Needless to say, Voltaire is not in charge of Viacom. So if you’re interested in working as a part-time censor for Comedy Central, all you need is a violent temperament, a demented ideology and a poorly constructed Web site.
The popular animated show South Park — gloriously vulgar, sharply satirical and, one suspects, offensive to vast swaths of the viewing public — is, if nothing else, impressive in its evenhandedness.
Yet in this week’s episode, a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in a bear costume (don’t ask) was blocked with the word “censored” so the channel could avoid hurting the feelings of a few virtual New York City jihadists.
This homegrown radical group, called Revolution Muslim (no thanks), warned the show’s architects, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, that they would “probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh” because of the depiction in the episode.
Van Gogh, for those unaware, was a Dutch filmmaker who documented (along with feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali) the abuse of women in the Islamic world. Consequently, Ali now lives in hiding and Van Gogh was last seen dead in the middle of an Amsterdam street — a thoughtful dissertation on Islamic tolerance affixed to his chest with a knife. (If only the Dutch were less warlike, obviously, this never would have happened.)
Comedy Central initially banned South Park from showing any depictions of Muhammad in 2006, as Muslims consider a physical representation of the prophet blasphemous. There is an appropriate response to this: Watch something else.
Instead, the cable channel released a statement: “In light of recent world events, we feel we made the right decision.” The “recent world events” was a reference to the plight of 12 editorial cartoonists who were trying to steer clear of Van Gogh’s fate after they had drawn cartoons that offended Muslims.
So, are weak-willed executives really worried about assassination attempts here in the United States? What else could it be? Sensitivity?
South Park is the program that featured an image of Jesus Christ defecating on President George W. Bush and the U.S. flag. It’s the program that featured the Virgin Mary gushing blood while undergoing menstruation and Pope Benedict XVI inspecting her in a truly distasteful manner.
“That’s where we kind of agree with some of the people who’ve criticized our show,” Stone once admitted to ABC News, “because it really is open season on Jesus. We can do whatever we want to Jesus, and we have. We’ve had him say bad words. We’ve had him shoot a gun. We’ve had him kill people. We can do whatever we want. But Muhammad, we couldn’t just show a simple image.”
For those who bellyache about the impending Christian theocracy, it might behoove them to be a little more irritated at the thought of a television network censoring any depictions of a religious figure over some implicit threats.
There is nothing inherently wrong with self-censorship per se. If slighted groups have the ability to mobilize crowds of people and generate enough negative press and economic pressure to induce a show to rethink its content, hey, that’s the way it works.
We’re only talking about an animated show. But if those who bankroll satirists can be intimidated so easily, shouldn’t we all be troubled about the lesson that sends religious fanatics elsewhere? And what does it say about us?
South Park might be offensive, but I assure you there would be few things more unpleasant than watching a cable lineup dictated by the members of Revolution Muslim.