14 February 2006

Cartoon Justice

Here's another gratuitous West Wing reference. As Lord John Marbury said early on:

Happily ensconced in the cocoon of your Cold War victory, you are woefully ignorant of the powerful historical agents in Asia. The global triumph of the economic free market has created an illusory assumption that the world is drawing itself closer together. Your Congress has been pathetically inept at halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons in this region, and your intelligence gathering is weak. India and Pakistan have fought three wars in the half-century since they have gained their independence, with God knows how many skirmishes in between. It is about religion, and I can assure you, they do not share our fear of the bomb.

"Lord John Marbury" (first broadcast 05 Jan 2000). Of course, it's not just India and Pakistan. It's conservative organized Islam and the West. The problem is that in both instances, one side is refusing to recognize a religious (or at least quasireligious) imperative.

  • The West is so blinded by the personal visions of Judeo-Christianity—which is not a religion, but a cultural context that illuminates the same way as does staring at the sun—that it is unable to accept that non-Western religious and cultural systems fairly uniformly have a much broader conception of what the West has come to call a "graven image." In the West, we don't consider it a "graven image" unless/until it becomes an object of worship, or conscious replacement for the internal mental image of our respective deities. In non-Western religions and cultures, though, the act of creating an image of certain anthropomorphic religious figures is by itself inappropriate—and mocking the subject is even worse. There's plenty of fault on both sides here… but then, I'm from the West myself, however much effort I've put into understanding beyond the West over the years. That leads to the converse problem:
  • Much of the non-Western world refuses to accept the quasireligious attachment to dissent that forms the foundation of the post-Enlightenment Western world. Just as the West doesn't understand the religious doctrine(s) involved in "graven images" (and usually refuses to try), the rest of the world doesn't understand the elements of faith enshrined as "freedom of speech" (and usually refuses to try). This is at least in part a problem of religious doctrine, but mostly a matter of linguistics. It's very, very hard to accept that a framling's religion revolves around multiple sets of beliefs, some of which the framlings say should not be called "religion."

Then, of course, there's the issue of "tolerance" and "dissent" that makes a dialog virtually impossible. Bluntly, the West refuses to accept that not all cultures tolerate dissent, and the non-Western world refuses to accept that the West requires it. I am not saying that the West and the rest of the world can never coexist—quite the contrary. The problem is that much of the non-Western world, and especially the power structures there, does not consider "coexistence" a worthy goal. I don't think there's an easy way out of this dilemma. Instead, we can only echo the Captain's lament:

What we've got here is… failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach.