Deborah Howell, the ombudsman at the Washington Post, bestirred herself to explain why the Washington post pulled the two Berkeley Breathed comic strips that had Steve Dallas grappling with girlfriend Lola Granola’s decision to convert to Islam. On first read, Howell’s explanation sounded logical, but the more I read, the more I was troubled by what was done and what wasn’t done with regard to this cartoon, as well as with the peculiar explanations she gave for some of the paper’s decisions. I’ve copied Howell’s article, below, along with my comments and questions in red.
Readers were confused and angry that “Opus” comic strips with a Muslim theme did not appear in the Aug. 26 and Sept. 2 Sunday print editions. The strips, created by Berkeley Breathed, were distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group and published on washingtonpost.com.
Most of the controversy involved the Aug. 26 strip, which showed regular character and spiritual seeker Lola Granola in her version of a burqa, declaring she has become a “radical Islamist. Hot new fad on the planet.” Her boyfriend, the piggish super-patriot Steve Dallas, is horrified. She tells him he “won’t be getting a girlfriend obsessed with Western crud” or one “who resists a man’s rightful place.” Steve, with a leer and then a concerned look, asks: “Anything else I won’t be getting?” Lola answers: “God willing.”
Executive Editor Len Downie decided to kill the strip because he felt the language and depiction of Muslim female dress could be offensive. He consulted with other editors, one of whom talked to a Muslim staff member, who believed the strip was problematic.
Comics have long featured social commentary; think back to “Pogo” and “Li’l Abner.” And comics have been killed before in The Post. “The Boondocks,” a black-oriented strip no longer being drawn, was dropped several times. Editors killed episodes of the old comic strip “B.C.” that they found anti-Semitic, Downie said. “We keep things out of the paper every day that we think are inappropriate.”
So far, so good. It gets interesting after this, though.
Many of the 100 or so readers who complained accused The Post of being afraid of Muslims and said that it was unfair to “censor” an “Opus” strip on Muslims when a crack had been made in an earlier strip about the late Jerry Falwell, a conservative Christian leader. Falwell, however, was a public figure and fair game. Amy Lago, comics editor for the Writers Group, said at least 12 strips since “Opus” started in 2003 have dealt “in one form or another with religion, especially of the conservative flavor.” None were killed. Regarding Falwell being a public figure and fair game, that’s true. There’s even a US Supreme Court decision to say so. But what’s left unsaid here is that Breathed was not going after a private figure, some ordinary Joe Shmo, which would not be fair game. Instead, he was going after a way of thinking and an approach to living, which is a public concept and which is not protected by any privacy doctrine.
Downie said he would have killed a Sept. 5 “The Piranha Club” strip had it been brought to his attention because he felt it contained a stereotype about Jews. In the strip, a minister wonders whether putting slot machines in the church vestibule was “the Christian thing to do.” After hearing footsteps, another character says: “It’s another busload of Jewish ladies from New York.” The point of the strip, however, was to make fun of the Christian minister. Well, it’s not entirely clear to me that the strip did make fun of the Christian minister, since it could simply have said that there was a busload of retirees from New York. The Jewish point was gratituous. But the interesting question is why Downie hadn’t even noticed the strip? Keep in mind that, with the Breathed strip, Downie was so concerned about it, he took a poll amongst people in his newsroom, with special attention paid to the opinions of his Muslim staffer. Why was his radar up for one and not for the other one? A recent “Mother Goose and Grimm” comic drew a few complaints from Jewish readers. It showed a vampire couple wondering why they get so many invitations to bat mitzvahs. This one is even more disturbing, because it ties in with the old Blood Libel concept. The fact that this strip went by unnoticed, while the Muslim slip got Downie worried enough to poll is stuff highlights a media that is unable to distinguish between a strip that alludes to an utterly false libel that is used to rouse aggression against a group (such as the blood libel against Jews), versus a strip that rather mildly pokes fun at an ideology’s own widely touted values (such as modesty and the supremacy of men).
