By February 14, a day on which the armed resistance in Iraq murdered another eighteen people (three U.S. soldiers and fifteen Iraqis, among them an army officer and a policeman), I'd been told so often about the awfulness of the Danish cartoons (more destructive than roadside bombs, as terrible as the sinking of oil tankers) that I looked them up on the Internet. Not surprisingly, I didn't find them offensive. My bias and judgement having been formed in the secular realm of thought -- i.e., the one that we presumably value and wish to preserve, also the one that defends the Muslim minority in India against persecutions by the Hindu majority -- I thought the cartoons mildly amusing at best, in no way vicious or grotesque, well within the perimeter of what both Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin would have seen as fair use of ridicule in the service of political argument. [...] If I'm wary of religious belief in any and all of its ardent emissions, it's because I remember, as did the authors of the American Constitution, the vast numbers of people crucified -- also burned, tortured, beheaded, drawn, quartered, imprisoned, and enslaved -- on one or another of its ceremonial altars (Protestant, Muslim, Catholic, Aztec) over the course of the last 2000 years. Nor do I know why I must respect somebody merely for the fact of his or her belief, as if the attachment to a belief, in and of itself and without regard either to its substance or its object, somehow bestows a state of grace. I don't quarrel with anybody's right to believe, but passion isn't a synonym for truth. Must I respect a woman who believes that oysters sing? Or the man who believes that his mother was married to a koala bear? If it's the intensity of the emotion that I'm being asked to praise, presumably with adjectives like those affixed to expensive wines and precious jewels, then how can I fail to admire the richness of Adolf Hitler's feeling (authentic, fervent, deeply felt) for Polish Jews? [...] The transference of value from the object to the subject -- from the author's book to the author's pain -- lends itself to the language of political and commercial advertising. The customer is always right, and where is the percentage in telling the suckers with the money or the votes that their poetry doesn't scan, that their disease is incurable, their god made of wind and sand? The market buys what it wishes to believe -- about the interest-free loan or the cure for arthritis, about the democracy coming soon to Iraq and the way in which as Americans we honor one another's totem poles; nine times in ten the promise is false, the miracle at the point of sale dependent not on the worth of the product but on the telling of a sympathetic and condescending lie. Show respect for the customer's feelings, pretend to an interest in astrology, inquire after the health of the canary. [...] The Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, didn't confuse himself with Hamlet ("People can live according to their own customs," he said, "however, I think we have to insist on respecting our core values"); nor did Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Danish paper that first published the cartoons, repent of the decision: "When Muslims say you are not showing respect, I would say: you are not asking for my respect, you are asking for my submission...."
Word on the street is that Lapham will soon be retiring.