Harvard Salient: "look at me! look at me! PLEASE LOOK AT ME!"

Now, let’s be honest, I’m not exactly immune to the allure of self-promotion. Unless you’re writing for the Crimson or some other overly dominant news source, media is part ideas and part politics; you’ve got to get attention if you want to be heard. The Salient has for a long time been an all too able embodiment of that principle: provoke first, explain second, bask in the attention, adulation and disdain third. But, one would think the Fullah Barbie, a profoundly hilarious martyrdom complex and an appropriate but unhealthy love of Harvey Mansfield would be enough to satisfy their need for conservative flamboyance and blatant demagoguery. Apparently not, and this week the Salient decided to publish the cartoons of Muhammad that have resulted in international outrage, both peaceful and violent, and a sudden interest on the Right in free speech. And they’re very excited about it. (more in expanded post)
Let me start by noting this: I am not attacking their right to do so. People have the right to do and say all kinds of silly or tasteless things (like run through Harvard Yard with socks on their ears declaring their love for football tees and clowns, for instance), that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to say they are wrong or weird for doing it. So please, spare me the free speech whining, no one’s knocking on Travis Kavulla’s door in Mather and demanding that he follow them to one of our secret prisons in Eastern Europe.

But seriously, what point was there to do this other than pure attention-mongering? Yes, I know, it’s a statement of principle that reaffirms the freedom of the press in the United States. That’s fine, it’s a good principle. But who really thought it was in jeopardy? Mature people realize that part of having a right is being intelligent about exercising it. Of course, the other argument is that the cartoons have a powerful political point – that they are witty or important observations of the realities of “Muslim extremism.”

First of all, no, they’re not. None of them are particularly insightful as individual political statements; they range from sarcastically self-referential to downright meaningless. Second of all, was the Salient really worried that we hadn’t heard this profound set of ideas? Were they worried that the Harvard political community hadn’t noticed the massive international debate, protest, deaths and diplomatic stress? Please.

Again, because I fear that some people might spin my thoughts into a defense of the violent outrage, let me be clear: the Salient can print whatever it wants, the Danish newspapers should be able to print whatever they want. The Danish papers, though, could at least make the claim to starting a relevant and difficult political debate to justify being offensive. The Salient is just looking for a few more readers, a lot more attention, and a lot of liberal outrage. In some ways, I guess this post gives them what they want. Unfortunately, I’m not outraged that they printed them, I’m just disappointed that their sophomoric stunts have reached a new low.

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17 responses to “Harvard Salient: "look at me! look at me! PLEASE LOOK AT ME!"

  1. How sad and true. There are two big unfortunate issues here:

    1. That the state of college politics—at Harvard, no less—has retarded into a state of such gross apathy as to require this sort of sensationalism as to attract attention. Perhaps not in the battle of respect, but at least in the battle of viability, it appears that the Lookee Here crowd has won the upper hand.

    2. That the Salient, which has the real opportunity to present a well-reasoned and thoughtful conservative view chooses instead to settle for gleefully pushing Harvard’s buttons like a petulant little child. I obviously disagree with the vast majority of what’s printed on its pages, but below its surface lies at least a glimmer of promise for reasonable material, which makes it only all the more frustrating when this noise obscures and coöpts the real signal.

  2. This post leave me unclear as to your take on some of the greater associated issue. I have posted some questions for you on redivy.org. I would appreciate it if you could give them a look/response.

  3. Hey Pyrrhus, Thanks for the cross-post. Now that my name is in the title of a HRC blog post I can die happy. In any event, I don’t have time or desire to write the short book that your questions compel (and don’t really want to get into the habit of responding to long lists of questions whenever people demand it of me), but if you’d like to offer an actual counter argument I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  4. Andrew Golis,

    Glad I could ease your passing.

    I’m not sure how much of a counter-argument I can offer you as I do not know your position on the particulars of this issue which interest me most. But it would probably be a good start to explain the sentiments behind my questions.

