Isn't the Opus Cartoon That the Washington Post Refused to Run Quite Tame?

Jonathan Adler links to the Opus cartoon that the Washington Post and some other papers refused to run. The Washington Post archive for the strip does have the strip, as well as past ones.

The Post is of course entitled to run or not run whatever cartoons it prefers. Still, we're equally entitled to discuss and, when sensible, criticize its editorial judgment. And it seems to be an odd judgment here. An Editor & Publisher column reports that managers at the Washington Post Writers Group give two possible reasons: "a sex joke a little stronger than we normally see" and that some papers "won't publish any Muslim-related humor, whether pro or con." Yet the sex joke seems quite tame — as best I can tell, it's that Steve Dallas "won't be getting" sex from the girlfriend who converted to being a "radical Islamist." And the reference to Islam seems quite tame, too.

And this is what troubles me: If I'm right that few papers — especially the Washington Post, which isn't exactly in one of the nation's most sexually reticent markets — would normally be put off simply by a mild sexual reference, then we really do have a situation where any humor about Islam (or at least any humor that might be seen as mildly pejorative, or that involves any sexual references, however mild) is off the table. We've gone beyond the position that papers ought to, as a matter of editorial judgment and respect for readers' sensibilities, avoid depictions of Mohammed. Whatever one might say about such a judgment (and a similar judgment about other religions, for instance one that excludes jokes at the expense of the Virgin Mary or some such), at least it would have a pretty narrow effect. Not so if the test is "won't publish any Muslim-related humor, whether pro or con," or even if the test is "won't publish any humor that relates to radical Muslim sexual behavior": That would substantially limit humorous commentary on Islam, on Muslims, and on Muslim practices.

As those who like to stress the importance of accommodating world Islam in various ways point out, there are a billion Muslims out there. But that cuts both ways: A faith that is this important in the world is an important subject of discussion, both in traditional academic and political debate and in that part of social debate that happens through humor and even the comics.

I stress that I'm not speaking about legal rules; as I've argued before, cartoons that depict Mohammed should be as constitutionally protected as other cartoons, and newspaper decisions to reject whatever cartoons they want to reject should be constitutionally protected, too. But if I'm right in my analysis above, then it looks like certain media outlets are establishing or reinforcing a social norm that immunizes Islam and Muslims from a certain kind of commentary. And we as readers and writers should try to fight such a social norm, by criticizing those who are acting on it.

Finally, if I'm mistaken about the tameness of the sexual reference in this cartoon, please do let me know. On the other hand, if you can support this judgment by pointing (a URL would be great) to cartoons that the Washington Post has run that include similar sexual references — or, better yet, include similar sexual references in a context that refers to religion (say, evangelical Christianity) — then please pass those along as well.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Whom Did Opus Offend?
  2. The Other Offending Opus:
  3. Isn't the Opus Cartoon That the Washington Post Refused to Run Quite Tame?
  4. The Offending Opus:
  5. Free Opus!
Luke G. (mail):
I thought Steve's reaction to her statement--"you're not getting a girlfriend who resists a man's rightful place"--as a coy reference to anal sex (since presumably he's been having normal intercourse with her until then, why else his sudden epiphany and his bright expression?), but I may have been reading too much of it: it could be he's just happy with the intial thought of getting a subservient girlfriend.
8.27.2007 3:02pm
WHOI Jacket:
Or perhaps, now that she's converted, she won't be all "uppity".

That's what I got at least.
8.27.2007 3:09pm
Shelby (mail):
Luke G.:

I think you're reading too much into it. It's the subservience that's at issue -- especially since she suggests she's going to act like a "proper Muslim", deferential yet protective of her honor.
8.27.2007 3:12pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Not a cartoon, but they certainly had nothing against writing about "Piss Christ." Here's a recent mention:

"Dozens of American newspapers, including The Post, have stated that they won't reprint the cartoons because, in the words of one self-righteous editorial, they prefer to "refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols." Fair enough — but is this always true? An excellent domestic parallel is the fracas that followed the 1989 publication of "Piss Christ," a photograph of Christ on a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. That picture — a work of art that received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts — led to congressional denunciations, protests and letter-writing campaigns.

