WASHINGTON -- "Damn you and the likes of you to the bowels of hell, you ignorant racist bastard!"
So wrote an outraged Muslim to political cartoonist Doug Marlette a few years ago after he drew a cartoon featuring the prophet Muhammad.
Tens of thousands of Muslims bellowed, blogged and clogged until servers collapsed with hate mail and death threats.
No cartoon -- or cartoonist -- would go unpunished.
Here we go again.
Similar passions are being expressed this week in response to another cartoon, this time on the cover of the liberal-leaning New Yorker magazine. And this time, those railing against an "offensive" image are not religious fundamentalists of the far right, but political secularists of the far left.
Without even a wink at satire, the same righteous literal-mindedness that we tend to associate with the unenlightened has found expression among those who regard themselves as the most enlightened.
The cartoon prompting this latest run on smelling salts features Barack and Michelle Obama in the Oval Office. The senator, dressed in Muslim garb, is fist-bumping his wife, who sports an Angela Davis afro and wears a rifle slung over her shoulder. An American flag burns in the fireplace, over which hangs a portrait of someone resembling Osama bin Laden.
Get it? The play on exaggerated stereotypes? The un-nuanced spoofing of Americanus Ignoramus? But no.
Oh, the outrage. It's racist! shouts the left. It's stereotyping! Well, duh, cartoons are like that. It's feeding the ignorant misperceptions of the loony right!
As Marlette would say: "Puh-leez."
The intent of the illustration should be clear to anyone attuned to current events. Cartoonist Barry Blitt was poking fun at all the rumors and fearsome phobias circulating about the Obamas among a certain contingent. We know who they are.
Viral e-mails claim, for instance, that Obama is a Muslim; that Obama was sworn into the Senate using a Koran instead of a Bible; that Obama isn't a patriot because he refuses to wear a flag pin or put his hand over his heart during the national anthem; that Michelle Obama is militantly anti-American. And so on.
All these claims have been clarified and/or refuted for anyone curious enough to seek the truth. Even so, a certain percentage of people will continue to believe what they choose no matter what.
In any case, those about whom the outraged presumably are most concerned are: (1) unlikely to pick up a New Yorker; (2) unlikely to be swayed or disabused of their preconceptions. So what exactly are they worried about?
That yahoos just passing by a newsstand will see those images and have their paranoid suspicions confirmed?
Such is elitism at its most self-destructive. Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and former New Yorker staffer, put it nicely to the San Francisco Chronicle: "The essence of what they're saying is, 'I get it, but I don't trust the people in Kansas to get it.'"
Sanitizing satire either to buffer the sensitivities of those who consider themselves more highly evolved -- or to withhold kindling from those deemed less sophisticated -- is all of a piece.
Ignorance is the common denominator.
While one strain of ignorance likely springs from misinformation or a lack of educated knowledge, the other is more virulent by virtue of its opposite circumstances.
For his part, Obama may be missing a Sister Souljah opportunity to demonstrate both his smarts and his common sense. His campaign has called The New Yorker cover "tasteless and offensive." John McCain chimed in with "totally inappropriate."
Harrumph, harrumph, harrumph.
Far more important than anyone's feelings -- and Obama surely knows this -- is freedom of expression. Yet those who are objecting to the cover apparently think that only certain ideas should be expressed. And that some portion of conservative America is too stupid to get it.
Marlette, who died prematurely a year ago in a freak accident that robbed the world of his necessary voice, would say that we don't need protection from offensive words and images. Instead, he would insist that we need protection from those who would censor ideas they find objectionable and whose literal minds make common cause with fascist fundamentalists everywhere.
In the final calculation, unsophisticated yahoos, to the extent they really are, pose a lesser threat to the nation than an elitist intelligentsia convinced it knows what's best for the rest.
Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group