    The illustrations of Mohammed and the Muslim response they provoked are major current events, and politically relevant. So it is more than appropriate for the Salient, a political newspaper, to cover them in both their news and opinion capacities. Reprinting the pictures serves both of these ends. It serves its “news” capacity by allowing readers to see what, exactly, the fuss is all about and judge whether these pictures are, in fact, all that offensive. It serves its “opinion” capacity by showing how (as I, at any rate, believe) tame these illustrations are in the greater scheme of the world of political cartoons.

    This seems like a pretty compelling argument as to why the Salient should print the pictures. If we accept it then we have to find some reasons why the Salient should not print the illustrations.

    First there is a self-interest argument. The Salient might decide not to print the pictures because it believes that it will hurt its readership. This argument doesn’t really carry any moral force, and I suspect that the Salient disagrees as to its empirical base.

    Second there is a societal argument. We might argue that it is bad on utilitarian grounds to upset Muslims, and for this reason oppose publishing the pictures. This doesn’t seem like that compelling an argument, first because the Salient is unlikely to have that much of an effect on the actions of the Muslim world, and second because it is simply republishing pictures that have already had their effect (an act also unlikely to provoke a response).

    A variation on this societal argument might claim that the morality of the issue transcends any utilitarian assessment: that it is simply wrong to publish something that offends Muslims. This argument is problematic because it requires some sort of framework as to who we should worry about offending, or abdicating altogether our ability to judge “acceptable offensibility.” I think it is fair to say that if any argument which caused offense deserved condemnation, then every argument would need to be condemned. If we reject this “all offense is equal” position but still do not adopt a utilitarian version of the societal objection, then we must be willing to judge independently whether the illustrations are offensive. I don’t think a fair analysis of the cartoons finds them so inherently objectionable that the Salient cannot legitimately reprint them for news/opinion purposes.

    A final argument might be that the cartoons are bad not simply because they offend Muslims, but because they depict (and mock) Mohammed, and doing so is immoral on its face. I expect you reject this argument as much as I do, or at least find it of too little force to condemn a little satire, or, even less, that satire’s republishing as part of a news/opinion piece.

    So I have two main complaints with your post. First you ignore the legitimate reasons the Salient has for publishing these pictures. Second, though you depict the Salient as sensationalist (not your word but, I think, an accurate depiction of your argument), you don’t really construct a solid argument as to why their actions are, in fact, sensational.

    Note: this is a repost of my earlier post, with some non-substantive edits.

  5. I know your post was directed to Andrew, but I wanted to question a couple things you wrote:

    [Reprinting the pictures] serves its “news” capacity by allowing readers to see what, exactly, the fuss is all about and judge whether these pictures are, in fact, all that offensive. It serves its “opinion” capacity by showing how (as I, at any rate, believe) tame these illustrations are in the greater scheme of the world of political cartoons.

    I’m confused as to why The Salient felt the need to actually publish the cartoons to have intelligent dialogue. There has been plenty of thought-provoking discussion about the pictures, both on- and off-campus, without actually seeing them. Seeing them served little to no intellectual purpose, at least not to me.

    We might argue that it is bad on utilitarian grounds to upset Muslims, and for this reason oppose publishing the pictures. This doesn’t seem like that compelling an argument, first because the Salient is unlikely to have that much of an effect on the actions of the Muslim world, and second because it is simply republishing pictures that have already had their effect (an act also unlikely to provoke a response).

    I don’t really understand this argument, since there are many Muslims at Harvard who are very upset about the publication, and I’m sure you knew they would respond. Besides, why does the perceived audience affect the ethical argument? Would you be less likely to mock Jews than, say, Mongolians, simply because the former makes up 26% of the Harvard campus? If you think it’s wrong on utilitarian grounds to mock Muslims, it isn’t viable to say it’s okay because they won’t see it anyway.

    A final argument might be that the cartoons are bad not simply because they offend Muslims, but because they depict (and mock) Mohammed, and doing so is immoral on its face. I expect you reject this argument as much as I do, or at least find it of too little force to condemn a little satire, or, even less, that satire’s republishing as part of a news/opinion piece.

