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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

When is Art Inciting Riots Not Art Inciting Riots

When it's not the art inciting riots... or somesuch.

I wrote a glib comment on this issue, but it's clearly a lot more complex than me having a sort of double take whenever I see the word "Cartoon" in a NY Times headline.

For more about the nuances of this issue, from others on the theatrosphere, check out Parabasis and the Playgoer.

Now, I'm going to be a bit less glib and address a little of this free-speech/terrorism discussion.

I'd like to predict that not only will the United States attack Iran before the end of this year, but that incidents like that of the Denmark cartoon will happen with increasing frequently. The reason is that the United States, through policy and rhetoric, has used its bully pulpit to cast the entire Middle East with a broad brush, and treat disenfranchised, oppressed people as a great unwashed Other, waiting for our helping hand.

The result... a generation of Muslims that believe they are under attack, egged on by warlords and religiously themed politicos, becoming radicalized to the most extreme parts of their religion because they have been convinced that their way of life is being threatened.

They are remarkably like Pro-Lifers in the States, in that way.

I think the problem people are having with this issue is that in the United States, we have become so polarized that we see outrage and compassion as mutually exclusive? Am I a liberal if I'm outraged by the violence Islamic citizens who feel their culture has been mocked? Am I conservative enough if I think that the protestors have the right to be furious as their religion being mocked? What if it were the New York Post putting up pictures that denied the Holocaust? Would our "freedom of speech" alarms be going off then?

Instead, it's important to remember that both sides are in the wrong, but for entirely different reasons. We must, though, stand by the principle that speech must be protected above the right to act violently. As I wrote on Isaac Butler's blog, it's a slippery slope to equate acts of violence with free expression. Violence is a part of the free exchange of ideas in the same way that a bullet is having a conversation with someone else's head.

We cannot, though, be foolish enough to look at this violence and think that it is entirely coming out of cartoons. Obviously, as we have shamed, criticized and attacked different parts of the Middle East, we have added fuel to the fires that radicalism feeds from. We will undoubtedly do the same in Iran, as we have in Iraq and elsewhere.

One of the few important things the US was able to cling to in the past was a sense of moral authortity. It was defensible to tell lies to a tepid American public in the 1940s when, for example, the US was going to Europe to defeat Hitler. (I'm sure Hitler had more supporters in this country that any of us would like to imagine.) But as long as our military was used as a last resort against an undeniably evil foe, in combination with the will over other nations, we could speak as a nation guided by at least the appearance of sense.

Now, after repeated "military actions," undeclared wars, the tortures at Abu Ghraib, and the farce of our dealings in Iraq...we can no longer call others to task on not letting a cool head outweigh violence. We have tipped the world towards violence as a means to an end, and now we are seeing those consequences.

The violence in the Middle East regarding something as silly, seemingly, as offensive cartoons is absurd. But absurdity is the order of the day, it seems.

If we want this sort of thing to change, it's not really a choice about whether or not hate speech is protected speech. It's a choice about how we will conduct our own business in the future, and how to declaw the radicalization of the Middle East, before there truly is no putting out those fires.

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