At the time, many U.S. newspapers that refused last week to publish the Danish cartoons — the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe (but apparently not The Post) — did publish "Piss Christ."

I'm not going to pay for a look in their archives, but "Piss Christ" search brings up over 50 hits, with titles such as "Obscenity And the Eye of the Beholder" (sample quote: "Even if the NEA could function with such an agreement, given the law of averages and the laws of the contemporary art world some NEA-funded art would be bound to offend somebody."), and "America's Irreverent Sense Of Humor"
8.27.2007 3:14pm
Let's not act all innocent here. The Post is not afraid of offending someone, they are afraid of offending someone who might bomb them. Breathed has gleeful drawn caricatures of evangelical Christians for years and the Post has complacently published them, not out bigotry but out of the tacit but wholly accurate calculation that evangelicals, whatever their shortcomings, are not likely to commit terrorist acts.
8.27.2007 3:21pm
The Opus comic, at worst, is making fun or mocking of some slice of Islam. It is not just insulting Islam (i.e., "Islam sucks!").

I can understand (although I do not agree with) people getting all worked up over direct insults of their faith with little other purpose besides the insult itself (like the Mo cartoons). However, getting all worked up over a _mocking_ of your faith is a very revealing sign of the weakness of your faith. This goes double for when the mocking targets your faith for being inordinately uptight.

As they say, the hit dog always howls.
8.27.2007 3:27pm
Joanne Jacobs (www):
The cartoon makes fun of Steve Dallas as a Western man who likes the idea of a traditionally subservient woman but doesn't like the tradition of no sex without marriage.

I can't believe this was censored for the sexual implication. It's much less raunchy -- and funnier -- than other Breathed cartoons. I saw it in the San Jose Mercury News.
8.27.2007 3:35pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Malvolio: If you're right, that's even more troubling -- partly because I haven't heard any indication that such treatment of Islamism is seen as blasphemous (the way the Mohammed cartoons or the Satanic Verses were seen as blasphemous) and therefore likely to cause violence. If indeed the newspapers worry about violent reaction, then it sounds like an extreme fear of risk. And extreme fear of risk is not a good sign in a newspaper.
8.27.2007 3:40pm
Loren (mail) (www):
For sexually-tinged comic strips, a good place to start would be "Liberty Meadows." While not published anymore, the Post was the largest newspaper to carry it, and the strip is still included among the Post's online comics.

"Liberty Meadows" was censored a LOT by various newspapers. Frank Cho, the strip's creator, has an online index of 280 censored strips. There are plenty of examples in there of humor that's more sexual than this Opus strip, and one could check whether the Post opted to print or censor any particular strip.
8.27.2007 3:43pm
IB Bill (mail) (www):
I recall a Bloom County from the 80s where people get offended, and others get offended at their offense. IIRC, the punch line was, "Oh my God, life is offensive."
8.27.2007 3:45pm
Seamus (mail):
I don't have a URL, but I'm pretty sure that the Post ran the Doonesbury strip that had Nate Harris (Zonker's Revolutionary War-era ancestor) reading the Declaration of Independence, then turning to his wife and saying, "Speaking of inalienable rights, Amy," to which she replied, "It's been a long day, Nate."

