Just Above Sunset
February 5, 2006 - The Sacred and the Profane

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Obviously it is hard to write about "The Sacred and the Profane" (not the book) from Just Above Sunset in Hollywood, given local events like this - Lee Tamahori, the fellow from New Zealand who directed the James Bond movie "Die Another Day," was arrested on January 8th in a Hollywood prostitution sting while dressed in drag - but the news just hit the wires this week, as the charges came up in a criminal complaint filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court. (Reporters still scan those.) Tamahori approached an undercover policeman while wearing women's clothes and smiled broadly, as it were. The charges are agreeing to engage in an act of prostitution and unlawfully loitering on Hollywood's Santa Monica Boulevard.

What a world... and that's just down the hill, somewhere between the area the police used to call boy's town and the odd little theater district.

Of course, there are redeeming local stories of directors, as we see here - on January 26th, just up the hill, less that a mile from here, one of them did a good thing. That day, young Joaquin Phoenix, just after he got a best actor Oscar nomination for "Walk the Line" - in which he plays the late Johnny Cash, and even signs the songs himself - crashed his car on Lookout Mountain Road, just off Laurel Canyon. He says he lost his brakes, swerved to avoid another car, and well, his car went up the hillside and he ended up inside, a bit upside down. Oops.

Now Joaquin Phoenix is thirty-one, famous, rich and a big star - so you'd think he'd be able to afford a good car. Be that as it may, first on the scene, helping him from the car, was a local resident, Werner Herzog, the German director. The Los Angeles Times item quotes Joaquin Phoenix - "I remember this knocking on the passenger window. There was this German voice saying, 'Just relax.' I said to myself, 'That's Werner Herzog!' There's something so calming and beautiful about Werner Herzog's voice." Very odd. Herzog helped him out of the wreck and just faded away. The Times does not tell us if Herzog was in drag - but they do remind us Herzog just won Best Documentary down at the Directors Guild for his film "Grizzly Man." (The Directors Guild is a block away, and looks like this - and to the west is the Viper Room, Johnny Depp's club, where Joaquin's brother, River Phoenix, died of a drug overdose some years back - the chalk lines on the sidewalk are still there.)

This is a strange place, and far from the heartland, specifically far from Bennett, out in Colorado, where we get this - parents up in arms because of Gounod's "Faust."


It seems the new schoolmarm - actually an elementary school music teacher - showed the kids clips from a thirty-three-year-old PBS thing called "Who's Afraid of Opera" - specifically Dame Joan Sutherland and three puppet "friends" discussing Gounod's "Faust." Bad move - "Any adult with common sense would not think that video was appropriate for a young person to see. I'm not sure it's appropriate for a high school student." You see, Faust sells his soul to the devil, and as one parent says, "I think it glorifies Satan in some way."

So there. The new schoolmarm sent a letter of apology to all elementary school parents in Bennett. She tells the Denver Post - "I was definitely not sensitive to the conservative nature of the community, and I've learned that. However, from what has been said about me, that I'm a Satan worshipper, my character, I can't believe all of this. My intention was just to expose the kids to opera."

She's leaving town after the school year.

She might be comfortable out here - this community doesn't exactly have "a conservative nature," and has a pretty good opera company. But then again, out here we have this other German voice saying, "Just relax..." - and that'd be our governor, Arnold Shwarzenegger, not Werner Herzog.

So, just what should upset us, and what should we just let slide as not our business?

Well, what should upset us is cartoons. The Muslim world is up in arms at what the Danes published, and the Pentagon is outraged at what the Washington Post published. No one outside that tiny town in high plains of Colorado seems to be mad at the nineteenth-century French composer Charles Gounod, although much of his music is somewhere between pedestrian and silly. Everyone else is argry about cartoons.

Go figure.

Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, has been sending items on the Danish mess, as the French became involved. And it's a very odd story - provocative cartoons in the Danish and Norwegian papers depicting the Prophet Muhammad provoking rage in the Muslim world. What's up with that?