    Why should this argument be rejected? If one of the main tenets of a religion is to NOT depict religious figures, why should anyone deliberately undermine this?

    I honestly think it was an interesting decision to publish the cartoons, and am thankful for the dialogue it’s provoked. However, I still don’t understand why you needed to do it, except to piss off a lot of people and to receive a lot of bad publicity.

  6. Sarika:

    I’ll leave it to Pyrrhus to make a more elaborate response, since you specifically are talking to him, but, having seen the cartoons myself, I don’t think that most of them were simply meant to “mock” Muslims or Islam. Instead, I think that they were made to address specific political issues, even if some were in bad taste. To quote Wikipedia (via Andrew Sullivan) “The drawings, which include a depiction of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, were meant as satirical illustrations accompanying an article on self-censorship and freedom of speech. Jyllands-Posten commissioned and published the cartoons in response to the difficulty of Danish writer Kåre Bluitgen to find artists to illustrate his children’s book about Muhammad, for fear of violent attacks by extremist Muslims.”

    This leads me to question your first assertion, which is that there has been “plenty of thought-provoking discussion about the pictures…without actually seeing them.” I have found it frustrating, to say the least, to take seriously anyone who has not seen the cartoons. In my mind there is a huge difference between the anti-semitic cartoons and the cartoons in question. For a number of the cartoons, I don’t even see a clear connection to Muhammed. I would never have known that without having seen the cartoons. It seems to me that if a publication chooses to report on the reaction caused by a document, that it should then at some level give readers (or viewers, or whatever) access to the document, if available, to complete their reporting.

    Furthermore, I think that there is good evidence out there that the prohibition against depicting Muhammed has been selectively enforced over time.

    Finally, in regards to “If one of the main tenets of a religion is to NOT depict religious figures, why should anyone deliberately undermine this?” There are “main tenets” of many religions that we do not follow on a daily basis, often deliberately. To quote Andrew Sullivan, as himself this time, “Muslim leaders say the cartoons are not just offensive. They’re blasphemy–the mother of all offenses. That’s because Islam forbids any visual depiction of the Prophet, even benign ones. Should non-Muslims respect this taboo? I see no reason why. You can respect a religion without honoring its taboos. I eat pork, and I’m not an anti-Semite. As a Catholic, I don’t expect atheists to genuflect before an altar. If violating a taboo is necessary to illustrate a political point, then the call is an easy one. Freedom means learning to deal with being offended.”

    And the political point here, I think, is a good one. As a Christian, I may be offended by “Piss Christ” or the cliche, worn, faux edginess of celebrities depicting themselves in various guises as Jesus Christ (Kanye West being the most recent example) but you won’t see me asking for Serrano’s head. While some more radical branches of Christianity always protest these things, vehemently, I might add, I think that it is worth noting that even these radicals do not threaten Kanye West with death. Of course not all Muslims agree with the stance taken by its more virulent strands, but the point still stands. Taboos are violated daily, but not all violations are met with threats of physical harm and death, nor should they be. True, we should not go around insulting people’s religions willy-nilly, but I think that the Danish cartoons are a good case of where the offense is worth making. Judging by the events of the last few weeks, I’d have to call them prescient.

  7. Quick question for Sarika – Where did you get the 26% figure of Jews on campus from? It seems surprisingly specific. Just curious. Thanks!

  8. Anonymous,

    Thank you for your comments. I’m sure that to some, seeing the cartoons heightened their understanding of the situation. When I first looked at them, there was definitely a moment of, “wait, is THIS what everyone’s fighting about?” Seeing a primary document is enormously useful since it allows the audience to draw their own conclusions instead of relying on others’ interpretations. In this case, however, I do not think seeing the cartoons added that much in the end. I — and most others who read the news — have been hearing about them for days (weeks?), and most news sources gave an essentially accurate description of the pictures. Seeing them was a bonus, a mint on a pillow.

    You also describe the Salient’s publication to be a sort of public service announcement: it is “at some level [giving] readers (or viewers, or whatever) access to the document, if available, to complete their reporting.” I find this problematic, since the Salient is not meant to be an unbiased fact-giving source. It is a political magazine, and all of their actions will be interpreted as such.

