15 February 2006: Tolerance and Democracy

Tolerance isn’t guaranteed in democracy

The recent upheaval in Muslim countries in reaction to European publications printing “offensive” caricatures of the prophet Mohammed indicates how far those countries are from evolving into western-style democracies. The riots are a commentary as well on President Bush’s pipedream of “freedom on the march” there. Unless publication of satirical, offensive, and other contrary materials to the dominant culture and ruling elite is allowed, it is not true freedom. Nothing has changed in the Muslim world since Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa against Salman Rushdie after the publication of his Satanic Verses. In fact, it has become more conservative.

Reading Lolita in Tehran is a recent book by Dr. Azar Nafisi about her experiences as an Iranian-born, American-educated professor of Western literature in post-revolutionary Iran. Raised in “westernized” Iran under the Shah, Nafisi’s education here in the States greatly influenced her perspectives, particularly in the area of women’s rights. Upon her return to Iran after the downfall of the Shah, her worldview was severely tested, as she struggled with the regime’s brutal enforcement of traditional Islamic rules and roles for women: their attire, status, and behavior. For two years Nafisi met clandestinely with several of her former female students where they critiqued both the works, including Lolita and The Great Gatsby, and their society through the lenses of those works

Closer to home, Brokeback Mountain, the film about two gay cowboys who otherwise pass as straight macho men, challenges American attitudes and sensibilities about gay men and their relationships. Well written, directed, and acted, it is a poignant story with driving pathos. While set two to four decades ago, it resonates today—recall Matthew Shepherd. A couple of my male friends made clear their unease in their refusal to see it. (On the other hand, another told of a guy at the gym commenting that he went to see it with his girl friend in lieu of watching the Super Bowl, which I found most courageous.) What will cause “unease” is not so much the scenes that depict male-to-male “bonding,” but the fear afterwards some guys might have about how anyone of their friends, married with kids or not, might not only have strong homosexual feelings—be homosexual—but may have those feelings towards them.

To its credit, the American Religious Right has not uniformly gone after Brokeback Mountain. Other than being banned in Salt Lake City, I have not heard of major protests directed against it. The photo on AOL’s “Moviefone” for the film’s nomination for Best Picture was curiously of Ennis (Heath Ledger) at the drive-in with his wife, when the story was really about him and his lover Jack. While light years ahead of the Muslim world, America still has along ways to go in overcoming its Puritanical sensibilities.

Religious fundamentalism is dangerous no matter the location or creed. Liberal, secular societies allow for the publication of what might be considered offensive by the dominant culture. The European cartoonists now live in fear for their lives. Dr. Nafisi felt compelled to change the names of her acquaintances she describes in her book. In America, viewers generally need not fear reprisals for seeing Brokeback Mountain, other than perhaps in Salt Lake City and the manly confines of sports bars; however, gays and lesbians are still denied their fundamental human and natural rights Thomas Jefferson defended.

A “war for freedom,” one supposes, ought to be just that—a battle to enhance the freedom of individual to “pursue his/her happiness,” to paraphrase Jefferson. These American misadventures in the Middle East and south-central Asia are having the opposite affect. From Palestine to Iran, the trend is to the Right. In Iraq one observer noted, “The war is over and Iran has won”—referring to the ascendancy of the fundamentalist Shias. War will never usher in tolerance, a critical aspect of democracy. It’s taken America over 200 years to get this far, with the benefit of its liberal English/European foundation. Imagine how long it will take those “potential democracies,” now in a vice grip of religious fundamentalism, to evolve into open and tolerant societies.

In brief: From the Dictionary of Republicanisms: democracy n. A product so extensively exported that the domestic supply is depleted

1618—days since Osama been Forgotten attacked America; 1364—days for the United States to defeat the Empire of Japan in WW II with one hand tied behind its back.

ACLU of Colorado’s Volunteer of the Year Award: I have been selected as the 2006 recipient for my efforts in developing our Youth Education Program. I feel very honored and mention it here only to draw attention to our program. Contact me for more information.

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