(I'm also pretty sure that, while they didn't run the strip that showed Joanie Caucus in Rick Redfern's bed the morning after their first night together, they did run the strip that slightly preceded it, in which Rick praises Joanie for having made such a delicious dinner, to which she replied that she was pretty good at breakfast too, while ashe was thinking, "As the kid goes for broke.")
8.27.2007 3:49pm
Patrick Carroll (mail) (www):
Reminds me vaguely of the Scott Adams "Uranus Hertz" episode.
8.27.2007 3:56pm
comicstrip reader (mail):
The punch line is pretty tame, and it reminds me of a joke a Muslim told me about a fundamentalist, a moderate, and a secular Muslim who saw an attractive woman wearing a short skirt walk by. The first said, "Hhasha!" The second said, "Allāhu Akbar!" The third said, "Inshallah!"
8.27.2007 4:05pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
I agree with Eugene's assessment of the strip and of the Post's decision. I don't agree, though, that cutting the strip creates "a situation where any humor about Islam . . . is off the table." The comics are the one part of the paper that will foreseeably be read by large numbers of young children. Deciding that certain types of humor are inappropriate for the comics page doesn't imply that such humor will be kept out of the rest of the paper.
8.27.2007 4:13pm
I imagine that if the Muslim joke had been removed but the joke about being an "Amish Nudist" was left, the strip would have run in most newspapers. Guess fear respect for religion only manifests itself for one particular religion.
8.27.2007 4:14pm
JSinger (mail):
I see Bloom County hasn't gotten any funnier over the last couple of decades. comicstrip reader's joke got the laugh out of me that Breathed didn't even come close to.
8.27.2007 4:19pm
JeremyR (mail):
I honestly didn't realize "Opus" was still around. My local newspaper ran it for about a month, then dropped it when it wasn't funny. (like his other post Bloom County efforts)
8.27.2007 4:27pm
Elliot123 (mail):
I presume the WP considers Muslims to be too stupid to handle the cartoon, while they consider Christians intelligent enough to handle Piss Christ. I wonder what their justification is?
8.27.2007 4:30pm
Carl N. Brown:
My hometown newspaper (Kingsport (TN) Times-News)
ran that cartoon last Sunday. Compared to previous
Opus cartoons, Washington Post was just gutless.
8.27.2007 4:30pm

The comics are the one part of the paper that will foreseeably be read by large numbers of young children.

I don't buy the "What about the children?" angle. The strip has no profanity, no nudity, no explicit reference to sex. The reader understands the sex reference based on his life experience. No child old enough to discern the sex reference could be shocked by it. It's about as tame as they come.
8.27.2007 4:51pm
Bleepless (mail):
The comic strip BC was censored more than once by pinko newsies because its author was a Christian and sometimes had Christmas and Easter messages. Can't have that.
8.27.2007 4:54pm
Tinhorn (mail):
For more than a year, ex-nun Diane and ex-priest Francis have been becoming an item in 9 Chickweed Lane. Some of the early stuff focused quite interestingly on the religious implications (though I cannot find it at the moment), and 2 weeks ago Diane, while slow dancing with Francis, said, smolderingly: "I love it when you boil hard." ( )

Dunno if the WaPo carries the strip.
8.27.2007 5:00pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Welcome to dhimmitude. Fear of offending Muslims is causing liberals and leftists to bend over forwards for such matters as a public school providing 15 minutes of prayer time for Muslim students--while the ACLU stands by and watches the situation develop.

If Muslims were being shown the same deference as members of other religions, you could make a case that perhaps the media are being too accommodating to religious sensibilities. But one religion in particular is being treated with kid gloves, while others are getting #40 sandpaper treatment instead--and it's the religion that beheads people, and blows up its enemies.

I suppose that there's a lesson here: if Christians and Jews want to be treated as well as Muslims, we need to start killing innocent people. Sorry, but we won't play the left's game.
8.27.2007 5:24pm
Could someone explain comicstrips' joke?
8.27.2007 5:31pm
thegreatsatan (mail) (www):
Isn't this the same Washington Post that sparked a whole discussion over Hillary Clinton's cleavage? To call this cartoon even remotely risque is ludicrous.

Hiding behind absent sexual undertones to defend their fear of offending Muslims is pretty sad.
8.27.2007 5:31pm
I'm really not one for grand conspiracy theories. Really, I'm not! But I would not be surprised at all to learn that our government has quietly given notice to the CEOs of the major media conglomerates that it's probably a bad idea to provoke Islam in any way.

We depend on certain friends in the Middle East to keep a steady hand on the oil tap in order to maintain our economy. Those friends would come under even more pressure from 'the street' if we made it a habit of provocation.

