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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Mullahs and Moguls

Oddly enough, Saturday's burning of European embassies in Damascus connects to Sunday's Super Bowl in Detroit along a thread that runs through Wisconsin.

Thousands of fundamentalist Muslims, their consciences outraged at demeaning portrayals of the Prophet in recent European political cartoons, surrounded the embassies of Denmark and Norway in Syria and set them afire. "Aggrieved believers called for executions, storming European buildings and burning European flags," reported the New York Times Saturday.

Western observers, meanwhile, looked on amazed. In nations where free speech is enshrined rather than spiritual wisdom, and the most intimate details of a leader's sex life are fair game for journalists, few people could identify with the attackers' motives. The legal separation of church and state, and the freedom to investigate and comment on the world around us, are two pillars of our democracy.

Wisconsin has played an important role in supporting both those pillars. The 1889 Edgerton Bible Case was a landmark in clarifying the separation of religion and government. A number of Catholic parents in that small Dane Co. community protested against the reading of a Protestant version of the Bible during school programs. When they were ignored by the town, they went to the state Supreme Court, asking it to forbid Bible reading because it violated the constitution. The court agreed, ruling that reading the Bible to pupils was, in fact, sectarian instruction and was prohibited by the state's constitution.

And in 1894, when UW economics professor Richard Ely was teaching socialist and communist theories, he was attacked in the press for corrupting Wisconsin's youth. He was investigated by state officials and the University, whose leaders famously concluded that "whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."

But before we get too smug about our sacred moral values of freedom and tolerance, let's return to this weekend's other main event, the Super Bowl. On Saturday ABC announced that it would not air the game and its half-time entertainment live, but rather would impose a five-second tape delay in order to censor potentially offensive content. "ABC has wisely decided to ensure that this year's Super Bowl is not hijacked by raunchy performers as it was in 2004," said L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council. "Now, we hope that millions of families can safely watch this family program without the worry of seeing inappropriate sexual content or hearing vulgar language."

It's nice to know that the mullahs and patriarchs of the mass media are keeping the rest of us safe.

Seriously, though, it's not their fault. The success of their enterprise depends on the goodwill of their customers. If the media moguls cause too much pain to their audience, viewers will defect, revenues will fall, network power will diminish, and its mission will fail. No, the true responsibility for freedom or repression lies with the populace -- that is, with you and me. The test of civilization is not how institutions act, but how individual citizens act. Do we burn books (or embassies)? Or do we tolerate those with whom we disagree and defend the rights of those whom we detest?

We are never far from our worst selves. They often lurk perilously close to our most deeply felt values. Only a few years after the famous sifting and winnowing speech, pacifists were chased from their homes by lynch mobs, German-Americans were tarred and feathered, and Wisconsin lawmakers tried to censor any book that "defames our nation's founders." In language that the arsonists in Damascus might understand, the bill's author commented, "I pity and have grave fears for a nation that is taught to laugh at its forefathers."

We should save our pity and fear instead for a nation that is taught to live in ignorance. As our capital's namesake, James Madison, put it long ago, "Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives." That knowledge depends on the freedom to see cartoons that lampoon our cherished beliefs, to read books or visit Web sites that most people find distasteful, and even to watch live Super Bowls.

:: Posted in Curiosities on February 4, 2006
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