    Is it true that “there is good evidence out there that the prohibition against depicting Muhammed has been selectively enforced over time?” I’m not familiar enough with the literature, but would be interested to see cases in which Muslims have encouraged depictions of Muhammed. It has always been my understanding that it is strictly prohibited.

    As to your last point, that people of faiths other than Islam should be able to undermine its tenets: I’m not sure if I follow your (or Andrew Sullivan’s, to be more accurate) analogy. Why would eating pork make one an anti-Semite? What one chooses to eat is a very private decision. Publishing a cartoon for the world to see, on the other hand, is at least partially aimed at Muslims. Even if the artist wasn’t a Muslim him/herself, some of the consumers are. I’m not familiar enough with Islam to state whether this makes the publication objectively wrong or just in bad taste, but I do think this case is different from the analogies given.

    To Just Curious, someone mentioned the 26% figure when I ate dinner at Hillel a few months ago. I was really surprised and remembered the number. However, it might be wrong or outdated — maybe someone else knows for certain?

  9. I just want to say that it is horribly hypocrtical for CC to criticize reprinting these images after “printing” A PAINTING OF THE VIRGIN MARY MASTERBATING.

    You people are unbelievable.

  10. Sarika:

    My claim about drawings of Muhammed comes from here (http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110007934)

    To refute this: “Why would eating pork make one an anti-Semite? What one chooses to eat is a very private decision.”

    A political cartoon protesting the tendency of some virulent strands of Islam to violently react to certain events need not be anti-Muslim or anti-Islam. Were the cartoons made with the purpose of insulting all Muslims and Islam, then perhaps I would feel differently. But they were not. And the discussion of politics and current events must, almost by definition, occur in the public sphere – which, in a liberal society, should not expect the religious mores of every religion be religiously observed by non-believers.

  11. To the anon comparing CC’s printing of the Virgin Mary masterbating to the Salient’s reprinting of the Danish cartoons:

    You’re missing the point. Andrew specifically goes out of his way to explain that it’s not the offensive nature of the cartoons that he’s bothered by, but rather the massive attention grab that the Salient is making by doing so.

    The Virgin Mary painting was intended to provoke, but wasn’t a desperate grab for attention; the Danish cartoons the Salient printed, on the other hand, seem to be no more than a marginalized right wing paper trying to make itself relevant through shock tactics. And it’s working – the Salient is getting way more press now than ever.

    Additionally, there is a very, very significant difference between putting something in print versus posting something on a blog. The Virgin Mary painting is not something that was doordropped to every single Harvard Student on campus. The Salient can claim that they’re publishing the cartoons to increase dialogue, as well, but they’re easily found online – just do a google image search for “Danish Cartoons.”

    Golis is right on the mark with his criticism. The Salient isn’t increasing dialogue – it’s simply being inflamatory. As much press as they get at this present moment, publishing the cartoons won’t make them any more relevant than they currently are.

  12. Brave Sir Robin:

    In what context would the publication of the cartoons in a political opinion source not be sensationalist grab for attention, in your opinion? Spare Change, then, must of late have been desperately short on readers.

    What’s that? Spare Change isn’t a political paper? Oh, goodness me. How silly of me to think it similarly benign that political publications discuss political issues in a political way with perhaps not a smidgen of political intent.

    From now on I’ll leave the defense of freedom of speech to Spare Change (and yes, I realize that there is a difference between being allowed to publish something and what is occurring here – but doesn’t it say something that some are not publishing the cartoons not out of respect for Muslims but because they fear retribution? Doesn’t that, in a sense, limit freedom of speech?).

