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Slippery business

By Tom Toles


South Park

I just declined to sign a petition on the South Park controversy. The petition, as it was presented to me, read:

We, the undersigned, condemn the recent threats against the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, by the extremist organization Muslim Revolution. Freedom of expression is a universal right and we reject any group that seeks to silence people by violence or intimidation. In the United States we have a proud tradition of political satire and believe in the right to speak or draw freely without censorship.

My reply to the request to sign was as follows:

Obviously I condemn the threats of violence, and obviously I support the right of cartoonists to draw whatever they want. But I rarely sign petitions because they never express exactly my thoughts on a subject. In this instance, what exactly in the cartoon was political satire? It seemed to me to be religious satire, which is not the same thing. And this statement seems to conflate censorship and intimidation. Again, not the same thing. The network did the censoring. And government censorship is not the same as publisher censorship. I could sign the first two sentences. And I could sign the last one. But putting them together seems to distort this situation.

So consider me to have signed the two parts, separately. Sensible? Justified? You decide. --Tom Toles


By Tom Toles  | April 27, 2010; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  Economy and jobs  
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Posted by: hejiheji0011 | May 4, 2010 1:24 AM | Report abuse

President Reagan added 2.1 trillion dollars to the Federal defecit in today's dollars. With that we got the fall of the Soviet Union, the beginning of the largest expansion of the economy on record and a lower personal income tax level. Money well spent. What are U.S. citizens getting out of the Obama defecits? Health care is supposed to be defecit neutral. Anybody wish for the return of the Soviet Union?

Posted by: bobbo2 | April 29, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

What influence would a letter in defense of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, signed by media types, have over anyone?

Posted by: bobbo2 | April 28, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Dear Mr. Toles, regarding your skater.
Your audience, watching your figure skating Wall St. banker, is a little spare. As all these banks and bankers, creating weird financial packages, getting ridiculously large bounses are in all probability in the top 1% of taxpayers then they'll be paying 33.7% of all income tax. That means that besides the rating agencies in the audience you might want to include the Federal, NY state and NYC government revenue agencies that rely upon these wage earners to fill their coffers. As well as paying for the rating agencies the chances are they are paying the SEC salaries, the salaries of all those committee members who are merrily condemning them and portions of the salary of just about anybody who receives a nickel from any level of government. They are probably even paying part of your salary in the form of advertising dollars to this newspaper. As the Washington Post reported an operating loss of $163.5 million in 2009 you might want to be careful with those guys. I'm sure that Mr. Graham would be happy to explain this to you. In this game everyone gets covered with slime. When everyone's making money and the taxes are being paid no one cares. Did this newspaper? Did you? Where were all the watchdogs?

Posted by: RockDoctor | April 28, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

"In this instance, what exactly in the cartoon was political satire? It seemed to me to be religious satire, which is not the same thing."

The writer's analysis is fundamentally flawed. South Park was not mocking or satirizing Muhammad. Rather, South Park was mocking and satirizing the media, such as this paper, for refusing to show any sort of image of Muhammad even while the key figures in other religions were, in fact, openly mocked.

For example, Jesus was satirized as a fan of internet porn. Buddha was a coke addict. Yet, what happened with Muhammad? Rather than being mocked, his image was simply blocked out-- this is a clear reference to the media, rather than Muhammad.

The truth hurts, doesn't it Tom? No, I don't gather you would take a stand and sign such a petition. I also don't think "journalists" today are professionals these days.

Posted by: JarvousStotch | April 27, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

I don't think there's anyone who doesn't condemn threats of violence against someone, regardless of the context. But as everyone here has said, free speech doesn't have much to do with this story. The South Park guys deliberately went out of their way to piss off a specific group, and they got exactly what they wanted when people got angry with them. Then, the commercial network they run their program on figured it was not worth the financial risk to get in a big row over this. That's not censorship, kids, its business. Distribute your program independently if you want complete freedom from the suits. You're completely free to say whatever you want then, no one's going to stop you (although it may not be as lucrative as pulling stunts like this).

The fact that the whole issue is just over these two guys' right to harass whatever group they want in whatever way they want makes it a little hard to get too worked up over it, too. They're certainly free to do so, but I'm not going to cry too many tears over them encountering some resistence to it, as long as its from other private sources and not the government.

Besides, they got exactly what they wanted when they got censored (in fact, they did the same thing once before so they had to know it was going to happen). Think about it -- if they had been able to show Muhammad, what would the point have been, except to prove they could?

Posted by: jaberwoc | April 27, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Rushdie already did it, better than they could have imagined. Of course, he got the same response, but at least it was from the evil-incarnate clerics of Iran. Not everyone believes the staff at South Park has all the answers. A house divided....doesn't sound that bad (or fascist) at least that's what Jesus, the only son of God, preached.

Posted by: chemblox | April 27, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

“…and we reject any group that seeks to silence people by violence or intimidation.”

Oh c'mon -- do a little reflecting before putting something in writing as serious as a petition; or at least run it by a third party with a sense of the Amercian past. It seems to me that our historical pattern is more like “pick-and-choose” where these petitioners’ assertion is concerned. Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan, African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Gay Guys, Vietnamese -- just to name a handful that pop into mind.

Posted by: dudeupnorth | April 27, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

Finally, a thoughtful voice of reason on this issue. Thank you, Tom Toles.

The First Amendment limits government.

Satirizing a religion and satirizing politics are two different things.

No speaker should be threatened merely for the content of their speech. But, to claim that a constitutional protection that regulates the relationship between the government and citizens can be stretched to cover the relationships between private individuals (artist-publisher, or artist-audience) is doing free expression wrong.

If Stone and Parker wish to be be free of publisher censorship, they don't need a constitutional right, they need to start their own TV network.

And, if they wish to satirize religion, they would do well to be honest and say what their message really is -- They find religion and the people who believe it are stupid.

It seems to me that their efforts to conflate their situation with true political satirists are done only to cover over the uncomfortable fact that they actually claim a right to 'make fun' of what they wish -- something still protected as free speech, but obviously far less subtle and far less noble than actual political satire.

Posted by: 1EgoNemo | April 27, 2010 8:52 AM | Report abuse

The thing is -- I don't see any way that the uncensored South Park episode could be funnier or more effective as social commentary than it was with the big CENSORED banners over the "offending" images and with the Prophet's name bleeped out. I usually just find South Park tiresomely ugly. I watched it this time because my offspring had suggested it would be especially funny, and I found that it worked very well in the way it was presented.

Posted by: ScienceTim | April 27, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

We, in the USA, should be able to publish anything and everythin gthat we want. The people in the Middle East should control only their own publishers. Not ours.

It should not matter what we publish. Once we say "except..." they own us.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | April 27, 2010 5:51 AM | Report abuse

Nicely said. Do you know why credit agencies are not factored into the reform package? One thing to consider with your online space is offering a paragraph talking about how the public who agree with you can let themselves be heard.

Posted by: efbrazil | April 26, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

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