Not Getting the Joke.

When I opened The New York Times this morning and began to read Ross Douthat's column about the most recent South Park controversy, I said, "Here's a chance to reach across the aisle!" Douthat criticizes Comedy Central for censoring last week's episode of the program, in which the prophet Muhammad is portrayed (or not exactly -- we only see him inside a giant bear costume, thereby hiding his image), in response to a threat posted on an extremist Islamic Web site.

But before I could do my part for bipartisanship, I came to this:

In a country where the latest hit movie, "Kick-Ass," features an 11-year-old girl spitting obscenities and gutting bad guys while dressed in pedophile-bait outfits, there isn’t much room for real transgression. Our culture has few taboos that can't be violated, and our establishment has largely given up on setting standards in the first place.

Except where Islam is concerned. There, the standards are established under threat of violence, and accepted out of a mix of self-preservation and self-loathing.

This is what decadence looks like: a frantic coarseness that "bravely" trashes its own values and traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force.

I was with him until "decadence." The fact that our culture contains South Park doesn't mean we're
decadent; it means we're free. When society's values and traditions are criticized, satirized, and mocked, that's what freedom looks like. It's sometimes messy, and ugly, and infuriating. If those values and traditions can't stand up to it, then they probably aren't worth holding on to. 

There's something else about this incident that is striking. In the South Park episode, celebrities who are angry at being mocked by the town of South Park try to kidnap Muhammad in order to get what he has -- immunity from anyone ever making fun of you. In other words, the program was a commentary on the fact that no one is allowed to say anything about Muhammad, and this one theretofore-unknown Web site responded by threatening them for saying something about Muhammad, and Comedy Central responded by proving the point the show's creators were trying to make.

This seems to happen a lot in free-speech cases. Lenny Bruce used to do routines unpacking our reactions to different kinds of language considered taboo, for which he often got arrested for violating obscenity laws. When George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" routine -- a commentary on why we consider some words dirty and not others -- was aired on a radio station, it resulted in FCC v. Pacifica, the landmark case that defined the government's ability to regulate "indecent" language in broadcasting.

In other words, some people never seem to get the joke.

-- Paul Waldman

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