  13. And I should add that of course the depiction of Mary wasn’t a “desperate grab for attention”. As another anonymous mentioned above, such representations are well worn-out and have nearly lost their provocative nature. Cheers for liberal society. Would that a depiction of Muhammed elicit a similar shrug of the shoulders or, at the very least, something less than calls for murder (http://www.wjla.com/news/stories/0206/303767.html) or even murder itself (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theo_van_Gogh_%28film_director%29)

  14. To the above poster: I don’t see what the difference is between “[an intention to] provoke” and “shock tactics.” I also don’t understand how you can be so sure that the Salient printed the cartoons in order to draw attention to itself rather than to draw attention to an issue that it thought merited more discussion. (If it’s the latter, then I don’t see what’s morally wrong about trying to garner some attention.) Can such an assertion about the Salient’s *intent* be proven, and if so, where is your proof for it? You seem to be pre-disposed to think poorly of the Salient due to its being a “marginalized right-wing paper,” and I’m not convinced that this fact didn’t play a role in causing you to presume that the Salient’s action was motivated by a “desperate” desire for “attention.” Above, Pyrrhus has clearly stated that the Salient’s motivations was something completely different from what you believe they were; do you think he is just rationalizing, then?

    Also, could you please clarify the difference you perceive between print media and blogs? If the Salient were not doordropped to every Harvard student but was instead sold at newsstands, would this have made their action more okay in their opinion?

    Finally, I’m not convinced that a newspaper should refrain from publishing something just because it can easily be found online or in other news sources. Should the New York Times refrain from publishing a story just because the story could be found just as easily within the pages of the L.A. Times or in some other newspaper? I have never heard someone invoke such an argument in any situation other than this one, and it seems a bit odd to me. In short, I’m not convinced yet that the Salient’s actions differed substantially from Cambridge Common’s.

  15. There is usually a bigger picture to take into consideration, and in this case the bigger picture is who originally published the cartoons and why. The bigger picture also includes the reality that we are generally perceived to be at war with a specific group of people in the world, and that our conduct thus far in that war has been atrocious. Moreover, the event that enabled that war to be launched, that is the destruction of the world trade center, was a heinous crime, but it was not commited by muslims, as groups like Scholars for 9-11 Truth are beginning to make clear to the mainstream. (see http://www.st911.org)

    “Agents of certain persuasion” are behind the egregious affront to Islam in order to provoke Muslims, Professor Mikael Rothstein of the University of Copenhagen told the BBC. The key “agent” is Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of JP, who commissioned cartoonists to produce the blasphemous images and then published them in Denmark’s leading morning paper last September.

    The International Herald Tribune, which reported on the offensive cartoons on January 1, noted that even the liberalism of Rose had its limits when it came to criticism of Zionist leaders and their crimes. Rose also has clear ties to the Zionist Neo-Cons behind the “war on terror.”

  16. The author’s wilfully information-challenged and self-satisfied comments re the Harvard Salient’s decision to publish the cartoons betray an astonishing, head-in-the-sand lack of curiosity:

    Danish cartoon affair “a revolt to assert Western values of freedom of opinion, speech and religion”

  17. Sarika bansel (above) asks:

    “Is it true that ‘there is good evidence out there that the prohibition against depicting Muhammed has been selectively enforced over time?” I’m not familiar enough [to judge]…. It has always been my understanding that it is strictly prohibited.”

    There is no explicit Koranic prohibition on display of theProphet Mohammid. In fact, the Islamic Republic of Iran permits the display and purchase of Mohammid postcard on the streets of the capital Terhan. According to some of the Iraqi bloggers I’ve visited recently, a similar nonchalance toward images and even jokes about the Prophet prevails in that nation too.

    But a repoter in Istanbul, Turkey had an interesting insight. Few if any of the people in rioting countries have seen the Danish Mo’toons – too poor and rare access to visual media. However in Turkey, with greater wealth access, most people have seen them.

    Most revealing ws the opinion on the most insulting of the cartoons: the one with the bomb in Mohammid’s turban about to explode! In other words, the one that hurts Muslim feelings most is the one most American’s find truthful: exposing the hypcrisies of the vaunted “religion of Peace” that either rewards or tolerates murdering apostates, behading innocents, and terrorising the multitudes.

    Isn’t provoking though and reflection, however emotionally “offensive,” precisely what we want to find in political cartoons?

    -Orson

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