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Archive for April, 2010

I do not purport to watch Comedy Central’s “South Park,” a cartoon show that constantly pushes the envelope and which, frankly, I thought had gone off the air long ago. I remember immature young boys going crazy over it when I was in high school and me thinking it was a childish show even then. One of the recurring characters is a piece of fecal matter, for goodness sake.

But last week, Comedy Central and the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, found themselves embroiled in controversy—a position they are not unfamiliar with. The dividing point? Whether or not to depict the Prophet Muhammad.

There is no consensus in Islam about how forbidden visual depictions of Muhammad are, but it is clear that such action is very upsetting to at least some subset of Muslims. The Koran does not explicitly forbid images of Muhammad, but some supplements (called hadith) have overtly prohibited Muslims from creating visual representations of any figure. The point arose centuries ago when people worshipped idols, and prohibiting pictorial representations of the prophets helped discourage this practice. Even Christianity went through periods of iconoclasm (during the 8th and 9th centuries) where only the cross could be portrayed in churches.

The writers at “South Park” found some humor, or at least satire, in this whole idea that they would not be able to depict Muhammad. So in the April 14 episode, the show’s characters agonize about how to bring the prophet to their fictional cartoon Colorado town. At first, he is confined to a U-Haul trailer and is heard speaking but is not shown. Then, he is let out of the trailer but is dressed in a bear costume.

It’s hard to judge how offended the average Muslim was by this, but a member of Revolution Muslim wrote on the group’s website that the episode was very insulting. He added, “We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid, and they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them.”

Theo van Gogh was killed by an Islamic militant in Amsterdam in 2004 after he made a film that discussed the abuse of Muslim women in some Islamic societies.

Of course, the more extreme event associated with visual representations of Muhammad occurred when a Danish newspaper printed editorial cartoons depicting the prophet on September 30, 2005. As protests erupted and the controversy flared, newspapers in more than 50 countries reprinted the cartoons as a nod to free speech, further stoking the fire. Police firing into crowds at protests resulted in more than 100 deaths, and protesters set fire to the Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran.

Keeping these events in mind, Comedy Central decided to play it safe with last week’s episode of “South Park.” Rather than allow the show to continue to portray Muhammad in disguise, the network blacked out all of his non-depicted depictions and bleeped over every single reference to him. They even removed a 35-second speech on fear and intimidation that did not even mention Muhammad.

Many people are calling the decision by Doug Herzog (president of MTV Networks Entertainment Group, which oversees Comedy Central) a gross overreaction and pandering to terrorists. Others, including John Stewart, are defending his action and insisting he did it to protect the network’s employees. What do you think? Herzog had censored the show back in 2006 from visually portraying Muhammad, but this time around, he went further by bleeping out auditory references and extracting a soapbox lesson. Did he go too far?

Seattle-based cartoonist Molly Norris thought so. In response to the Muslim Revolution’s threat to Parker and Stone, she created a drawing in solidarity with what “South Park” was trying to accomplish. Her cartoon shows everyday objects, such as a box of pasta and a domino, who all claim to be Muhammad, and she calls for May 20 to be “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Of course, when the backlash started, she reneged as quickly as she had acted. She wrote on her website, “I am NOT involved in “Everybody Draw Mohammd [sic] Day! … I made a cartoon that went viral and I am not going with it. Many other folks have used my cartoon to start sites, etc. Please go to them as I am a private person who draws stuff.”

She took the original cartoon down, but The Atlantic has no problem posting it. You can view it here.

So I guess what I’m interested to know is whether non-Muslims should have the responsibility to respect a Muslim rule (especially one whose very legitimacy is questioned by believers). Many nations, including this one, pride themselves on free speech. And when the forbidden depictions of Muhammad are not even negative, is this just silly? In early centuries, there were no cameras, televisions, or newspapers, and the prohibition might have made more sense. But today, visual media is probably the most widespread and express method of disseminating ideas. Perhaps Muslims could benefit from putting positive portrayals of Muhammad out there.