Well, Islamic law, based on clerics' interpretation of the Koran and the sayings of the prophet, forbids any depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, even positive ones, to prevent idolatry. We have this or that plaster Jesus, hyper-realistic with blood and all that (see Mel Gibson) or abstracted in some way, above the alter of every church. It's a reminder of Christ's suffering and all that, while these folks think such things are just plain wrong - it cheapens it all (see the plastic Jesus on the dashboard).

And too, Denmark, Holland and Netherlands are a hot spot, particularly after the murder of the Dutch documentary filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in 2004, and the subsequent trial and conviction with the defendant being quite blandly unrepentant - this particular Van Gogh insulted Islam and the Prophet, and he'd slit the guy's throat again gladly. There was much discussion of how we can get along with such people. (Full background here, and this Van Gogh, oddly enough, was a descendant of the brother of the famous painter.)

This controversy didn't just come out of the blue. Note here, the drawings were commissioned by the Jyllands-Posten (Jutland Post) to accompany an article on self-censorship and freedom - and a deliberate challenge to Muslim insistence that their religious feelings must be given special consideration. It seems Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen was unable failed to find any artists willing to illustrate his children's book about Mohammed - they all worried about violent attacks by extremist Muslims. Theo Van Gogh was on their minds. So the paper, on its own, commissioned some folks to do some drawings - forty artists were invited to give their interpretation on of how Mohammed may have looked. Twelve (brave, foolish, broke?) members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union responded. And the paper published the article and the commissioned drawings September 30th of last year. This may have been a bad move.

See this for a continually updated detailed account of the whole mess. The cartoons can been seen here - but they come down to this (if you have objections to clicking on the link and viewing them):


- The face of Muhammad as a part of the Islamic star and crescent symbol. His right eye the star, the crescent surrounds his beard and face.

- The most controversial drawing shows Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, with a lit fuse and the Islamic creed written on the bomb.

- Muhammad standing with a halo in the shape of a crescent moon.

- An abstract drawing of crescent moons and Stars of David, and a poem on oppression of women "Profet! Med kuk og knald i låget som holder kvinder under åget!". In English the poem could be read as: "Prophet! daft and dumb, keeping woman under thumb"

- Muhammad as a peaceful wanderer, in the desert, at sunset. There is a donkey in the background.

- One shows a nervous caricaturist, shakingly drawing Muhammad while looking over his shoulder.

- Two angry Muslims charge forward with sabres and bombs, while Muhammad addresses them with: "Rolig, venner, når alt kommer til alt er det jo bare en tegning lavet af en vantro sønderjyde" (loosely, "Relax guys, it's just a drawing made by some infidel South Jutlander". The reference is to a common Danish expression for a person from the middle of nowhere.)

- An Asian-looking boy in front of a blackboard, pointing to the Farsi chalkings, which translate into "the editorial team of Jyllands-Posten is a bunch of reactionary provocateurs". The boy is labelled "Mohammed, Valby school, 7.A", implying that this Muhammed is a second-generation immigrant to Denmark rather than the man Muslims believe was a prophet. On his shirt is written "Fremtiden" (the future). According to the editor of Jyllands Posten, he didn't know what was written on the blackboard before it was published.

- Another drawing shows an angry Muhammad with a short sabre and a black bar censoring his eyes. He is flanked by two women in niqaabs, having only their eyes visible.

- Muhammad standing on a cloud, greeting dead suicide bombers with "Stop Stop vi er løbet tør for Jomfruer!" ("Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins!"), an allusion to the promised reward to martyrs.

- Another shows Kåre Bluitgen, wearing a turban with the proverbial orange dropping into it, with the inscription "Publicity stunt". In his hand is a stick drawing of Muhammad. An "orange in the turban" is a Danish proverb meaning "a stroke of luck."


That's it.

See? That wasn't so bad. But it was bad enough.

The paper said this –


The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings.

It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule.

It is certainly not always equally attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is less important in this context. [...] we are on our way to a slippery slope where no one can tell how the self-censorship will end.


