Sunday, November 25, 2007

You will coexist and you will like it

The original bumper sticker:

The Tom McMahon version:

It's not often I get asked by both sides of a controversy for comment. The Society of the Perpetually Aggrieved has weighed in and the indispensable Tom McMahon is guilty of... what?

The Interfaith Conference firmly believes that comparing Jews to Nazis, and suggesting that true Islam promotes terrorism, are irresponsible statements born out of ignorance that we find offensive and beneath the level of discourse needed in our nation. Though we support your right to say and post on websites whatever you like, even when offensive to some, we reserve the right to point out things we find offensive and to call upon our local media to act in a more responsible manner.

The Interfaith Conference's statement came in response to Charlie Sykes' reprinting of Tom McMahon's version of the "Coexist" bumper sticker and some of the remarks from Atomic Trousers, and it asked Sykes (and WTMJ-AM) to remove the post. Sykes declined.

Jim Rowen claims the design of the McMahon bumper sticker was to "redirect it against Muslims." Rowen misses the obvious point that the Muslims weren't the only religion left on the sticker, and either the other religions should find some reason to be offended or none of them. If we're not willing to accept that, then surely the ones who are most condescending and demeaning to the Muslim faith are those who claim to defend it, as they do not see the need to extend such special protection to the other religions on the sticker. Sorry Jim, but I'm going to have ask you to stop treating Islam like a bunch of babies. They deserve better.

Mike Mathias along with Charlie Sykes asked me to weigh in on this issue, and Anne Quimby Mathias* was the first to complain of swapping of the Star of David with a Swastika.

And yes, I’m assuming (and really, really, hoping) the substitution was unintentional, although how that escaped notice is beyond me. Really, the Star of David replaced with a swastika? Next time, run that one past just about anyone on the planet, ‘kay?

AQM* also complains about the comments, including one from Peter DiGuadio. Looking for offense in what DiGuadio writes is like looking for change for a five at Heartbreakers, and his comment was nothing new or even clever, “The Religion of Piece (of Arm, of Leg, of Torso)?” (I only mention Peter's remarks because I predicted them in my e-mail back to Mike Mathias*.)

After that the complaints go downhill. So there's really two separate issues, the remarks from Atomic Trousers regarding the original bumper sticker and the McMahon parody version of the bumper sticker.

Let's look at the remarks first.
If some of the followers of the religion represented by the crescent moon “c” on your cute little bumper sticker would stop hijacking planes and blowing up buildings, coexisting would be a little easier.

I fail to see how this could be controversial. The Atomic Trousers remarks are expressly mitigated with the phrase, "...some of the followers of the religion...," and does not impugn the entire faith or all (or even most) of its adherents. A better response than to ask the remarks be withdrawn would be to ask the Muslim community why so many of them are willing to become homicidal, even suicidal-homicidal, to expand their faith. It's an odd form of evangelism, but one consistent with the faith's origins. We need not wonder what Mohammed's reaction would be to a COEXIST bumper sticker, we have the historical record.

If I could suggest an alternative response for the Interfaith Conference et al, it would be the Christopher Hitchens response: a plague upon all the religious houses, and a listing of the transgressions of each. As a Catholic, I'm still deeply offended at Luther's act of Church door vandalism, and the Catholic church is still awaiting appropriate recompense plus interest. Just thought I would offer the start of the list.

We're about to enter a very interesting time in American politics. One religion, indigenous to the United States, is about to undergo an examination as if it were as alien to our experience as ritual cannibalism. If former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney wins the Iowa Republican Caucus as expected, Americans will get an intense refresher course in the history and practices of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Meanwhile Catholic voters are being challenged by the leadership of their faith to remember the Church's teachings regarding the intrinsic value of life when they enter the voting booth, a direct challenge to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Nobody would suggest discussion of those religions and their role in the public sphere are off limits, even immune to attack. Nor should they. The Interfaith Conference and company would do well to keep those examples in mind before they push Muslims into some condescending special political preserve.

Which brings us to the second part, the McMahon bumper sticker. The offense at the substitution of the swastika for the Star of David misses the point entirely. The point of adding the Communist Hammer & Sickle and the National Socialist Swastika was, in Tom McMahon's words, to "raise the bar," i.e. add elements to the sticker impossible for coexistence.

