I was thinking about how afraid everyone is when I heard the Associated Press had yanked all images of Andres Serrano’s 1987 work Piss Christ from their website and archives. Before we knew how many people had died in the attack yesterday—before we learned that one of the victims (the one shown on the cover of the New York Times) was a Muslim cop—right-wing news outlets, bloggers, and Twitterers were condemning the AP’s supposed hypocrisy and anti-Christian bigotry. Slate:
The Associated Press is among the numerous news outlets that have been self-censoring images of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that may have provoked Wednesday’s deadly Paris attack. In a statement, the news organization said that such censorship is standard policy: “None of the images distributed by AP showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images.” The conservative Washington Examiner publication then pointed out that the AP nonetheless continued to carry an image of Andres Serrano’s 1987 “Piss Christ” photograph—which is certainly provocative, having been the subject of massive controversy in the United States, and which was actually vandalized by Catholic protesters when it was on display in 2011 in, as it happens, France.
All images of Piss Christ have since been scrubbed from AP’s website—they’re all gone, including legitimately newsworthy photos of a vandalized Piss Christ. In an attempt to explain the memoryholing of Piss Christ, the AP says they’ve “revised and reviewed our policies since 1989.” The implication: Piss Christ should’ve been removed from the AP’s website years ago and its presence until yesterday afternoon was an oversight. (Perhaps the AP will send the Washington Examiner a thank-you note for bringing this matter to their attention.) The AP’s explanation is complete and total bullshit. They didn’t pull down those images of Piss Christ because they were “deliberately provocative.” The AP pulled them down because they’re afraid.
Here’s what the AP should’ve said to Christian conservatives screaming about Piss Christ and double standards: “Yeah, we blurred out those Charlie Hebdo cartoons because we’re afraid of them. We didn’t do the same to Piss Christ because we’re not afraid of you.” [That’s] something that Christians, conservative and otherwise, should be proud of. … Here are two (Holly and Robert) boasting yesterday:
Christian conservatives want to have it both ways: They want credit for not reacting violently when their sacred symbols, holy texts, imaginary friends, etc. are mocked while also wanting the same deference—the same kid-glove, blurred-image treatment—that violent Muslim extremists have “won” for their sacred symbols, holy texts, imaginary friends, etc. But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim to be better than “they” are because you can take a joke while at the same time demanding that people stop joking about you. You can’t hold up their attempts to eradicate art (and artists) that offend them as proof that they’re hopelessly backwards while at the same time demanding the disappearance of art (and artists) that offend you.
Update from a reader:
I just read your item on the Washington Post censoring the Charlie Hedbo images as offensive. It is odd to me that they would strike them from the web, because they definitely printed the images in the print version of the paper. I wish I could show you an image, but I only know this because my husband noted it as he was throwing the dead tree version of the Post into our fireplace. Because it is cold. But here is an article on it (also still on the Post site): “Washington Post opinions section publishes controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoon“.
Ambinder’s take on the free speech question:
1. The attack ought to be connected to Islam, or religion, but not to Muslims. We cannot be afraid to criticize and even ridicule beliefs we find to be harmful and absurd. But neither is it humane nor in the interest of Europe, to indict the people who at worst have committed a thought crime and who at best can be persuaded to disregard that belief, just like practicing Christians and Jews (and even Bill Donohue, who doesn’t incite violence) have in the U.S.
2. Free speech has consequences. Saying it doesn’t is magical — it presupposes that there is some universal law which holds that good things will always happen when people are given license to speak their minds. Not always. But censoring political, symbolic, and religious speech, or trying not to offend anyone often have worse consequences. Censoring enfeebles our minds. Avoiding controversy removes the edge from humor. Protecting people from cartoons concedes sacred ground to much more harmful beliefs and practices.
Let the ink flow.