Last week, I reported that a number of newspapers had decided not to run a two-part storyline appearing in Berkeley Breathed’s comic-strip Opus (the reincarnation of his once wildly popular Bloom County). In the comic, the main female character, Lola Granola (a name redolent with meaning), had decided to convert to radical Islam and had begun to wear a burqa. According to Editor & Publisher, some newspapers “won”t publish any Muslim-related humor, whether pro or con.” But, as I explained (both in my post and repeatedly in the comments), this strip wasn’t making fun of Islam, but of Western “converts” who, a few years ago, might have followed Madonna into Kabbalism or Richard Gere into Buddhism.
That fact made the media’s cowardice all the more telling. Now the second installment has appeared, and the story has moved from the ridiculous to the bizarre. According to Salon.com, the Washington Post Writers Group, which distributes Opus and had originally defended the two-part series (while offering an alternative selection to newspapers that wanted to opt out), would not approve the second installment until Breathed made a slight (but significant) change to the text.
To push the event beyond the heights of absurdity, the Washington Post then refused to publish even the bowdlerized version.
So, what’s so horribly offensive to Muslims about part two of the storyline? Again, as far as I can tell, nothing. Lola’s initial enthusiasm for Islam is waning, and she’s abandoned her veil. Breathed still pokes a little fun at her character, but the joke could apply equally to some conservative Christians who are perhaps a bit too hypersensitive on questions of female modesty.
Breathed reserves his main stab at humor for his lead male character, Steve Dallas. Realizing that Lola’s “conversion” is just a passing phase, Steve slips into stereotypical male chauvinism, telling her that “You love that I’m so damned smart about what’s best for you” and then demanding that, “In 30 seconds, you will come back out wearing that steamy little polka dot [bikini].” Just to drive the point home, Steve exclaims, “America rocks!”
Clearly, Breathed is satirizing those “conservatives” who believe that the way to combat Islam is to export our “values”—values such as, in the words of one Iraqi in the heady days after the overthrow of Saddam, “Democracy! Whiskey! Sexy!” In fact, in the very next panel, he drives the point home, as Steve turns to his son and declares, “And that, little dude, is how we’re gonna straighten out the Middle East.”
Except that he doesn’t. At least, not in the version approved by the Washington Post Writers Group. Only Salon.com ran the original text. All of the other papers that ran the second part of the storyline had Steve saying, “And that, little dude, is how we’re gonna straighten out the world.” (The final little twist in the strip makes it clear that, world or Middle East, Steve’s not going to succeed in straightening out anything.)
This is political correctness at its worst. Again, Islam is not the butt of Breathed’s joke. As he did last week, he deftly satirizes a certain group of contemporary Americans. What’s even more strange about the decision of the Washington Post and others not to run this installment is that it’s hard to hide behind the “no Muslim-related humor of any kind” justification. In fact, Islam has taken such a low-level supporting role in this installment that I have to wonder whether the concern about Steve’s declaration that he’s going to straighten out the Middle East has to do with another lobbying group.
In any case, it’s just a cartoon, right? Of course—except that it tells us a little something about the willingness of the American media to engage in honest discussion of controversial issues. No wonder the Chicago Tribune and the Rockford Register Star both ran glowing articles about the local Muslim school in Rockford, Illinois, without ever once mentioning the many red flags that I noticed in the course of one day at the school.
It’s bad enough to be blind; it’s even worse to poke your own eyes out.
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