February 8, 2006
Religious Prejudice and The New York Times

By James Piereson

The New York Times has weighed in with an editorial in Tuesday's edition on the cartoons in the Danish newspaper that caused such an uproar in the Moslem world. The editors make the perfectly sensible point that people are likely to be offended if their religion is ridiculed and mocked, but that it makes little sense to riot, burn buildings, and threaten lives in retaliation, There are peaceful and more constructive ways of registering disapproval with such depictions that offend religious sensibilities.

The editors then go on to say: "The New York Times and much of the rest of the nation's news media have reported on the cartoons but refrained from showing them. That seems a reasonable choice for news organizations usually refrain from gratuitous assaults [sic] on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words." Besides, one might add, the cartoons are readily available on the internet for anyone with an interest in seeing them.

The editors were perhaps wise to include the qualification that news organizations "usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols," for many readers will remember the paper's defense of Serrano's "Piss Christ" depicting a crucifix suspended in a container of urine, and the exhibition a few years ago at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in which a portrait of the Virgin Mary was displayed festooned with pornography and elephant dung. Mayor Giuliani, to his credit, described the exhibition as "sick stuff" and sought to withdraw public funds that supported it, though for this he was blasted by the Times for promoting censorship and hysteria. There have been many other such episodes over the years in which Christian symbols or representatives have been mocked or insulted with nary a peep of protest from the editors of The New York Times.

It might be said that the Times has a double standard when it comes to gratuitous insults of Christian symbols. That would be to put it mildly. Christians, however, perhaps in keeping with their teaching and in contrast to many Moslems, do not react very much in response to ridicule or mockery. It is hard to say whether this response renders ridicule ineffective or simply invites more of it.

Why, just the other day, as if to make the point for us, the editors of The New York Times Book Review ran a review of Kathryn Davis's novel, The Thin Place, that contained precisely such a gratuitous insult. The title of this novel, as we learn from the first sentence of the review, derives from Celtic Christian lore as a description of a place where the physical and spiritual worlds meet. The reviewer -- Lucy Ellmann, another novelist -- cannot hold back her judgment on the general phenomenon of Christianity: "I should declare immediately," she writes, "that I resent and fear Christianity, not only for its sexism and incitement of violence but for its deadening effect on the imagination." That's quite a mouthful for the lady novelist, but one wonders what her feelings about Christianity, deeply felt as they may be, have to do with the novel under review. (Later, continuing this theme, she remarks that spending time with the author's prose "is like being holed up with some crazy old nun.") In fact, her judgments on this subject are quite irrelevant since (again, judging from the review) the novel itself has very little to do with Christianity. The word "Christianity" appeared before her and -- presto! -- out popped her feelings, which are not merely ignorant, but here gratuitously so.

This is precisely the kind of authorial excess that editors are expected to catch, unless of course they see nothing strange or unusual in such gratuitous observations. And perhaps that is the larger point. The editors of the Times are tone deaf when it comes to insults of Christians, but have the equivalent of rabbit ears when it comes to slights against other groups.

At the same time, the intellectual standards at the Book Reivew are in something of a free fall owing in great part to increasingly trashy fare the editors feel compelled to review. It must seem counter-productive to impose intellectual standards on reviews of sex manuals, the memoirs of porn stars, or the latest indulgent novel by one of the growing number of Americans who wish to write but have little to say. The Book Review, after all, is to a great extent a creature of the publishing houses that purchase advertising space to promote their products. From this perspective, then, the tone deafness regarding Christianity is not so much a function of bigotry or prejudice, but rather of simple ignorance and eroding intellectual standards.

James Piereson is an occasional contributor to The New Criterion.

James Piereson

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