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The Limits of Satire

Danish cartoons are dull barbs, badly aimed.

By Crawford Kilian 7 Feb 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian was born in New York City in 1941. He was raised in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and was educated at Columbia University (BA '62) and Simon Fraser University (MA '72). He served in the US Army from 1963 to 1965, and moved to Vancouver in 1967. He became a naturalized Canadian in 1973.

Crawford has published 21 books -- both fiction and non-fiction, and has written hundreds of articles. He taught at Vancouver City College in the late 1960s and was a professor at Capilano College from 1968 to 2008. Much of Crawford's writing for The Tyee deals with education issues in British Columbia, but he is also interested in books, online media, and environmental issues.

Reporting Beat: Education, health, and books

Crawford's Connection to BC: Though he was born in New York City, one of Crawford's favourite places is Sointula, a small town off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

Twitter: @crof

Website: H5N1

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The uproar continues over a Danish newspaper's right to publish cartoons about Mohammed. After the sacking of Scandinavian embassies in Syria, it has become a full-fledged international incident.

Certainly, journalists have the right (and the duty) to tell their readers unwelcome truths. But I'm not sure what truth lies in the Danish cartoons, apart from the evident fact that some Danes don't have much respect for Islam.

It might be useful for Muslims to understand the cultural values that make the non-Muslim west reject Islam; it would be useful for us to understand why Islam rejects our cultural values, though I doubt we would be enlightened by anti-Semitic, anti-Christian cartoons in Muslim media.

It seems pointless to me to offer information in a form the reader can't use--whether because it's in an unfamiliar language, or because the content is sure to provoke an emotional and destructive response. Recall those two yokels dancing on a Quebec flag: how could francophones use that information, except by becoming angry and defensive?

Truth to power?

The cartoons have been labelled satire, and perhaps they are. Cartoons are shortcuts that avoid patient, reasoned argument. The same is true of written satire.

But satire works from the bottom up: we may ridicule ourselves, or our masters, but our masters look like jerks when they try to ridicule us. The same is true across national and cultural lines. Swift's "Modest Proposal" would ring hollow if it were an attack on the Irish, instead of on Ireland's English masters. America's client states can growl about the morons in Washington; when Americans sneer at Canadians as "retarded cousins," they invite only more moron jokes at their expense.

For over a century, western nations have imposed their power on Muslim nations in general and Arab nations, in particular. It therefore seems self-evident that satire -- Danish, British, or North American -- is not a useful tool for influencing Islam. And the cartoons need no further dissemination.

Author and journalist Crawford Killian teaches writing at Capilano College and is a regular contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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