Managing Public Opinion
The Strange Case of Twelve Islamophobic Cartoons
Over the last week the publication of a cartoon portraying the prophet Mohamed as a terrorist has dominated the Western European media sparking a phoney debate about freedom of expression from the very people who misled us about the recent invasion of Iraq. On one side we have the ultra-PC brigade preaching the virtues of tolerance and feigning sympathy with the Islamic community. On the other we have a motley crew of Guardian-reading libertarians, a few even prepared to support the publication of the offending cartoon, others just defending the theoretical right to do so. While it may be reasonably argued that propaganda and disinformation can have murderous consequences, static cartoons hardly constitute the main causes of ethno-religious intolerance. Long before the appearance of this sketch Fox News, Sky News, the BBC and CNN had through slightly more subtle means persuaded millions that we face a growing terrorist threat from Islamic extremists. The Danish cartoon, assuming its author hailed from that land, merely caricatured mainstream US and UK propaganda, daring to portray graphically what journalists had refrained from stating explicitly.
As rights cannot exist without responsibilities, freedom of expression cannot thrive without a culture of mutual respect devoid of intimidation and emotional blackmail. It is quite possible to challenge orthodoxy on any subject in a cool, calm and collected way. If we believe either moral or scientific right is on our side, then surely any position is intellectually admissible. Whether sexual orientation is genetically determined is a matter of science. Whether some sexual orientations may be deemed immoral are matters of ethics that tend to evolve gradually and belong to a set of shared values. The trouble is sometimes scientific truth can alter our ethical worldview and our moral outlook can prejudice our interpretation of science. If it could be proven that genes more common in one ethnic group were responsible for antisocial behaviour, racists could cite science to justify discrimination, while others may seize on such data to redefine antisocial behaviour.
Sadly we don't live in a hypothetical Voltairean debating society where all personal perspectives are afforded equal opportunities of expression. Never has so much psychosocial power been vested in so few media organisations, controlled inevitably by a handful of corporate and state entities. They have the power to set the agenda, swing moods and whip up fear, almost unparalleled in history. One can give a totally misleading account of a situation simply by omitting or circumventing a few key facts, e.g. journalists may discuss the Iraqi election results without considering how much, if any, control the winning candidates will have over their country's resources. Broadcasters may also suggest the culpability of a whole ethno-religious group simply by showing scenes of jubilation in the aftermath of a brutal terrorist attack. Pundits may set the limits of permissible debate by misrepresenting unacceptable views and defining them as extremist, fundamentalist, dangerous or hateful.
Thus we are faced with a false debate. Should we support the publication of undeniably offensive picture and denounce Islamic fundamentalists burning the embassies of Scandinavian countries or should we join the chorus of media pundits urging further restrictions on free speech to protect our tolerant multiracial society? British politicians and newspapers can then be portrayed as beacons of common sense and moderation by their refusal to bow to either concocted extreme.
Intellectual freedom has never been the same as abstract freedom of expression. All viable societies have some form of social etiquette. A Finn would do well to cover himself appropriately when bathing at a public pool on holiday in Egypt. Likewise an Egyptian tourist should not complain if confronted with mixed gender nudity in a Finnish sauna. When in Rome... The Danish cartoon may incite little more than a chuckle from a reader sympathetic with the official UK/US line. Most are exposed to countless hours of gore, soft porn and slapstick comedy on TV, most of which is either fallacious or deeply prejudiced. Few British teenagers have seen the offending images, but millions have been exposed to countless hours of gratuitous interactive violence and a constant diet of self-righteous pro-war propaganda. Many may believe US and UK troops represent a force for progress in the Middle East, but prefer not to reconcile their rulers' military strategy with hard economic facts. Overt expressions of hatred usually backfire. They convince nobody, but those who have already been thoroughly brainwashed through years of insidious conditioning. Suppose I wanted to spoil the reputation of a colleague. Merely engaging in childish pranks that others could easily discover would only work in a climate of contempt for the targeted person. A more rational, and dare I say, common approach would be to discretely spread rumours or set a bait for your rival to rise to, while pretending all along to be his friend.
A widespread misconception is that power elites hate specific subsets of the population, whether ethnic groups, religions, classes, genders or followers of alternative lifestyles. In truth their sole concern is the maintenance of power and the stability of the infrastructure that keeps it in place. Historically ruling classes have engendered loyalty through nationalism and religion, affording privileges to sections of the working class whose affiliation suits their medium-term needs best. While many in the armed forces may have been conditioned to believe they are fighting for God, Queen and Country, the real elite owes no allegiance to an omnipresent deity or the citizens of their land and only rely on heads of states as temporary figureheads often representing long-superseded notional entities whose emotive importance lives on in the collective psyche. The emergence of supranationalism, often called globalisation, has changed the rules. While millions of ordinary British citizens perished in the industrial revolution and conquest of new lands, they were nonetheless afforded privileged status over rival ethnicities. As the British population grew rapidly, their rulers could offer them plenty of new terrain to exploit and tap resources from the colonies. Subgroups with an incomplete allegiance to the great imperial project, such as the Irish, were often disadvantaged, but the ruling class merely exploited their subjects as vanguard forces in a long-term project of global domination.
So why should the elite care if we subscribe to traditional Islamic values or the liberal values of 1970s Western Europe? Do they mind if we worship pop idols or Mohamed or if we believe homosexuality is a positively cool genetic trait or a deviant behaviour? The truth is they don't care, but are quite happy to manipulate our strongly held views on these subjects to destabilise society and frighten us into accepting yet more control over our lives. The same forces that have consistently destabilised the Middle East to secure control of oil there, also manipulate our attitude to Islam, by promoting migration and pendantic political correctness, and simultaneously incite anti-Western feeling in much of Islamic world. The dark forces of the military-industrial complex that would dearly like to seize control of Iranian oil and gas reserves before China gets its greedy hands on too much of it must be rejoicing at scenes of enraged Middle Easterners burning the embassies of Scandinavian countries. First it deflects attention from the true centres of imperial power and second it focuses attention on a peripheral issue of purely emotional significance. Would you rather your neighbour make the odd rude joke about your lifestyle or greet you politely every day while plotting to have you evicted, made redundant and tortured?
People throughout the Islamic world have every right to boycott Western good to express their anger about Western imperialism, but why target Danish, Norwegian and French goods? Why not target US and UK banks?
This whole debacle is above all a media event. The original series of a dozen cartoons appeared in September 2005, but the story only exploded onto the international scene in January 2006. Surely some Muslims living in Denmark would have been alerted to its existence, but apparently initial reactions were muted. Just as Jack Straw can claim the moral high ground by voicing his disapproval of the cartoons, other pundits can join the chorus condemning flag-burning Islamic fundamentalists, with apparently nobody caring who controls resources in their countries. Presumably it's okay for London's Metropolitan Police to shoot dead a Brazilian electrician suspected of being an Islamic terrorist. It's fine to detain without evidence British citizens suspected of sympathising with alleged terrorists. It's also perfectly normal to spend hours every day immersed in a virtual world of gun battles. But if one breaks absurd rules of political correctness, whether defined as Islamophobia or homophobia, then one can only expect instant police action and mass demonstrations orchestrated by media barons.