For example, one of my favorite movies is 2006’s Superman Returns. Of course, there are many analyses of the film and what it means, including that it is nothing more than a superhero tale. But one of the readings is that it is a Christ allegory, and when I watch it, I can see countless examples of how this fits. Superman is from another world but was raised by humans. His father sends him, his only son, to save them. And when Superman does save them by lifting the gigantic land mass into space, he falls back to Earth in the same position as Jesus on the crucifix.

Does this interpretation in any way discredit or insult Christ? I don’t think so. If anything, I would think of it as a positive portrayal that Christians would encourage. Do Muslims not wish for any visual image to be used even as a metaphor for Muhammad? Or if metaphors are okay, how is that so different from drawing the prophet disguised in a bear suit?

I will be honest, though. I can understand where the protesters of these depictions are coming from. If it is their firm belief that visually illustrating their prophet in any way is a direct insult and is prohibited by Islam, then why shouldn’t they be offended? People who believe no one should take the lord’s name in vain are often quick to share their displeasure. Granted, they do not threaten to behead anyone, but this subset of people is certainly firm in believing that others (even nonbelievers) should respect their religious ideas.

How do you feel about this whole thing? Should newspapers, bloggers, television shows, and other media cater to the Muslim prohibition on visual depictions of Muhammad? Who do you sympathize with—Parker and Stone or strict believers in their faith? Is this a battle between free speech and respect for religion, or is it something else?

I greatly appreciate anyone who wants to share an opinion!

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Brave Nuke World

On Monday and Tuesday, Washington, DC, hosted 47 countries for a nuclear summit with the goal of eliminating, or at least greatly reducing, the chance that terrorist organizations could obtain a nuclear weapon. At the end of the summit, President Obama can claim two major accomplishments: the meeting forced countries that had failed to clean up their nuclear surpluses to formulate detailed plans to deal with them, and it kicked into action nations that had failed to move on previous commitments. Not exactly a red banner day, but progress nonetheless.

But the real news on the topic this month is the release last Tuesday, April 6, of the Obama administration’s nuclear doctrine. For the first time, U.S. policy is rejecting nuclear force against non-nuclear nations. That is, if we are attacked by a country (by conventional means, biological weapons, or what have you) that does not have atomic weapons, we will not use them in response. This is a break from the Bush-era policy that did threaten nuclear retaliation in the event of a biological or chemical attack.

Obama’s policy, however, does come with a key condition. The promise will be upheld only for those countries that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran and North Korea, of course, have refused to sign it.

Congress requires each presidential administration to submit a Nuclear Posture Review, as the policy document is known, and Obama’s had been highly anticipated after he ran a campaign on reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the world and then won a Nobel Peace Prize in part for his idealist dream of a nuclear-free world.

The new policy has met with its detractors, of course. Sarah Palin likened it to a kid on the playground who says “punch me in the face and I’m not going to retaliate.” Except that it’s more like saying, “punch me in the face and I’m not going to fire bullets at your face, throat, heart, and stomach with a sawed-off shotgun from close range.” But thank you for your input, Mrs. Palin.

The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer, though, is also in total disagreement with the strategy:

The administration’s Nuclear Posture Review declares U.S. determination to “continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.” The ultimate aim is to get to a blanket doctrine of no first use.

This is deeply worrying to many small nations that for half a century relied on the extended U.S. nuclear umbrella to keep them from being attacked or overrun by far more powerful neighbors. When smaller allies see the United States determined to move inexorably away from that posture—and for them it’s not posture, but existential protection—what are they to think?

Fend for yourself. Get yourself your own WMDs. Go nuclear if you have to. Do you imagine they are not thinking that in the Persian Gulf?

This administration seems to believe that by restricting retaliatory threats and by downgrading our reliance on nuclear weapons, it is discouraging proliferation. (Full article here)

What do you think of Krauthammer’s position? Personally, I think it’s pretty bogus. It’s not as if the United States is ever going to completely eliminate its stock of atomic weapons, whatever pipe dreams Obama has. This country invented nukes, and we can’t take it back. And for all those smaller countries that depend on “the extended U.S. nuclear umbrella to keep them from being attacked,” I think they would prefer a world with fewer nuclear powers and less possibility that weapons-grade plutonium will fall into the wrong hands.

