Saturday, September 30, 2006

Offending Religion

international relations, law and culture, Two recent events, appearing to be completely unrelated, suggest the way in which law, culture, politics and religion have begun to interact in ways that are producing significant changes in the socio-cultural foundations of Europe and the United States. Each involves cultural objects. Both cultural objects are highly regarded by the social elites in the states in which they appear. In both cases, the objects are important representations of the production of high culture in the West. In neither case was this disputed. Each event, however, involves the intersection of religious sensibilities with these important cultural objects. And in both cases, highly important (and in one case almost venerated) cultural objects were abandoned or rejected in favor of another set of values.

The first event occurred in Germany. On September 25, 2006, the Deutsche Oper, one of the most respected opera houses in the Western world, announced that it was eliminating performances of the opera Idomeneo from its repertoire for the season and replacing it with two other operas “over concerns they could enrage Muslims and pose a security risk.”. Noah Barkin, “Politicians Slam Berlin Opera for Canceling Idomeneo,” Reuters, Tuesday, September 26, 2006, available at Scotsman News. This is no ordinary work of popular culture. The opera, written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the 1780s, is considered one of the finest examples of its kind ever to have been written. It has been performed all over the world. It is one of the foundational works of Western culture music. But what is culture today when the stakes of cultural production have changed? The reason the opera was cancelled was simple. “The decision was taken after Berlin security officials warned that putting on the opera as planned would present an ‘incalculable security risk’ for the establishment.” Id. It seems that “In the production, directed by Hans Neuenfels, King Idomeneo is shown staggering on stage next to the severed heads of Buddha, Jesus, Poseidon and the Prophet Mohammad, which sit on chairs.” Id. The basis of the determination of a sufficient threat “was prompted by an anonymous phone call in June,” (id.) though the police had “no evidence of a specific threat.” Id. Though a number of prominent politicians condemned the decision, it is unlikely that Mozart’s Idomeneo will grace the stage of the opera house in Berlin this year. “’Has it come so far that we must limit artistic expression?” [deputy Parliamentary Speaker Wolgang Thierse] told Reuters. ‘What will be next?’” Id.

Surprisingly, the answer comes from Dallas, Texas. There, a “popular art teacher with 28 years in the classroom is out of a job after leading her fifth grade classes last April [2006] through the Dallas Museum of Art.” Ralph Blumenthal, “Museum Field Trip Deemed Too Revealing: Texas Art Teacher Suspended After a Parent Complains,” New York Times, September 30, 2006, at A-9. The Dallas Museum of Art does not have a reputation for exhibiting works of low culture. Indeed, it prides itself as one of the premiere showcases of the best artistic work of Western culture. “The Dallas Museum of Art recently celebrated one hundred years of connecting art and people. Established in 1903, the Museum features an outstanding collection of more than 23,000 works of art from around the world, from ancient to modern times.” Dr. John R. Lane, Director’s Welcome, Dallas Museum of Art, . Moreover, the Dallas Museum is supported not only by private donations but is intimately tied to local government. “The Dallas Museum of Art is supported in part by the generosity of Museum members and donors and by the citizens of Dallas through the City of Dallas/Office of Cultural Affairs and the Texas Commission on the Arts.” Dallas Museum of Art, Homepage. “Over the past decade, more than half a million students. . . have toured the museum’s collection.” Blumenthal, supra. But all of this meant nothing in the face of parental outrage. And what was the source of this outrage? The suspension letter to the teacher stated that “During a study trip that you planned for fifth graders, students were exposed to nude statues and other nude art representations.” Blumenthal, supra. And, indeed, they may well have been exposed to the “marble torso of a Greek youth from a funerary relief, circa 330 B.C.” Id.

In both cases, important institutional actors took extreme action (and suspending a teacher or canceling an opera production falls into that category in the context in which those decisions were made) on the basis of a single complaint or a single threat, based on offense. In both cases, high culture falls to single expressions of offense, or threats of violence based on such offense. In both cases important institutional actors may disavow the importance of culture in the face of offense. In a sense there is an inversion here. Where once there was a socially approved offense in the face of cultural boorishness, now the reverse seems to be true—there is a move to a socially approved sense of offense in the face of the “arrogance” of high culture to reflect something other than the boorish tastes of the least educated, or of cultural strangers. Where culture becomes inverted, will law not quickly follow? We might find it galling sometimes to be led from the top, but consider the effects of being led from the bottom. We may not like where we wind up. And indeed, such an inversion portends decadence more than cultural vigor.

When a political community abandons its own culture, when it ceases to affirm its own ideals expressed through cultural symbols--pictures, speech, music and the like--it begins to express an altogether different value--a desire for self-destruction. The events I relate above do not appear connected, yet they are the product of the same set of impulses. That impulse was nicely summarized recently in a criticism of the Western response to the violence that accompanied the so-called Danish cartoon controversy.

“The real hypocrites in the debate were liberal intellectuals, too many to name, who spent years denouncing Christian fundamentalist demands for prayer and the teaching of evolution, in schools, the censorship of books and films, and limits on abortion, only to cave to fundamentalist Muslim demands for the introduction of Shari’a law, for separate swimming classes for boys and girls, and—in the Danish case—for the respect of religious rules not only by members of the religious group but by the society at large. Portraying the prophet may be prohibited for Muslims, but it is not and cannot be for anyone else. Muslims may ask that others respect their religious precepts, but they cannot demand it any more than observant Jews can demand that their fellow citizens not shop on Saturdays or Christians can demand that non-believers respect their sexual mores. That liberal intellectuals could be so absolutist in their dismissal of demands made by Christian fundamentalists but so apologist and relativist in their indulgence of those made by Muslim fundamentalists beggars belief. Randall Hassen, “The Danish Cartoon Controversy: A Defense of Liberal Freedom,’ EUSA Review Forum, EUSA (European Union Studies Association) Review 19(2):1, 5 (Spring 2006).

Clearly Professor Hassen is onto something. Though I suspect that what he characterizes as liberal hypocrisy is shared by a substantial portion of the political and media elites in the West. The point is easily extended to the decision of the Berlin opera and its unfortunate decision to cancel a performance of a venerable Mozart opera. But it applies with equal force to the self censorship and fear that is generated by domestic fundamentalists who would undo centuries of cultural development, development on which their political, social, moral, and (yes even) religious privilege rests. The same decadence that drives the director of the Berlin opera to cancel an operatic performance also drives a school administration to essentially forbid the viewing of representational art (spanning millennia) by students. In the one case, the West denies itself a continued renewal of its cultural ties to music and expression, and on the other the West forbids the education of its children in its own cultural fundamentals. A society that rejects its own cultural basis for existence, a community that forbids its children an education in its own past, is one that is an easy prey for other political and cultural communities with a greater attachment to their own identity. The West understood this well in the twentieth century, and to our benefit. We seem to be forgetting it quickly in the 21st.


Anonymous said...

That's why I believe the "politically right" era is ending. No more hipocrisy. True feelings, true identities and a lot of conflicts. Instead of discussing all the unilateral acts of western censorship, I'd like to talk about reciprocity. Do we have respect to our set of values when in muslim countries? Evolution should reach all people.

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