonder if the Pentagon is planning an airlift of erratum slips to Muslim nations?
Talk about a failure of imaginative empathy! All Mr. Isikoff and his checkers at the Pentagon would have needed to anticipate this furor is to imagine what Donald Wildmon and his ilk would make of a news report that copies of the Christian bible were being desecrated to break down American prisoners abroad. Their level of cluelessness is pretty alarming, but less alarming to me than the easy expectation that if they hadn’t been clueless, the story would have been obligingly suppressed, business as usual.
In fact, the White House has responded by trying to tighten the leash. Wednesday’s New York Times reported that “Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said …that the magazine should decide for itself how to undo what he called the ‘serious consequences’ and ‘lasting damage’ from its reporting.” The paper also reported that “Republicans close to the White House said that although Mr. Bush and Vice President Cheney were genuinely angered by the Newsweek article, West Wing officials were also exploiting it in an effort to put a check on the press.” Forecasters see a chilling effect moving in fast.
When prize-winning investigative reporters are not only “caught off guard” by the fact that it really ticks people off when you mess with whatever they perceive as holy, but also speak so matter-of-factly about the extent to which the mainstream press is a mouthpiece for official policy, something is most definitely wrong.