This week and last a number of newspapers, including The Washington Post, censored publication of the Sunday comic strip Opus by Berkeley Breathed.
Why? According to Fox News, the Post was concerned about depicting a Muslim as an Islamist, and also about the sexual innuendo in the strip. (Obviously, the Post has not been reading its own strip that often.) The good news is that the Post’s stupidity now has Fox on record in opposition to censorship, but that is cold comfort from the network yet to discover irony.
The incident caught my attention because it provides another example of how the veil disturbs Western norms of public order. (Previous posts on this theme are archived under The Visual Public Sphere.) Although the Post may have been caught in a different trap, the strip itself gets its laughs from playing with what is–in the Western gaze, at least–something terribly serious. In the mind’s eye, we have a vision of radical Islam shrouding the world in theocratic darkness. In the comic strip, Lola Granola’s flower power veil is the perfect symbol of her faux counterculture fashionista spirituality, which is as stable as a butterfly and surely incapable of jihad. Perhaps the strip expresses the wish that Muslims would take their religion less seriously, although there is no doubt that just about any attitude is better than the cravenly egocentric and self-interested cynicism of Lola’s boyfriend, Steve. He, too, is too serious, and it is left to the reader to have a good laugh at how bent out of shape people can get about religion (Lola), sex (Steve), and keeping up appearances (all of us).
As it happens, another story that works a similar vein was brought to my attention this week.
You are looking at a protest at the Rancho Palos Verdes (CA) City Council. When the council selected member Doug Stern as mayor pro tem rather than member Barbara Ferraro, who had been expected to be granted the position through rotation, five women entered the meeting covered in burqas. Needless to say, it appears that this did not go over well on the council or in some quarters of the surrounding community. (Several local news reports are collected at Doug Stern’s web page. Stern is not exactly an objective source, but he’s what I’ve got.)
Once again, I think we need to lighten up a bit. If you want to, you can look at the opposed symbols of flag and burqa and see the clash of civilizations. The protest draws on that framework to imply that instead of opposing the Taliban abroad we are imitating them at home. Likewise, you can look at the contrast between the faces of the council members (including Barbara Ferraro) and the burqa-clad figure with her back to the camera, and you can see a choice between, on the one hand, Western transparency and individualism and, on the other hand, Middle Eastern illegibility and oppression. Again, the protest implies that the one has been substituted for the other. But I can’t help but see something else: Lola Granola.
My point, if I have one, is not that the demonstrators are flakes. Their detractors have already said as much, but I don’t want that kind of seriousness either. Rather, I’d like to see everyone become a bit less tense about the veil, and perhaps even a bit more open to discussion about cultural difference, and most of all, able to laugh at ourselves as we make a mess of things in our own backyard. The burqa-clad demonstrators made their point, but they are a better example of unintended silliness than democracy as it is practiced up close and personal. On the other side, the ever so conventional council members seem to make a virtue of being self-important–and, really, do they need to be backed by two flags, one of which is the size of my garage?
We don’t need either institutional censorship or small town gossip to police public expression, and we always need a laugh. Thanks to Opus, I got one twice today.