Filed under: Imperialism | Tags: Afghanistan, Gillian Gibbons, Imperialism, Mohammed, Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre
Anti-cartoon Afghans are at it again.Thousands of Afghan students staged protests over a Dutch film that characterizes the Qur’an as fascist and over the recently reprinted famous Danish cartoon that depicted the Prophet Mohammed in a “bomb-shaped turban.” The incident also recalls the case of Gillian Gibbons who spent fifteen days in a Sudanese jail for naming a “teddy bear” Mohammed after her preschool class agreed on the name. Cue the usual questions of “What can’t be named Mohammed?” and warnings against this latest assault on the Western liberal enlightenment values of free speech and freedom of the press. Incidentally, Britain, Denmark and Holland all have troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East. This fact alone should suggest that such questions are altogether the wrong ones.
In Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Severin historian Robert Darnton addresses a similar situation. Just prior to the French Revolution, a stable of printers on the Rue Saint-Severin suffered abject poverty and frequent beatings from their wealthy, bourgeois master and his wife.
They slept in a filthy, freezing room, rose before dawn, ran errands all day while dodging insults from the journeymen and abuse from the master, and received nothing but slops to eat. They found the food especially galling. Instead of dining at the master’s table, they had to eat scraps from his plate in the kitchen. Worse still, the cook secretly sold the leftovers and gave the boys cat food,old, rotten bits of meat that they could not stomach and so passed on to the cats, who refused it.
The cats came to symbolize the oppression and humiliation borne daily by the workers. One day, unable to suffer the cats any longer, the workers staged a mock trial for the felines, complete with evidence, testimony, guards, a confessor and a public execution. The cats were “publicly” hanged with special punishment reserved for the puss most favoured by the master’s wife. The great cat massacre was termed “the most hilarious experience in [the workers’] entire career,” a bloody, irrational, even hysterical revolt. “Yet,” Darnton adds,
it strikes the modern reader as unfunny, if not downright repulsive. Where is the humor in a group of grown men bleating like goats and banging with their tools while an adolescent re enacts the ritual slaughter of a defenseless animal? Our own inability to get the joke is an indication of the distance that separates us from the workers of pre-industrial Europe. The perception of that distance may serve as the starting point of an investigation, for anthropologists have found that the best points of entry in an attempt to penetrate an alien culture can be those where it seems to be most opaque. When you realize that you are not getting something—a joke, a proverb, a ceremony—that is particularly meaningful to the natives, you can see where to grasp a foreign system of meaning in order to unravel it. By getting the joke of the great cat massacre, it may be possible to “get” a basic ingredient of artisan culture under the Old Regime.
His argument, essentially, is that the cats acted as a symbolic stand-in for the bourgeois, and that the whole elaborate arrangement was an dramatic rehearsal for the French Revolution fifteen or so years later. The servants hanged the cats because they couldn’t hang the bourgeoisie. Moreover, the fact that the workers’ ritual remains impenetrable to us signals its massive cultural implications.
Our governments enact ceaseless and explicit violence on the people of the Middle East in our names. The men and women of Afghanistan are subject to humiliation through daily expressions of our wealth in our mass, pulp media, while their poverty rings as a constant tonic to it. Icons of Western society like our newspapers and editorial cartoons are so loaded with symbolic baggage because of the fact that they are so rare in places like the Sudan and Afghanistan. When a culture emasculated weekly is given the opportunity to assert some measure of revenge, some measure of authority over a culture that constantly humiliates them, even on this small, symbolic scale, of course they are going to take it. Of course they are. That’s the tragedy of human nature.
Then we look at such an incident, out of context, and wonder why these men and women act so irrationally, when rationality has got nothing to do with it. Our egos are served by proxy through our governments, so we have the privilege of boiling it down to rationality. Even our analogies are absurd, and barely scratch the surface, even as we strain to understand. Can’t we see Christ or Yahweh mocked in the editorial pages? Isn’t naming a stuffed bear Mohammed the same as naming a pet Jesus? These analogies are the closest we can get, to be sure. Why do you think the children, who surely know more about Islam than the teacher, than most of us too, saw no problem with naming a doll Mohammed? Because it wasn’t for this crime, for this blasphemy, that the teacher was tried.
Incidents like the Dutch film are not about blasphemy laws, or corporal punishment, or a flawed justice system. Until our governments stop their murderous campaign against nations of Islam, crimes like this will continue to take place, because war, always, does sick things to people, on scales large and small. But this dynamic always reproduces itself too–since these incidents allow us to reflect on the barbarity of Islamic cultures and the enlightenment of our own, and provide more fuel to the war machine that brokered the crime in the first place. It is an impulse consonant with the perverse, grotesque argument that justifies foreign occupation under the auspices of “liberating” Muslim women and delivering democracy to the savages who need it.
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