Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Cathartic cartoons

There exists an amateur film made in 1978 of a spectacular landslide that took place in town named Rissa in Norway. The town was built on a deposit of a particular kind of clay that is held together by salt ions. When too high a proportion of the salt ions are washed out by for instance heavy rainfall, the clay particles lose their cohesion, and a quickclay is formed, or in other words, the soil liquefies, and a rapid landslide results. In this particular case, a man was digging the foundations of a barn, and by doing so happened to just tip the chemical balance of the soil, with catastrophic consequences. The film shows the liquefaction phenomenon spreading up the valley from the digging site, and the entire valley down to the bedrock flowing like a river, carrying houses, cars, roads, absolutely everything at speeds of up to 60 km/h down to the fjord. Obviously Rissa was flushed off the map, and the resulting small tsunami in the fjord caused serious flood damage to the town on the opposite shore. In one of those strange ironies of fate, the man who dug the whole and started the whole catastrophe in the first place was one of the very few people whose house was left standing. He was also almost certainly the most unpopular man in Rissa. It occurs to the Militant Pine Marten that the chaps who ran the ill-advised cartoon competition in the Danish newspaper the Jyllands-Posten must feel a bit like him.

At this stage, the general consensus is that the current wave of violent reaction to the now notorious set of a dozen cartoons is as disproportionate considering the offence as the 8 million cubic metres of clay that flowed through Rissa were given that all that the poor chap who set it all in motion had done was dig a one metre deep hole in his garden. Clearly, taking offence at foreigners deriding one's culture through heavy-handed, crude stereotyping is fair enough. Lacking a sense of humour to the extent of taking it out on an entire nation and burning their embassies is something more than a simple sense of humour failure. It's tempting of course to put down the scenes of violence that we are now witnessing in the Middle-East mainly but also in Europe to a clash of civilisations, or to an Enlightenment conflict between secularism and religious obscurantism. Or if you're inclined to think that way, just to fall back on the opinion that Muslims are all a bunch of backward savages anyway. But none of these are an adequate explanation for current events. An entire people doesn't suddenly go on the rampage against a small faraway country with little or no influence over their lives because of what is essentially a collection of bad jokes.

What we're seeing here is an extraordinary manifestation of collective catharsis. By and large, since September 2001, being a Muslim has been quite uncomfortable, both in the West and in the Islamic world. In the West, there's an unpleasant climate of suspicion against Muslims. Look around you, and you'll see the apprehension in commuters' eyes when a chap with a long, thick beard steps onto the train. It isn't fair, it isn't rational, but it happens all the time and Muslims feel it. If you live in the Middle-East or Central Asia, all hell has been let loose, and that's in addition to the problems that appear endemic in the region to do with essentially awful governments, whether secular or religious. All the time, people are being permanently assured that it's all mainly America's fault, and admittedly, the USA hasn't really been helping much in this respect. So in the West, Muslims have to live with the undercurrent of hostility and try and be gracious about it, and in the Middle-East they have to watch bombs falling and their lives fall down around them while being powerless to do anything about it. In those circumstances, it's understandable that you may want to vent some frustration, blow off some steam, maybe burn the Stars and Stripes, shout very loud and break something. Noisily. What you want to break is the US Marine Corps or Ariel Sharon's neck, but Sharon's already broken and the Marines shoot back. But a couple of Danish embassies, well, what are they going to do about it? Denmark may not matter much to you, but it's Western and one of their newspaper editors was clueless enough to commission those cartoons. The Danes will do as scapegoats.

Maybe when the landslide has stabilised and the waves from the impact have settled down, we'll have a clearer view of the underlying problem. It may release some tensions, and clearly show who and what is really to blame for this insane situation, and it's probably going to turn out to be widespread paranoia on both sides of the divide, combined with (mostly) American heavy-handedness, ignorance and therefore contempt of each others' cultures, with an entrenched and erroneous belief in the Middle-East that all local problems are someone else's fault. And when everyone acknowledges that, then maybe we can stabilise some slopes and adopt a more informed approach to digging foundations for sheds in unstable areas.

1 comment:

dsquared said...

you're right - it's what I'd call a "moral panic", different in scale but not structure from our own paedophile panics, food scares etc etc.