Thursday, September 20, 2012

All Thumbs Down (Updated)

As usual, we shall largely refrain from wading into the sociopolitical kerfuffle surrounding that video, “Mohammad Does Manhattan” or whatever the heck it was called, whose promotion by provocateurs  sparked assaults upon American and European embassies in much of the world (Japan’s embassy in China has also been under assault, but that is not part of the main feature, more like the introductory cartoons).   But we make certain logical, linguistic, and literary points.

The narrative as initially (mis)understood in the Muslim world is as follows:
(A) America made a film ridiculing Islam, and should apologize.
The narrative floating around the US has two subflavors:
(B1)  [mainstream media]  Some Americans made a film which, though some might find it offensive (de gustibus non disputandem est) is protected as free speech -- “We disagree with what you say but we shall defend to the death your right to say it”.  Free speech as such is protected from legal sanctions.
(B2) [Romney fantasy]  The Obama administration did apologize for making the film and it was a disgrace to do so, since the film embodies American values and we should be proud of American values.

Quite apart from your religion or politics, all those narratives are factually false.

(1)   So far as anyone knows, there isn’t actually any such “film”, in the traditional sense of this term. (A Washington Post columnist makes this point here.)  There is an amateur video, never seen in movie theatres, but simply posted on YouTube, along with hundreds of thousands of other amateur offerings, such as cats looking confused, gay sex with someone being dismembered, and (possibly most disturbing of all) Drunk Gumby.  (A much funnier and even viler “drunk Gumby” video -- apparently this is a whole genre unto itself -- used to be available here:,  but has alas been “removed by the user”, i.e. suppressed by The State. Somebody please re-post!)  The distinction is important, since absolutely anything can go ‘direct to video’, whereas a true movie requires a lot of social and financial muscle for production and distribution, and thus the very act of receiving such treatment  tells you a lot about the country in which it was made.   Thus, I almost never read reviews of books I don’t plan to read -- they come and go in their hundreds every month.  I do read movie reviews of major studio-funded movies I will never see, so as to feel the pulse of the nation.
The fact that the US media continues to speak of a “film” as though it were part of a double feature with “Batman’s Revenge”  is a disservice -- to semantics.
(2)  The video certainly wasn’t made by “America”, as in scenario (A), and apparently not even by an American, but by an Egyptian -- an Egyptian, to be sure, abusing the hospitality of American soil.

Cinematic genius Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, surrounded by his many fans

(3)  Given (1) and (2), there is no question of America “apologizing” -- not as a moral or political matter, but simply a grammatical matter:  You cannot apologize for something you have not done.   If you, not I, step on Elvis’s blue suede shoes, I may defend your action or denounce it, but I cannot “apologize” to Elvis.

(4)  As a matter of law, speech as such is not protected.  For instance, knowingly false and malicious statements (such as certainly characterize this video) can be prosecuted as slander or defamation.   In this country, however, you cannot be prosecuted for making such statements about a dead person (such as the prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace) or a religion.  So, this video is probably not subject to legal sanctions so far as its content (although charges might be brought owing to certain fraudulent circumstances of its production):  but this, as a matter of details specific to the case, and not by some blanket exemption for “speech”.    In fact, any time someone is prosecuted under our (intolerably vague) laws against “conspiracy”, they are being prosecuted for things they said, not things they did.

(5)  A point that has received surprisingly little commentary:  the perpetrator initially pretended to be Israeli, and to have raised the millions of dollars he needed to make the film from “100 Jewish doctors”.
First, a legal point.   Suppose I make a video defaming Babar the Elephant King, sign it “Harvey P. Miller, 333 Oak Lane, Gashville, Ohio”, and leave it on the doorstep of the International Babar Society.   I cannot be prosecuting for the content, since U.S. law recognizes no category of lèse-majesté, nor of slander of elephants.   So be it.  But:  Mr. Harvey P. Miller,  of 333 Oak Lane, Gashville, Ohio, does have a prospect of legal recourse of some sort, since his life has been put in peril by the malice of another.
If the perp’s story had stuck, it could well have sparked violence, not against our embassies, but against Jews and against Israel.   And if Romney had just managed to “hold it” for twenty-four hours (clenching his teeth, and dancing from foot to foot), instead of putting his foot into his mouth and swallowing it, he could be basking right now on the high ground, denouncing the video along with a chorus of Friends of Israel.   But as usual, he blew it.

(6)  That detail -- we might almost say, that folkloristic motif -- of “a hundred Jewish doctors” (vice fifty Presbyterian plumbers, or a thousand Confucian choreographers) immediately set off an alarm bell.  The guy was obviously a phoney -- but phoney in an interesting way, and one not widely familiar to Americans.  For here we have to deal, not with everyday small-town/farmburg anti-Semitism, but the strange, Jungian-archetype-ridden psychic underworld of such other weirdly imaginative slanders as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (which I partly satirize in the Riemann Conspiracy series -- the only difference being that the Riemann Conspiracy is real, and they are coming for you right now.)   Specifically, it echoes the anti-Jewish Stalinist show trials known as the “Doctors Plot”.


  Thus far the language and logic of the thing -- all from a rational Western perspective.   Such logico-linguistic hygiene is useful for avoiding bone-headed Romnification ©,  but not for understanding what is going on in the rest of the world, or predicting events.  And here, there is no settled mental calculus that will aid us:  We shall have to proceed far afield, leaving logic well behind.

Fouad Ajami has a thoughtful essay on the subject in this morning’s Washington Post:
We have ourselves addressed the issue in an earlier essay:
            Pride and the Laws of Motion

~   ~
For an exhilarating parable
in which Spring becomes general,
and dry twigs  send forth  green leaves,   see
Murphy and the Magic Pawnshop
~   ~

[Update, 20 IX 2012]

(Historical background -- a public service from Le Figaro)
Les 75.000 premiers exemplaires du numéro sur les caricatures de Mahomet ont été vendus en quelques heures. Le journal satirique devrait en écouler plus de 200.000.
[Translation:   Repenting all the way to the bank.]

[Update  22 Sept 2012]  The mental confusion on the part of the Muslim rioters  is matched by the confusion of the Washington Post reporter:

Despite repeated U.S. disavowals of the privately made video and denunciations of its content, many Pakistanis remained unconvinced, seeing it as an intentional calumny against the prophet Muhammad.

This is a false dichotomy.   Pakistanis are absolutely correct in seeing the video as “an intentional calumny against the prophet Muhammad”;  that’s exactly what it was, no-one really denies that.  (As the author of several intentional calumnies, mostly against the likes of Donald Trump, I recognize them when I see them.)   That fact is not in contradiction to denunciations and disavowals from U.S. government entities, which had no role at all in the production or distribution of the video.

[Update 28 September 2012]

The man thought to have been behind the anti-Islam video that set off deadly protests across the Muslim world in recent weeks was arrested on Thursday for violating terms of his probation in a 2010 bank fraud case.


  1. Dave, you can apologize for some one else's actions. It's what you do if your kid disrupts a wedding; or your employee is rude to a client. There is an interesting social relationship required for it though -- I was going to use the term "paternalistic" but that's not quite it, because you also apologize if your best friend got drunk and threw up on the floor of your host's house. There's a required implication of incapacity.

    1. True; point taken.
      "Felicity conditions" for apology are not all-or-nothing; there are gradations.
      All I wish to contend is that, in this situation, for the USG to "apologize", would be an apology at several removes. To wit: Some Egyptians, abusing our hospitality on our soil, emit a piece of worthless garbage, without our knowledge or approval or anything else. The connection is truly tenuous. Better might Adam apologize for Hitler -- his offspring, after all ...