And it seems some folks across Europe agreed. As Ric reported from Paris, France Soir, published them, in a sort of free press solidarity move. The publisher fired the editor over that, but then the publisher is half-Egyptian, even if a good Catholic Frenchman. The always left Libération, founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, posted them as background information for a series of articles. It was the controversy of the week. Le Monde is here (in French), saying this is really about threatening those who want to discuss and debate the intersection of fundamentalism and politics, the clash between freedom and faith. (Has anyone ever mentioned the French love to debate big topics?)

In any event, Le Monde posted this cartoon, full of that trademark French ironic wit - the words say "I must not draw Muhammad."

Le Monde - "I must not draw Muhammad."

But then by the end of the week, this had good global, as Associated Press reports here - "a swell of protests across the Muslim world" Friday - Britain, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Palestinian areas - demonstrators demanding revenge against Denmark and death for those they accuse of "defaming Islam's holiest figure." In Sudan, some demonstrators urged al Qaeda to target Denmark. Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller called Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and said the Danish government "cannot accept an assault against Islam" - but that's according to Abbas' office. The Danes may not cave. And Abbas just lost that election to the Hamas folks and has to look good.

But in Palestinian you had your prayers for a boycott of Danish and European goods and for severing of diplomatic ties, with lots of burning the Danish flag and calling for vengeance - chants of "Bin Laden our beloved, Denmark must be blown up." So the foreign diplomats, aid workers and journalists began pulling out of Palestinian areas Thursday - kidnapping threats.

In Iraq demonstrators burned Danish journalists in effigy and set fire to boxes of Danish cheese. Mmmmm, toasted cheese... But get this - Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the publication of the drawings was a "horrific action" - but then his website referred to "misguided and oppressive" segments of the Muslim community whose actions "projected a distorted and dark image of the faith of justice, love and brotherhood." (We're not so bad?)

That might depend on your point of view. Go here for pictures of the demonstrations in London - the signs read "Butcher Those Who Mock Islam" and "Exterminate Those Who Mock Islam" and "Be Prepared for the Real Holocaust." So much for the faith of justice, love and brotherhood.

And Andrew Sullivan here points out the irony - "... these people have a right to say these things - the very right they are trying to deny others with the threat of violence." Yeah, well... they're angry.

Sullivan also says this –


European countries would be in a stronger position to defend press freedom if they practiced it more often. There's a bill in the British parliament right now to make offending people's religion a legal offense. Germany bans depictions of the swastika and makes Holocaust-denial a crime. One reason I love America is its First Amendment. I suspect it has something to do with the more moderate Muslim population in the United States, compared with Europe's. Once you start censoring people, you have to deal with the problem of double-standards. If you defend free speech in every case, you're on firmer ground.


But that's not the way it's going.

See this from Reuters - "Mona Omar Attia, Egypt's ambassador to Denmark, said after a meeting with Rasmussen that she was satisfied with the position of the Danish government but noted the prime minister had said he could not interfere with the press. 'This means the whole story will continue and that we are back to square one again. The government of Denmark has to do something to appease the Muslim world,' Attia said."

Egypt's ambassador to Denmark is saying the Danes just have to get their press under control. They should only write the right things, as defined by... the prophet?

Seems odd. The Danes are saying that's not how they see role of the press. The government doesn't tell the press what is proper to report. That's not how it's done.

Well, our government disagrees, as we see here


The United States backed Muslims on Friday against European newspapers that printed caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad in a move that could help America's battered image in the Islamic world.

Inserting itself into a dispute that has become a lightning rod for anti-European sentiment across the Muslim world, the United States sided with Muslims outraged that the publications put press freedom over respect for religion.

"These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims," State Department spokesman Kurtis Cooper said in answer to a question.

"We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable."


Okay then, you think you're reporting on an issue, and those you report on say that's not reporting on an issue at all - that's inciting hatred!

