The brilliance of South Park’s satire is found largely in its merciless attack on the way in which the Western media discusses important issues. In between episodes of celebrity bashing and scatological irreverence, creators Parker and Stone show a true talent for honing in on the most absurd, least productive elements of contemporary discourse and isolating what makes these debates so impotent. The episode “The Passion of the Jew” isn’t so much about anti-Semitism as it is about how we talk about anti-Semitism. Even Cartman’s recent bald-faced accusations of Pope Benedict’s complicity in protecting child abusers can be read as a comment on the ways in which the mass media has taken a nuanced approached to the most vulgar and violent of problems. Ok, yes, South Park is making a claim about the Pope’s real-life guilt, but the manner in which it is levied also points the finger at the way in which the public sphere tip-toes around such sensitive topics.
Which brings me to the program’s recent two-part, 200th episode spectacular, creatively entitled “200” and “201.” The episodes, which are kind of a mess in terms of narrative, will be best remembered for being South Park’s first engagement with the issue of Islamic Sharia law and its potential conflict with free speech principles. In 2001, the episode “Super Best Friends” featured a portrayal of the prophet Mohammed alongside Jesus Christ, Buddha, Joseph Smith and a host of other religious figures and no one really seemed to care. This was, however, well before the violent, painful controversy that erupted over Jyllands-Posten publishing a set of cartoons of Mohammed. Although there were clear differences between the earlier South Park imagery and that of Jyllands-Posten, which portrayed Mohammed as a terrorist, the essence of the controversy applies equally. There are those who believe that the prohibition against depicting Mohammed applies universally and the threat of violence hangs over all those in defiance. Even Jytte Klausen’s academic book The Cartoons that Shook the World was published without the titular cartoons, giving many the impression that this issue was being controlled either by excessive cultural sensitivities, fear of violence or a combination of the two.
“200” tries to take this issue head-on. The citizens of South Park, blackmailed into bringing Mohammed to town, attempt a debate over whether or not this can be done without causing offense or getting the town blown up. The discussion goes nowhere, developing neither the plot nor the satire. The townspeople, much like Parker, Stone and most of us, don’t know how to debate this issue because, as currently framed, there’s very little to debate. If one accepts the principle that the rules of one religion, either due to respect or fear, ought to be followed by those outside the faith, then it seems like picturing Mohammed is totally off limits. If not, it’s an act of cowardice to redact Mohammed’s image. In any case there’s a double standard. The argument in “200” and “201” is something along the lines of “if the Buddhists can handle Buddha snorting coke in front of a group of forth graders, then a cartoon of Mohammed fighting crime shouldn’t be cause for death and destruction.”
It kind of makes sense, but at the same time it doesn’t seem to address the real issue. This is largely because South Park’s strength is in parodying the how of publics debate, not the what. The program’s satire is one of exaggeration, where a small absurdity is isolated and magnified. So long as they stay within the world of discourse, playing the role of media critics, they’re very, very good. This debate pulls them out of their comfort zones, forcing them to contend with embassies that really got burned down and people for whom sacredness is in no way metaphorical. Comedy Central was forced to censor “201” fairly heavily due to these real concerns, giving Parker and Stone something to complain about but also reinforcing the extent to which this particular debate is not yet ready for their form of satire. The answer, in practical terms, is “need more information,” even if our our philosophical instincts say otherwise.
The episode, has, however, served the important role of reinvigorating public discussions of the issue, providing some hope that we will, one day, understand the underlying principles well enough for blunt-edge satire to be a productive tool. For example, CNN here puts forth a refreshingly not-hysterical discussion of the issue. Of course there have also been calls to violence and free-speech responses that, while politically coherent, seem a bit juvenile. But, undeniably, the public discussion has been enhanced by South Park. The episodes themselves may not quite hit the target, but one way or another debate has improved, if not quite in the more forceful manner Parker and Stone intended.