In September of last year, Newsweek’s Jonathan Tepperman made the argument that the world would be a safer place if all countries have nuclear weapons. In the article “Why Obama Should Learn to Love the Bomb,” Tepperman explains:

The argument that nuclear weapons can be agents of peace as well as destruction rests on two deceptively simple observations. First, nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945. Second, there’s never been a nuclear, or even a nonnuclear, war between two states that possess them. … Nuclear weapons [make] the costs of war obvious, inevitable, and unacceptable. Suddenly, when both sides have the ability to turn the other to ashes with the push of a button—and everybody knows it—the basic math shifts. Even the craziest tin-pot dictator is forced to accept that war with a nuclear state is unwinnable and thus not worth the effort. (Full article here)

I agree with Tepperman that the heads of governments are not likely to wage a nuclear war with another nuclear state or state that is closely allied with a nuclear power. But that’s not really the problem anymore. As this week’s nuclear summit stressed, the greater danger is weapons-grade plutonium and enriched uranium falling into the hands of terrorist organizations who aren’t afraid of retaliation (because, after all, you can’t strike back against an anonymous attacker). And besides, the culture of many of today’s most-feared terrorist groups is to strike at all costs, and as we’ve learned, you can’t hold suicide bombers responsible for their crime. Hyper-proliferation, especially in nations that are not as strict in protecting their nuclear materials, only increases the chances of a nuclear terrorist attack.

So with all this chatter about nuclear weapons, the sanctions against Iran for trying to build one, continued efforts to convince North Korea to give theirs up, the way South Africa was pressured into eliminating theirs… I constantly ask myself: who is the United States (or Russia, or France, or China) to tell another sovereign nation what level of defense they are allowed to pursue? Sure, there are a lot of countries out there that are unstable or that have vastly differing views than the United States (and that, don’t get me wrong, I don’t necessarily want to have nuclear capabilities), but under what philosophical argument is it fair to deny them the right to defend themselves against the biggest threat of all?

We use sanctions and embargos and international agreements to try to deter Iran and North Korea, but we seem perfectly fine with the fact that Israel has obtained nuclear weapons. (Hell, we most likely gave them to Israel, but that is another blog.) We didn’t exactly risk going to war when India obtained them, either. Developing nuclear capabilities is a way for smaller, less wealthy nations to get a seat at the table with the superpowers. It’s leverage, and if I were a citizen of one of those countries, I would probably want my country to be a nuclear power too. And my guess is that if you put yourself in their shoes, you would agree. It’s incredibly hypocritical of nuclear nations to use their power so broadly and then expect other nations not to want that same power. Give me a break.

I could go on, but I think enough issues have been raised for one blog. What are your thoughts? Do you agree with Krauthammer’s stance that the new U.S. policy of not attacking non-nuclear countries will only encourage proliferation? What do you think about Tepperman’s position that proliferation is good for peace? If you lived in a country like Brazil or Finland or Sudan, would you want your nation to have nuclear capabilities? Please, share any and all opinions!

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Raleigh, North Carolina, is a city I am very familiar with. It’s where I lived before I moved up to Washington, DC. It’s where my sister went to college and where she hopes to return soon to buy a house and settle in. It’s where many of my friends live and where I still visit.

About two weeks ago, the area made national news when Wake County’s school board decided to reverse its income-based school assignment plan. As protesters shouted in the background, the board voted 5 to 4 to develop attendance zones closer to where students live. Proponents insist the new policy will spare children long bus rides and will encourage more active communities, and opponents argue that the policy will effectively resegregate the schools.

For over a decade, Wake County (140,000 students) was the largest school district in America to consider family income in school assignment. After a 2007 Supreme Court decision struck down voluntary desegregation plans that rely too heavily on race as a factor for placing children in schools, many districts looked to Wake County as a guide for legally achieving diversity. The plan, adopted in 2000, set a goal for all schools to have no more than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (a proxy for poverty). By 2005-06, that goal was achieved in 85 of 116 elementary and middle schools.