It should be impossible to argue that the religion removed from the sticker, Judaism, and a religion left on the sticker, Islam, should be simultaneously offended, yet that is the unusual position of the Interfaith Conference. Such intellectual contortions should be offensive to our sense of aesthetics, if nothing else, and left to circus sideshows. We might ask the Interfaith conference if they were offended by the substitution (and in their formulation, equation) of Communism for homosexuality, or if the remaining religions on the bumper sticker should also be offended by McMahon's work, and if that can be simultaneously justified.

I'm reminded of the controversy over the Seinfeld series episode, "The Puerto Rican Day," when Puerto Rican activists threatened to protest and boycott Jerry Seinfeld and NBC if the episode aired. When asked how they could find something offensive when they haven't seen the episode, the activists replied, "We assume that it's offensive."

The Interfaith Conference knows something is there in that bumper sticker, even if they can't describe it, so they'll grasp at anything possible no matter how contradictory. (After all, it's Charlie Sykes.)

But let's deal with the problematic substitution of the Star of David for the Swastika. Anne Quimby Mathias* wrote,

"And if the comments accompanying the posts are removed, we would be denied our opportunity to witness Sykes’ minions tell us how 'everybody else is doing it,' instead of conceding that maybe, just maybe, swapping the Star of David with a Swastika is deeply disturbing under any circumstances."

It's not, and definitely not in this circumstance. As both Charlie Sykes and Rick Esenberg pointed out, McMahon simply needed an "x". But in order to make the point that there are some things with which we cannot simply "coexist" McMahon needed to replace the relatively benign (the Star of David) with Evil (the Swastika). (If anything, McMahon's liberal critics should give him credit for substituting Communism for the symbol for homosexuality.) Instead of equating the two, having to substitute one for the other emphasized the difference between the two.

On a side note:
Both Dad29 and Tim Rock tackle the issue of the original bumper sticker and whether the sticker merited the attention in the first place.

Dad29: The syncretism expressed by the original "coexist" sticker is offensive to anyone who values that which is true.

It was also smug and condescending--as though those who speak out about the deficiencies of Islam are somehow bellicose, or impolite.

Tim Rock: I've seen the bumper sticker, too. I spent less time looking at the symbols (I had other things on my mind, like minding the road) and more thinking the thought expressed was kind of cool. I mean, who wants to be perpetually offended anyway?

Now truly, I could not infer any impolite references to dad's or other conservatives' thoughts regarding Islam. The message of the bumper sticker was simply one of hope that we (all of us) might find a better way to live together, and used a few symbols as examples because they matched the letters needed to spell out Coexist.

When I've seen the bumper sticker my thought was to roll my eyes and wonder at the dullard who thought the bumper sticker clever enough to put on the car. Bloggers Capper and Jim Rowen attempt to plumb the depths of the bumper sticker sentiment, but like Gertrude Stein describing Oakland, I would argue there's "no there, there." Willful ignorance of history and culture is not virtuous. Pretending the competing religions, philosophies and lifestyles are not in competition is the sign of a prolonged adolescence rather than a trained mind. Rather than have any impolite thoughts regarding any of the symbols or what they represent, or for that matter be offended by the sentimental commandment expressed, I would instead have pity for the driver for the poor education they received. They're owed a refund.

At least it's not as bad as that horrible "Imagine" song by John Lennon.

I also don't think the letter from the Interfaith Conference was that big of a deal. I expect WTMJ-AM gets letters daily demanding this or that personality gets pulled off the air, and that similar requests accompany any content posted on the internet by Journal Communications. Unless the letter was going to be acted upon by WTMJ-AM management, the letter could've gone into the circular file unnoticed. When is Charlie getting fired?

What would've been interesting is a poll of the members of the Interfaith Conference to see if they each supported the letter. By going public with the letter as WTMJ-AM did they probably missed that opportunity. The opportunity is still there for Tim Cuprisin.

*D'oh! Correction, it was Anne Quimby Mathias who wrote the blog posts at Pundit Nation, not Mike. The above post was corrected accordingly. -JW

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