Meet Your New Censors

They have won, and you have lost. On Wednesday, Comedy Central forced South Park to censor out one single, innocuous image of Mohammad. Because I think this is a much greater issue than just one TV show, I’m going to print Comedy Central’s entire response to an angry comment I sent that very night. Within the response, I will add my own comments.

Thank you for your correspondence regarding the “South Park” episodes entitled “Cartoon Wars.” We appreciate your concerns about censorship and the destructive influence of outside groups on the media, entertainment industry and particularly Comedy Central.


Stock “thanks for caring” response.

To reiterate, as satirists, we believe that it is our First Amendment right to poke fun at any and all people, groups, organizations and religions and we will continue to defend that right. Our goal is to make people laugh and perhaps, if we’re lucky, even make them think in the process.

This is also a stock response, but a leftover from angry Catholic viewers who were angry at another episode that offended some of them. As with the Scientology episode, “Trapped in the Closet,” Comedy Central pulled the episode from its re-runs. (The latter is one of South Park’s very best episodes, so don’t miss it if you’re a fan.)

Comedy Central’s belief in the First Amendment has not wavered, despite our decision not to air an image of Muhammad.

A small but important distinction is appropriate here. This censorship is not a matter of state action but private action, so it’s not a First Amendment issue. It’s much worse. Those who are deciding what our new standards are obey no constitution or other consistent body of law, unless you consider this, of course, to be a set of standards under which you’re willing to live.

Our decision was made not to mute the voices of Trey and Matt or because we value one religion over any other. This decision was based solely on concern for public safety in light of recent world events.

Bingo. And let me express some appreciation to Comedy Central for being willing to tell the truth: this is about the fear of violence, not the fear of giving offense. What this means is that our society presumes that Muslims, unlike other human beings, are not responsible for their own actions. Add gasoline to fire, add offensive images to Muslims. It matters not. There is a presumption of moral incapacity, and a presumption of governmental incapacity to maintain order.

With the power of freedom of speech and expression also comes the obligation to use that power in a responsible way. Much as we wish it weren’t the case, times have changed and, as witnessed by the intense and deadly reaction to the publication of the Danish cartoons, decisions cannot be made in a vacuum without considering what impact they may have on innocent individuals around the globe.

Do you hear? Times have changed. Non-Muslim Danes are no longer free to talk about Islam, even with other non-Muslim Danes. Non-Muslim Americans may no longer speak freely about Islam, even to other non-Muslim Americans. Comedy Central has thus subjected itself — and its viewers — to the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the Iranian Mullahs, the terrorists in their caves, and the mobs in the streets of Damascus and Ramallah. The suppression of free speech has gone global, and our greatest voices have offered up terms of surrender.

I did not choose the term “greatest voices” carelessly, as though I really believe that Comedy Central is one of them. I also refer to most of our newspapers and television media. Fox News even cut away from Michelle Malking when she held up one of the cartoons. There were a few who bravely defied the violent mobs, but they were notable exceptions. In the United States, only the Philadelphia Enquirer and the NY Sun printed them. The Daily Illni even fired its editor for printing them.

It was with this in mind we decided not to air the image of Muhammad, a decision similar to that made by virtually every single media outlet across the country earlier this year when they each determined that it was not prudent or in the interest of safety to reproduce the controversial Danish cartoons.

See what I mean?

Injuries occurred and lives were lost in the riots set off by the original publication of these cartoons. The American media made a decision then, as we did now, not to put the safety and well being of the public at risk, here or abroad.

“Injuries occurred.” “Lives were lost.” This is the use of passive voice to disguise and absolve from moral responsibility the fact that Muslim preachers incited others to burn and kill, and hundreds of thousands eagerly complied. Those were actions for which those who incite, kill, and burn are responsible morally, and ought in a sane society to be responsible legally.

They will not stop with Danish cartoons or South Park. They will find new targets.

As a viewer of “South Park,” you know that over the course of ten seasons and almost 150 episodes the series has addressed all types of sensitive, hot-button issues, religious and political, and has done so with Comedy Central’s full support in every instance, including this one.

Which makes this all the sadder. We all have different standards of what is decent and what is funny. I know, care deeply for, and respect many people who might never have made the decision to watch any of those episodes. That’s why movies, TV, and video games have ratings. That’s why “South Park” runs on cable, late at night. Now, perhaps the last bastion of defiance of political correctness has been prevented from displaying the kind of political satire that has at the core of our freedom since the Enlightenment.

“Cartoon Wars” contained a very important message, one that Trey and Matt felt strongly about, as did we at the network, which is why we gave them carte blanche in every facet but one: we would not broadcast a portrayal of Muhammad.

This not completely true, of course. As for whether images of Mohammad are as forbidden as advertised, I’ll simply direct you to The Big Hominid’s excellent post on the subject.

In that regard, did we censor the show? Yes, we did. But if you hold Comedy Central’s 15-year track record up against any other network out there, you’ll find that we afford our talent the most creative freedom and provide a nurturing atmosphere that challenges them to be bold and daring and places them in a position to constantly break barriers and push the envelope. The result has been some of the most provocative television ever produced.

Welcome to our new, “almost free” society: a little bit Enlightenment in imperfect harmony with a nihlistic, medieval death cult.

We would like nothing more than to be able to look back at this in a few years and think that perhaps we overreacted. Unfortunately, to have made a different decision and to look back and see that we completely underestimated the damage that resulted was a risk we were not willing to take.

I would respond with the hope that a few years hence, we will not look back and say to ourselves, “It began with this.”

Our pledge to you, our loyal viewers, is that Comedy Central will continue to produce and provide the best comedy available and we will continue to push it right to the edge, using and defending the First Amendment in the most responsible way we know how.

But those who incited the burning of embassies and the killing of priests the last time are in the incitement industry. Censoring this image will encourage them to feel their power and send them off in search of new targets: churches, priests, rabbis, missionaries, cartoonists, and journalists elsewhere. And yes, bloggers, too. A brave few will continue to speak with forthrightness, and to seek to provoke the intolerant. Our enemies will seek to make examples of an unlucky few. But a cowardly majority will simply draw a cordon sanitaire around the fatwas of freedom’s enemies.

And all of us will lose.
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