But displeasure with the system had grown. To achieve that goal of diversifying schools by income level, some children from wealthy families were bused across town to schools in poorer areas, and vice versa. In the most extreme cases, students were taking an hour-long bus ride each way. Parents grew frustrated with the long commutes and taxpayers became upset by increased costs from busing (especially when gas was $4.00 a gallon). So last fall, the voters expressed their feelings at the polls by electing all Republican-backed candidates to the four open positions, changing the board’s makeup from 8 to 1 in favor of income-based assignment to 5 to 4 in favor of neighborhood-based schools. The superintendent, Adelphos John Burns, announced his resignation, saying he could not “in good conscience” continue to serve the school system.

As with almost anything, people can make a case for both sides. There are certainly positives to placing children in schools based on proximity to their homes. Advocates of neighborhood schools argue that they create a stronger sense of community because the teachers, parents, students, and neighbors live close together; that parents participate and volunteer more if they do not have to travel so far; that there is more neighborhood support for sports teams, academics, and other extracurricular activities such as theater groups; and of course that time that could be spent learning is not wasted sitting on a bus.

Advocates of income-based assignment argue that integrated schools create wider social experiences that can teach children to be more accepting and get along with more people, that it helps create balance and fairness among schools, and that it prepares young people for an integrated society.

All of those are great reasons for their particular argument, but what about the primary goal of schools—education? How do these policies stack up against that goal? Well, it probably depends on who you ask.

In a September 2005 New York Times article, Alan Finder describes the substantial strides black and Hispanic children were making in the school district:

In Wake County, only 40 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored at grade level on state tests a decade ago. Last spring [in 2005], 80 percent did. Hispanic students have made similar strides. Overall, 91 percent of students in those grades scored at grade level in the spring, up from 79 percent 10 years ago. (Full article here)

Finder says that officials and parents in Raleigh credit the improvements to the effort to integrate the schools economically, but in the very next paragraph, he explains:

School officials here have tried many tactics to improve student performance. Teachers get bonuses when their schools make significant progress in standardized tests, and the district uses sophisticated data gathering to identify, and respond to, students’ weaknesses.

So with several new tactics to improve the system, it’s tough to credit one method for the success. But as Mark Dorasin, an attorney at the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina, says:

Research has shown that it’s more difficult to attract high-quality teachers to schools with concentrated poverty, and that students tend to do better academically if a significant number of their classmates plan to attend college and have other supports common among middle- and upper-income families.

I can certainly see where an elementary school-aged kid could benefit from being in a more balanced school than in a school where nearly all the kids are from low-income families, where there is high teacher and administrator turnover, and where there is a culture of apathy towards education. Putting students in that environment is setting them up for failure. As the head of North Carolina’s NAACP, William Barber, said:

when children are packed into the most underfunded, most segregated, most high poverty schools, it is nothing but a form of institutionalized child abuse. (Full article here)

But is it fair to send a middle-income kid to a school that traditionally performs worse than their neighborhood school? Of course not. Raleigh tried to attract suburban students with magnet schools in more urban areas, but this still did not satisfy parents who would be more pleased if their children went to schools that were less diverse—composed primarily of middle-income students.

The thing is, in general, experts say schools have a bigger impact on low-income children than on middle-class kids, for whom family is a stronger educational influence. So putting poor students into a largely middle-class school will, more often than not, benefit them without hurting the rest. And in the end, maybe that is the best argument.

Of course, if our neighborhoods were already diverse, we would not be having this discussion. And that may be the most relevant point in this whole blog. We want our schools to reflect our communities, but if our neighborhoods remain segregated, what chance does the education system have?

What do you think? Is it fair to bus kids across town to achieve more equal and diverse schools? Is it fair to make students attend their neighborhood school? What are the alternatives? Do you have any direct experience with school busing? Do you agree with creating schools that are more equal?

As always, I love all of you who comment.

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