Over at the Washington Examiner, the New York Times attempts to explain to T. Becket Adams why its decision to print a photograph of the Pope-made-out-in-condoms is Really Very Different from its decision not to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons earlier this year. Here’s Phil Corbett, the paper’s “associate managing editor for standards” tying himself in knots:
“I don’t think these situations – the Milwaukee artwork and the various Muhammad caricatures – are really equivalent. For one thing, many people might disagree, but museum officials clearly consider this Johnson piece to be a significant artwork.”
“Also, there’s no indication that the primary intent of the portrait is to offend or blaspheme (the artist and the museum both say that it is not intended to offend people but to raise a social question about the fight against AIDS). And finally, the very different reactions bears this out,” he added. “Hundreds of thousands of people protested worldwide, for instance, after the Danish cartoons were published some years ago. While some people might genuinely dislike this Milwaukee work, there doesn’t seem to be any comparable level of outrage.”
I’m not sure what Corbett thinks he is arguing here, but, whatever it is, it’s downright impossible not to read all of his words as such: “The difference between the two cases is that Catholics take this stuff in their stride and Muslims do not.” That a random museum happens to think that one piece is more worthwhile than another is frankly neither here nor there. All that contention does is move the first stage of the debate from the New York Times to the museum upon whose judgment it is relying. And so the core question remains: Why do museum officials think that one contribution is “significant” and the other is not?
The answer: For the same reason that the Times is happy to print one and not the other — to wit, because one is insulting to Catholics and the other is insulting to Muslims. If you honestly believe that this is a question of artistic merit or the psychic state of the artist — “ooh, look at the brushstrokes!” — then I have a Greek investment opportunity to put to you.
The second part of Corbett’s explanation is merely a restatement of the facts on the ground. The reason that the image of the Pope is not intended “to offend or blaspheme” in quite the same way as were the Charlie Hebdo cartoons is that nobody is really worried about offending Catholics, and, in consequence, nobody feels the need deliberately to provoke them. Even if it is primarily intended “to raise a social question about the fight against AIDS,” an image of the Pope made out in condoms is of course offensive to the devoutly religious. But — and this is the key — that’s not the important variable. The important variable is that nobody will do much about it.
The Times understands this well, of course, which is why Corbett makes such a big deal of the fact that while “hundreds of thousands of people protested worldwide, for instance, after the Danish cartoons were published some years ago,” there will not be “any comparable level of outrage” when this image is reprinted. Ultimately, his case has nothing whatsoever to do with the intentions of the artist and everything to do with the reaction that he would yield. Are we really supposed to believe that the Times would print an anti-Muhammad cartoon that was “intended” to raise a “social question” about women in the Middle East, and that it would justify its decision by remarking that it wasn’t supposed to be offensive? Hardly.
If the Times wishes to protect its staff, to inoculate itself against controversy, or to avoid unduly vexing some parts of its readership, that’s absolutely fine. This is a free country, and its “paper of record” can do as it wishes. But it shouldn’t pretend that it is doing so for any substantive reasons. It’s not. Rather, in the last few decades some Muslims have made it clear that they will react to unappreciated speech with violence, and some Westerners have decided that the best way to respond to this is to capitulate. Concluding his clarification, Corbett supposed that he was called upon “to make these judgments all the time” and that “reasonable people might disagree about any one of them.” Perhaps so. But only one group will shoot him in the face if he gets it wrong.