There's a problem here. Anyone who is subject to a press piece can use that dodge. You see it all the time played out on Fox News with O'Reilly and Hannity - the left suggests the president's war may have been a tactical and strategic blunder of the first order, for reasons X, Y and Z (with footnotes), and there may be some other alternatives, but then the left is told they are just seething with irrational hatred for George Bush and the probably hate America too, and they probably think al Qaeda should take over the world. Huh? The international issue right now is a page of cartoons, of all things. But like "the war on Christians and Christmas" asking that the giant Ten Commandments granite thing and the "Jesus Rules" stuff be removed from public courthouse, or saying Happy Holidays in December, what seems neutral or, in the case of the cartoons, analytical, becomes an attack on this religion or that. It's most curious.

One man's "incitement to hatred" in another man's discussion of pros and cons. Who gets to define which it is?

So US publications have not republished the cartoons. The European press has. (Note, the local Los Angeles Times -
"Our newsroom and op-ed page editors, independently of each other, determined that the caricatures could be deemed offensive to some readers and the there [sic] were effective ways to cover the controversy without running the images themselves.") 

And the governments? "The US response contrasted with European governments, which have tended to acknowledge the tension between free speech and respect for religion but have generally accepted the newspapers' rights to print the cartoons."

There's load of irony here that hardly needs explaining. The rest of the world doesn't understand what a "free press" is all about, and we do, because we self-censor out of fear and government pressure? It seems odd to be shown up by the Europeans on this First Amendment stuff. That used to be our pride and joy. Oh well. Times change.

The State Department says its reaction "was a strong statement in support of Muslims around the world. It's a reflection of the concern felt by millions of Muslims and I think it will be appreciated." So they hope. "It is support for an understanding that with freedom comes responsibility." (We'll keep our press in line because we're really scared of you guys.)

Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, is saying the United States was responsible for creating far more anger in the Muslim world because of its invasion of Iraq - "The United States is the last nation that should caution against unnecessarily inflaming sentiments in the Muslim world."

It's a mess.

More detail?

There's this


It's possible to regard the cartoon crisis as either a strategic disaster or boon for the War on Terror. The argument for it being a disaster is the assertion that in the war against extremists it is necessary to win over the moderates. And even if winning them over is impossible one may still be capable of keeping them neutral or indifferent; but at all events to avoid raising the Muslim masses in an emotional war against the West. The Danish cartoon crisis has managed to ignite what the Bush administration hoped to avoid from the beginning: turning the War on Terror into a War with Islam. Now an incident arising from a relatively obscure newspaper in Denmark has forced a choice between the most deeply held of all Western values, freedom of speech, with the cherished strategic goal of keeping the Muslim "street" aboard in the War on Terror.


And from Budapest, from Zsofia Szilagyi, political analyst and director of the Human Rights Film Foundation, Publishing Those Cartoons Was A Mistake


In our networked world, existing societal and political tensions can be inflamed instantly through the transfer of messages from one cultural context to another. Media messages, films and art works cannot be addressed to a specific cultural group - traditional borders of culture and nation no longer exist.

Whether we like it or not, now we all effectively live next door to one another. This raises the stakes in the century-old debate on how to strike a balance between individual and collective press freedom rights.

The central question in this debate is as simple as it is difficult. What is more important for the democratic advancement of a society - to ensure the freedom of expression of all its citizens (within the limits marked by law) or to protect the collective interests of society?


We're so interconnected now we have to watch what we say very, very, very carefully now?

Also see this, a collection of what Arab journalists are saying - "If Denmark has tried to teach Arabs and Muslims a lesson in respect for the country's constitution and its laws, I believe it did not succeed in choosing the right issue. The justification that one must respect the constitution that guarantees freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to denigrate others, was not appropriate - this is the trap that Denmark fell into."

There's no understanding of the editorial cartoon here - the freedom to denigrate others is what that's all about. It may be the genre.

