Defending the virtues of liberty, free markets, and civilization... plus some commentary on the passing scene.

Freedom's Fidelity

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Me and Mr. Wycliff Part II

Don Wycliff declined to respond to my latest email. He did however, decide that I was a worthy subject of his latest column! Why Mr. Wycliff would dedicate half of his weekly space to a question that he found neither "fair" nor "good" (as you'll soon find out) is certainly curious. Never-the less-I'll take it.

Happily. After all, it is not everyday you get a mention in the Chicago Tribune... and on a page you grew up reading no less.

Here we go, from the Op-Ed page of today's Chicago Tribune:
Apples and Oranges

In response to last week's column about why Tribune editors decided not to publish those controversial Danish cartoons, Paul E. Smith of Chicago e-mailed.

He quoted a paragraph of my column: "They based their decision on the judgment that the newspaper could tell the story of the cartoon conflict without printing the images and giving gratuitous insult to a significant segment of its audience. `We can communicate to our readers what this is about without running it,' James O'Shea, Tribune managing editor, was quoted as saying in Saturday's New York Times."

Then he wondered: "Why did similar reasoning not apply to the photos of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses? What are the objective differences? Did you somehow come to the conclusion that drawings would be more offensive, or more inflammatory, than pictures of actual abuse?"

Ordinarily I would say at this point, "Fair question," and then launch into a discussion of the issue. But I'm not sure this is a fair or a good question. But it does deserve a response.

I'll offer a few ideas of my own here and invite you readers to offer your own via e-mail or snail mail.

To begin with, neither decision was taken with the other in mind. When the decisions on the first batch of Abu Ghraib photos were made, the Danish cartoons didn't even exist.

Yes, most of us are aware of the timeline. However, am I to understand that because the Danish cartoons did not exist at the time of Abu Ghraib the comparison is automatically deemed unfair? In other words, no editorial decision can ever be weighed against another unless the incidents occur simultaneously. Is this to say that the Tribune does not really have a standing policy? That every editorial decision is made in isolation, with no concern for precedent? I find that hard to believe.
And the cartoons presented so radically different a question than the photos that it wouldn't have been useful to compare them in any case.

Here, Mr. Wycliff resorts to an argument from authority - no reasoning is actually offered as to why the Danish Cartoons are 'radically different' and the comparison is not 'useful.' But my initial question was, pretty much, 'Why is that so?' Which I'll now refine to, "Why is that so, besides the fact that one came into existence about 2 years after the other?" The answer apparently is, 'just because'.

....and then he moves to another subject
As to the merits of printing the Abu Ghraib photos, they seem manifest to me:

- They potentially were evidence of crimes.

- If they were not evidence of crimes, they were evidence that something was radically amiss in a facility that was supposed to be under the control of the U.S. armed forces.

- That whatever was being done at Abu Ghraib was, like any undertaking of the United States government, being done in the name of the people of the United States, who needed to be made aware of it in order to perform properly their duties as citizens.

- That what was being portrayed in the photos was not something anyone would consider a blasphemy. Those are for starters.


Here Mr. Wycliff raises a straw man and turns evasive.

It is a straw man because I never questioned the merits of publishing the Abu Ghraib photos, indeed in my second email (which gets no mention in the column) I explicitly stated such.

It's evasive because Mr. Wycliff is attempting to reframe my argument as one opposed to running the Abu Ghraib photos rather than one for running the cartoons. If the Chicago Tribune decided to not run the Abu Ghraib I would disagree with them, but for far different reasons than cited above.* Like the Abu Ghraib photos, there really is no getting around that the Danish cartoons are a central part of the story. Today's case is about imagery, not actual human abuse. As preposterous as it sounds, political cartoons are the story and political cartoons are best seen.

As for blasphemy, given the Tribune's history of coverage of such items as Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, or a political cartoon from recent history depicting a large nosed Jewish man following a trail of money towards some representation of US foreign policy, the idea that they refuse to offend on religious grounds rings rather hollow.

More fundamentally, something will always be religiously offensive to someone. Certainly there are Christians who would find articles, images, or Op-Eds in support of gay marriage offensive. And most certainly there have been some articles or cartoons that have offended Matthew Hale's hateful Creativity Movement religion. And would it only be offense towards religious groups that the Chicago Tribune would curb? Would nothing then, be off limits when it comes to offending the poor atheists?

Now, easily enough, one could come up with some atom splitting explanations as to why the above examples differ from the Danish cartoons, but occam's razor suggests that the reason is much simpler:

That, for whatever reason, the Tribune editorial board exhibits fluctuating standards when it comes to offending the sensibilities of one group over another, particularly if the other contains a militant sect that tends to express its frustrations through violence and destruction.

*As to disagreeing with Mr, Wycliff's reasoning for running the Abu Ghraib photos:

Mr. Wycliff's points 1 and 2, in and of themselves are far from universal when it comes to publishing images. The Tribune (rightly) does not run photos of say, murder scenes, although they are evidence of a crime.

Mr. Wycliff's point 3 I addressed in my below post, but here it is again. The third point is what us sophisticates like to call 'poppycock.' The abuses at Abu Ghraib were perpetuated by a relative few amount of soldiers. They were criminal acts, not even close to policy. They were not being committed "in the name of the people of the United States" any more than prison guard Darin Gater (allegedly) helped prisoners escape from Cook Country Jail in the name of the City of Chicago.

In actuality, it was only because the military had undertaken an internal investigation that the abuse became public. If the Tribune's goal was, in light of Abu Ghraib, to allow citizens to properly evaluate governance then it would have been more appropriate to focus on the institutional response to the criminal acts rather than photos of the acts themselves. I tend to think that the Tribune was afraid that not running the photos would only draw accusations as 'a friend of The Administration.' Fair enough, but lets be honest about it.


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