When was the last time Denmark did something to piss you off? What about Hamlet’s homeland really grinds your gears? Personally, Sweyn Forkbeard’s invasion of England in the eleventh century pains me still, as if it happened yesterday. He and his goddamn son, Cnut the Great, they had no right. But, with the birth of Brahe and Kierkegaard, not to mention the inventions of the Danish and of Cophenhagen chew, the Danes have since made amends.
So I’m totally cool with Denmark. After Florida, it’s probably my favorite peninsula. Did you know that if you include Greenland, a Danish territory, Denmark is one of the largest countries in the world? Remarkable.
Let’s face it, though. Denmark hasn’t been newsworthy since Cnut cracked some Saxon heads nine-hundred years ago. That is, until now. Tune into CNN: all across the Muslim world, thousands of men, photogenic in their anger, are jumping up and down, burning flags, vandalizing embassies and torching effigies. And get this—those flags and embassies aren’t American, and the effigies are not of Dubya. They’re Danish.
In the unlikely event that you don’t subscribe to the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, here is a one sentence summary of this tragicomic news story: To prove that the Danish media does not avoid touchy issues like Islamic terrorism, Jyllands Posten published a few cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed , one of which showed Muhammed wearing a bomb for a turban, another showing him turning away suicide bombers from the gates of heaven, saying “We ran out of Virgins.”; the aforementioned anti-Danish rioting was the result.
Much ink has been spilled on this issue du jour. The media has dusted off the Salman Rushdie file and begun to ask those familiar, tired questions: To what extent should we self-censor? How freely can we speak before we abuse freedom of speech? Why do they hate us?
If I may, I’ll leave this pensive brooding to Maureen Dowd and the Princeton Progressive Nation. What strikes me about the story is how incredibly and obviously absurd it is. I mean, what the hell is going on?
The images of protesters speak for themselves: In one clip on CNN, I saw a man gleefully burning a homemade Danish flag. He made his own flag just so he could burn it. Consider the sequence of events that led to this man burning said flag. He first went to a library or internet café to find out what the hell the Danish flag looks like. Next, he acquired a white bed sheet. Then, he bought some red paint and painted his bed sheet. He tied the bed sheet to a pole and hung the flag to dry. Lastly, he danced about with friends, shouted “Death to Great Satan” (or “Death to the Supplier of Great Satan’s Breakfast Pastries and Smokeless Tobacco”) and set the flag on fire. I guess, conservatively, that the whole process took at least two hours from conception to completion. Two hours to create and then destroy some shoddy rag representing a tiny country in a land far away for a reason that is beyond trivial. Seriously, buddy—get a job.
Making a flag, however, is child’s play compared to sculpting an effigy of the Danish prime minister. That’s not just time-consuming, it’s also expensive. The effigist had to buy an entire outfit for his effigy to wear. A snazzy outfit, too, if the effigy were to capture the stately handsomeness of Prime Minister…um, excuse me while I Google his name…Anders Fogh Rasmussen. A suit, a shirt, a tie, a pair of wing-tips – stuff it all with straw, douse it with gasoline and set it alight—that’s easily $100 up in smoke.
All this I saw in about 30 seconds of CNN footage. There was no shortage of hilarious protesting antics. (I’m pretty sure I saw someone, flaming flag in hand, burn himself.) Still, I could only laugh for so long. A few days after the protests erupted, people started dying, and the crisis crossed the line from farce to tragedy. Again, I ask, what the hell is going on? All this over a little blashphemy?
The post-Christian West doesn’t understand what all this hullabaloo is about. Because blasphemy abounds in the U.S. and Europe—it’s golden material for comedy and art—and it largely passes without comment. One memorable example of blasphemous art is Andres Serrano’s 1989 work, Piss Christ. It’s a photograph depicting a cheap, plastic model of a crucified Jesus. What’s offensive about that? Oh right, the crucifix and savior are suspended in a jar of the artist’s urine. I don’t even know how many commandments that violates. More recently, the professional blasphemers of South Park produced an episode which pitted Jesus Christ against David Blaine in a magician’s dual. For the Son of God’s best trick, He asks the audience to look away, and then empties a basket of fish onto a table. Quelle miracle. David Blaine wins.
How did the West react to the blasphemy of Serrano and South Park? With the exception of a few nutters like Pat Robertson and Ann Coulter, Christians didn’t really care. Well, that’s not quite true. Plenty of values groups (Families for This, Families for That, Families for Moral Tyranny) wrote angry letters to the editor and appeared on 700 Club and vowed to withhold the one ten-billionth of a cent of their taxes which is allocated to stipends for artists like Serrano.
If you’re of the opinion that any action of Pat Robertson’s is by definition an overreaction, then you probably are not a fan of those righteously indignant critics. But none of them called for the beheading of Serrano or the stoning of Trey Parker. Christians in Brazil and Ghana and Taiwan and Canada didn’t boycott American cultural products. I’m sure a few American embassies burned, but what else is new? The point is, devout Christians are mostly unbothered by the blasphemy of the unfaithful.
Perhaps I’m just preaching to the choir. “Well spotted, Dave,” the reader might say. “Threatening poor little Denmark—expelling its ambassadors, burning its flags and embassies—just because the Danish free press criticized militant Islam is indeed a very bad thing.” It is a bad thing, simple as that. However, the utter simplicity of this issue is lost on many world leaders. What, say, Kofi Annan ought to have said in response to the “protests” which called for the Danish government to shut down the offending paper is this: “Sure, it’s disrespectful to demean Muhammad. But that doesn’t mean it’s illegal. The Danish government has a) no obligation to submit to foreign pressure and suppress freedom of speech at home, and b) no right in the first place either to accept responsibility for the actions of an independent Danish newspaper or to tell that paper what it may not publish.” Here’s part of what Kofi actually said: “[Freedom of speech] should always be exercised in a way that fully respects the religious beliefs and tenets of all religions.” Pathetic effort, Kofi. It’s not just him—every world leader, Dubya included, feels he has to “condemn” the cartoons before “denouncing” the violent protests. The cartoon crisis has thus proven to be one of those unfortunate issues which plain-speaking polemicists (like Ann Coulter) understand better than worldly politicians and sophisticated pundits.
On Friday in Turin, the tiny Danish delegation entered the Olympic stadium, accompanied by armed guards. The flag-bearer waved the first Danish flag I’ve seen in weeks that wasn’t on fire. The Italian crowd cheered the Danes loudly. At least someone gets it.