Then there's this -

Tom Toles, Washington Post cartoon -

That, from Tom Toles, ran in the Washington Post on 29 January and then this


Military leaders angrily denounced as "beyond tasteless" a Washington Post editorial cartoon featuring a likeness of a severely wounded soldier and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as an attending doctor who says, "I'm listing your condition as 'battle hardened.'"

... It reflected the view of some that Bush administration officials do not recognize that U.S. forces are being worn out by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last month, in response to a Pentagon-commissioned report that said the Army was stretched so thin that it had become a "thin green line," Rumsfeld said the war-fighting experience had made U.S. troops "battle hardened" - stronger rather than weaker.

In a letter to the Post signed by Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., the vice chairman, as well as the chiefs of the four military services, they blasted the cartoon as "a callous depiction of those who have volunteered to defend this nation and as a result have suffered traumatic and life-altering wounds."

"We believe you owe the men and women and their families who so selflessly serve our country the decency to not make light of their tremendous physical sacrifices," they wrote, while adding that the newspaper is "free to address any topic, including the state of readiness of today's armed forces."


Tome wasn't playing nice. But guys, that's not his job.

Even Rumsfeld got it right –


He recalled that editorial cartoonists had made "vicious" attacks on President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II and had published "perfectly terrible" cartoons about President Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War.
"That's the way it is here," Rumsfeld said. "It comes with the territory, I guess is all I can say."


So lighten up. Rumsfeld himself famously said democracy can be messy.

Toles - "I certainly never intended it to be in any way a personal attack on, or a derogatory comment on, the service or sacrifice of American soldiers."

Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt - "While I certainly can understand the strong feelings, I took it to be a cartoon about the state of the Army and not one intended to demean wounded soldiers."

One man's "incitement to hatred" in another man's vivid discussion of pros and cons. Who gets to define which it is?

Tom Toles' editorial cartoons are here, with an archive. You decide if he should be reined in.

So we had the Cindy Sheehan t-shirt wars, and the war of the cartoons. Each may seem silly in some way, but somehow, people are touchy, and the issues are larger than the initial event.

And in the meantime, there was another memo - a two-hour pre-Iraq war meeting between President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair - two months before the war the two agree they'll invade no matter what the inspectors find or what the UN decides. You have to love the part where Bush considers painting some of our planes with UN markings and that nice robin's egg blue, and making sure Saddam's guys shoot them down, so the UN will want revenge and let us bomb the crap out of Baghdad.

And in the meantime, there was another poll - 53 percent of respondents to a new Gallup thing saying the Bush administration "deliberately misled the American public about whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction." Times change.

The editorial cartoonists are sharpening their pencils on these last two, unless they shouldn't.





Additional notes on the Cartoon War -


See this - the Muslim dissident Ibn Warraq argues enough is enough in Der Spiegel – and it's English, not German or Arabic.  The West must apologize to Islam for Dante, Bach, and Vermeer? For Galileo, penicillin, airplanes, computers? Olympic Games, women's rights and democracy? For freedom of speech?


From a friend in New York –


What I take as most vital from Warraq is his warning regarding our western "cultural correctness" mentality - exactly the lazy sleep state of disengagement that has allowed right wing subversion of powers in this country - the one and same that could let EU slip into a neocon power grab all its own - in the name of "right wing" Islam!


Hmmmm - those righteous right...  Everywhere you look they're gobbling while we veg on the couch!


Also see this from Beaumarchais' Marriage of Figaro, Act V, Scene 3 -


I cobble together a verse comedy about the customs of the harem, assuming that, as a Spanish writer, I can say what I like about Mohammed without drawing hostile fire. Next thing, some envoy from God knows where turns up and complains that in my play I have offended the Ottoman empire, Persia, a large slice of the Indian peninsula, the whole of Egypt, and the kingdoms of Barca, Tripoli, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. And so my play sinks without trace, all to placate a bunch of Muslim princes, not one of whom, as far as I know, can read but who beat the living daylights out of us and say we are 'Christian dogs.' Since they can't stop a man thinking, they take it out on his hide instead…


This has been going on a long time.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

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