I like our standard of living. If the only price to pay (other than that Iraq thing) is an occasional censure of some cartoons, why should I complain?
8.27.2007 5:31pm
crane (mail):
Treznor - If I remember correctly from hearing that joke in English, the fundamentalist says "God forbid!", the moderate says "God is great!", and the secular one says "God willing!"
8.27.2007 5:47pm
anym_avey (mail):
Could someone explain comicstrips' joke?

Joanne Jacobs already did.

Whether or not you find the presentation of the joke funny, on the other hand, is a function of whether or not you "get" Breathed's style, recognize the subject references within the dialog, and are previously familiar with the characters.
8.27.2007 5:49pm
anym_avey (mail):
whoop, wrong joke!
8.27.2007 5:52pm
I mentioned this in the comments to the other post. I agree that the Post is wrong to be avoiding all humor related to Islam; but before we go blaming this on the unassimilable violence of Muslims, I'd like to see at least one example of an actual Muslim or Muslim group expressing outrage about this cartoon, or criticizing the papers that did run it.
8.27.2007 6:01pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
I note that throughout the '90s the WaPo ran a comic called Kudzu about a Baptist preacher which poked all sorts of fun at religion. I guess the heirs to Katherine Graham don't have her gonads.
8.27.2007 6:06pm
My hometown newspaper, The Albuquerque Journal, also published it. I agree - The Washington Post is truly gutless and should hear from the public about their ridiculous position.
8.27.2007 6:09pm
Victor Erimita (mail):
I don't even think the cartoon was mainly lampooning "radical Islamism." I think it was mainly lampooning people who throw themselves into cause after cause. This has been the history of Steve's girlfriend in the strip.

I also don't think the cowardice the WaPo displays comes from being afraid of being bombed. I think it comes from being afraid they will be seen as out of step with their politically correct clientele and, even more important, the social set of the paper's editors. And, even more troubling, because they probably actually believe their own double standard towards evaluating the potential offensiveness of editorial content to Islam versus, say, Christianity is principled.
8.27.2007 6:42pm
craig (mail):
Latinist, the cocktail of PC tyranny and staged Moslem "outrage" have progressed to the point that actual outrage is not necessary anymore; self-censorship has taken over. Google "chilling effect".
8.27.2007 6:44pm
In the case of the Washington Post, I'm not sure how much of the decision was due to fear of offending Muslims and how much to a general squeamishness. Some years ago, in a "Curtis" strip, Curtis came home with a record from a new rap group, "Stinky Middle Finger." The Post ran the strip but changed the name to "Broken Finger."
8.27.2007 6:51pm
Anonymo the Anonymous:
Welcome to dhimmitude.

Yes. Why just this morning I was rousted out of my bed for morning prayers at one of the mosques that just replaced the 7 billion churches in my town, but not before my refrigerator was emptied of all pork products.

Grow the hell up.
8.27.2007 6:55pm
abu hamza:
it's not just you mr. volokh, that cartoon is totally tame and totally lame! the west appears to be self-censoring any discussion that might offend any muslim. malvolio makes the only point that matters here. they're afraid of offending muslims b/c of the threat of terrorists. that's why it's always open season on Christians, especially evangelical, born-again types.
8.27.2007 7:57pm
Bob from Ohio (mail):
The WaPo could do us all a favor and cancel this cartoon forever. Bloom County was a masterpiece, Opus more like a poker dog painting. Though it is far better than Outland,his first post-Bloom County "effort". Outland was perhaps the worst comic strip ever.
8.27.2007 8:34pm
O. Hutchins (mail):

Let's not act all innocent here. The Post is not afraid of offending someone, they are afraid of offending someone who might bomb them.

Or they want to make that point, rather like the guy that set up "" was actually trying to make liberals look bad.
8.27.2007 9:36pm
Jeff Bennion (mail):
My hometown newspaper, the Deseret News, printed the comic this week, and it is owned by the LDS Church. Not that the LDS Church exerts much editorial control, especially at the level of individual comics, but the editors certainly know that they're catering to a pretty conservative audience. I loved the Washington Post when I lived there, and they printed stuff way more risque than this.
8.27.2007 10:16pm

How do you conservative/republicans would react if a cartoon was created that labasted, say, Methodists?