The Sept. 2 “Opus” strip featured Steve Dallas wanting Lola Granola to go to the beach in a bikini. He thinks that ordering her to wear it will work; “America rocks,” he says, telling his son that this “is how we’re gonna straighten out the world.” Instead she wears a Burkini, modest Muslim swimwear designed and sold by Ahiida Ltd., a company in Sydney. Aheda Zanetti, owner and designer, wears the veil and said she “just loved” the strips. The Sept. 2 strip mentioned her Web site, which prompted some hate mail, Zanetti said. So, because some wackos are going to use an otherwise reasonable strip, that doesn’t attack anyone or anything, but that pokes gentle fun at a group’s own vaunted behaviors, that’s a reason not to run it? That’s not how the marketplace of ideas works, guys.
The reasons that strip wasn’t published are murky. Downie said he did not kill it. Other editors thought that the Writers Group thought it would be hard to understand without seeing the first strip. Alan Shearer, Writers Group editorial director, said he made that point but did not want either strip killed. This murkiness is itself indicative of something. Because there was nothing objectionable in the strip, no one will take responsibility for deep sixing it. But clearly someone was afraid….
About 25 of the 200 “Opus” clients told Shearer they would not run the first strip. Old strips were sent as alternatives. Many ran the second strip. Most papers ran both, Shearer said, including the Chicago Tribune, the Oregonian, the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun. A check with editors showed that only the Sun and the Tribune got complaints — one each.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group, wasn’t offended. ” ‘Opus’ poked fun at the strip’s characters, not Muslims or Islam. I see hundreds worse on the Internet every day,” he said. For once, I agree with a CAIR representative. The papers that withdrew the strip were out CAIRing CAIR.
Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University, also wasn’t offended. He said there is a strong Muslim tradition of satire and self-deprecation. “I think there is a danger of us becoming so politically correct that we end up by blunting the critics’ bent and the satirists’ wit. Muslims need to be sensitive to the fact that in Western culture there is a healthy tradition of not taking things too seriously.” Am I the only one who sees a nonsequitur here? Ahmed said Muslims have this great tradition of self-deprecation and satire. Then he says that Muslims need to get lessons in understanding “not taking things too seriously.” Which is it? Which audience is he talking to? The West (“Muslims have a great sense of humor”) or the Muslims (“pretend you have a great sense of humor”)?
It would be an understatement to say that Breathed and Writers Group editors were not pleased that The Post didn’t run the strips. Shearer was “disappointed” and argued against dropping them. Publisher Bo Jones was in the middle. The Writers Group reports to him, as does Downie. Jones worked with Shearer and Breathed on points that concerned him and approved the strips’ distribution. But he let Downie decide not to publish them in the newspaper.
Breathed didn’t want to talk about it, because, he wrote, “Subtlety has never been my hallmark. Cartoons only work UNPARSED. Unexamined. Un-deconstructed. Two weeks ago the ‘Today Show’ spent 10 minutes doing exactly that with the ‘Opus’ Muslim strips, and it was like watching someone try to iron wet toilet paper.”
I think Post editors overreacted in killing the strips. Comics are meant to be artful, fun and provocative. The two strips were all of that and worth publishing. Let comics be comics. Howell’s offered a badly written article, one that wanders from point to point, but at least she draws the ultimate correct conclusion, which is that the comic ought to have been published in all its usual venues. What the article shies away from, though, is the fact that the WaPo displayed such an unreasonable degree of hypersensitivity to Muslims, something its editors haven’t shown to infinitely more offensive strips aimed at Jews and Christians, and something that even Muslims don’t demand. This kind of abject pre-apology is a very frightening development among a cadre of people who believe themselves to be at the cutting edge of our culture.
P.S. Love that penguin!
UPDATE: Hot Air also caught Howell’s acknowledgment that the WaPo erred. Allahpundit is more generous than I, in that he doesn’t challenge the shaky reasoning leading to that admission.