Would they get all up in someones grill claiming the cartoon being Anti-Christian and demand an apology and the cartoonist be fired and whatnot?
8.28.2007 12:31am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Elais: Not speaking for Cramer.

But history shows us that the answer to your question is, yes.
History also shows us two other things. One is that nobody would pay any attention and the other is that nobody would fear violence from Methodists.

See the difference here? It's pretty subtle, but if you really, really concentrate, you might get it.
8.28.2007 8:44am
Syd Henderson (mail):
I confess I never knew Breathed had gone from "Outland" to "Opus." I hadn't seen his strips for over 10 years.
8.28.2007 12:47pm
just me:
Bloom County frequently ran comics that combined sex and religion, specifically, the joke that fundamentalists Christians are all sex-crazed. For example, one gag was that the local Moral Majority leader went to some XXX movie several times to review it for evil content, etc.

If any site has archived Bloom County cartoons, it or similar ones might be out there.

Bottom line: of COURSE it's about Islam, not about sex, or about the Amish. It's safe to make fun of the Amish because they likely won't find out about it, and if they did, they wouldn't blow you up.
8.28.2007 1:11pm
on the other hand, they are prone to horse and carriage drive-bys using an AK-blunderbuss
8.28.2007 1:52pm
SMatthewStolte (mail):
How [would] you conservative/republicans would react if a cartoon was created that [lambasted], say, Methodists?

From where I am, the Methodist church doesn’t look terribly friendly to conservatism or Republicanism. I expect that many conservative commentators would target Methodists for, for instance, their stand on gun control, the incoherence of their stance on abortion, their support of a new Presidential cabinet-level position, "the secretary of peace," and other things.
8.28.2007 1:56pm
gasman (mail):

I imagine that if the Muslim joke had been removed but the joke about being an "Amish Nudist" was left, the strip would have run in most newspapers. Guess fear respect for religion only manifests itself for one particular religion.

And where there is fear of a group, there will be loathing and covert biases. In this case the muslim victimhood group is doing themselves harm by over-reacting or permitting the impression that they might over-react to a slight.
8.28.2007 3:36pm
craig: Look, I agree that the Post is wrong to be scared of any humor involving Muslims. But I don't think we should assume that they are right to think Muslims would be outraged, when there is no evidence of it. Remember, the comic did run in other papers. I have yet to see that any of those papers received so much as a letter of complaint. Now maybe that's because the other papers aren't as high-profile as the Post, and so don't raise a stir; but maybe the Post misjudged the thinness of the collective skin of the Muslim community.

So, gasman, I'm not sure it's fair to blame "the muslim victimhood group" for "permitting the impression that they might over-react." I'll reserve my ire for occasions when they actually DO overreact (which, I agree, some Muslim groups have done on other occasions).
8.28.2007 5:50pm
MartinEd (mail):
I think you over analyze. The WP, as keeper of the neocommunist, ultra-left wing, anti-American flame, simply can't publish anything that might be offensive to a victim class. It has nothing to do with sex or nuance. If a Muslim, anywhere, could take offense and criticize the WP for publishing the strip, the WP won't.
The WP and other similarly situated keepers of the evil flame, already practice an anti-hate speech/thought censorship but are very particular about which groups enjoy this protection and which groups (whites, Christians, Republicans, Conservatives etc.) do not.
8.28.2007 6:03pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Tame, schmame. The WaPo is concerned about violence. As Mark Steyn reminds us, Salman Rushdie may have gotten away with "The Satanic Verses" at the cost of having to hide for years. But others--editors, publishers and translators--have been attacked and even killed.
The Motoon guys are still in hiding.

Pretend you're concerned about the content as being, tame or not tame, controversial or not. And pretend anybody thinks that's what's bothering you.
8.29.2007 8:24am